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University of Massachusetts - Amherst

From the SelectedWorks of Nancy Folbre

March 2001

To Honor and Obey: Efficiency, Inequality and

Patriarchal Property Rights


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University of Massachusetts Amherst

To Honor and Obey:

Efficiency, Inequality and

Patriarchal Property Rights

Elissa Braunstein

Nancy Folbre


10th floor Thompson Hall

University of Massachusetts

Amherst, MA, 01003-7510

Telephone: (413) 545-6355

Facsimile: (413) 545-2921



To Honor and Obey:

Efficiency, Inequality, and

Patriarchal Property Rights*

October 2000

Elissa Braunstein and Nancy Folbre

We gratefully acknowledge the comments and criticisms of Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, James Heintz, Dori Posel, Gil Skilman, and participants in seminars at the University of Massachusetts Department of Resource Economics, the New School for Social Research, the Institute for Social Studies in the Hague, Netherlands, and University of Linz, Austria and the University of Massachusetts Department of Economics.

*Published in Feminist Economics, March 2001, 7(1): 25-44.

To Honor and Obey:

Efficiency, Inequality, and Patriarchal Property Rights Until about 1960, marriage ceremonies in the United States often included a wife’s vow to honor and obey (as well as love and cherish) her husband in return for his vow to love and cherish her. While such explicit asymmetry in commitments is now uncommon, cultural norms of male authority within marriage remain quite strong. In June of 1998, for instance, the convention of Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, declared that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership.1 Why has marriage traditionally reinforced hierarchical relationships between men and women? Why has it become more egalitarian? And why does opposition to egalitarian marriage remain persistent?

The new institutional economics provides some important insights into the logic of contractual relationships between capitalists and workers, landlords and tenants, slaveowners and slaves. The logic of contractual relationships between men and women, however, has been largely neglected. Gary Becker’s (1981) emphasis on natural altruism within the family has discouraged consideration of problems of either efficiency or inequality on the home front because the household is treated as a unitary agent. As a growing feminist literature demonstrates, however, there are strong parallels between the 1 International Herald Tribune, June 11, 1998, p.1.


patriarchal family and other hierarchical systems of team production (Bina Agarwal 1995; Nancy Folbre 1996). The significance of property rights in the family was noted long ago by one of the pioneers of the new institutional economics, Steven Cheung (1972).

Inspired by Cheung’s analysis of the traditional Chinese family, we describe contractual arrangements codified in the family law of Great Britain and the United States between about 1700 and 1900. We argue that these property rights constituted a system of residual claimancy whereby husbands held a legal claim on the means of family production, including the labor and income of their wives and children, but were legally obligated only to provide their families with subsistence, a requirement that allowed husbands to claim whatever surplus remained and thus provided a strong incentive to maximize efficiency. We call these property rights “patriarchal property rights.” These contractual arrangements provided wives and children with some economic security.

However, since the wife’s responsibilities were not contractually specified (beyond the husband’s right to sexual access) and neither the husband nor wife could unilaterally “fire” the other (terminate the contract), it seems likely that some principal-agent problems might arise, analogous to those characteristic of relations between capitalists and workers or landlords and tenants. Thus, both sides might benefit from negotiation.

Women who are potentially able to meet their subsistence needs on their own can threaten to leave the household if they are not given a larger share of the surplus. However, because patriarchal property rights give husbands control 3

over the allocation of wives’ labor time, husbands can make decisions that reduce the value of their wives’ alternatives to marriage – wives’ fallback positions are endogenously determined. This introduces an element of distributional conflict that could explain why patriarchal decisions may lead to socially inefficient outcomes.

Our analysis of the effects of patriarchal property rights on the allocation of women’s labor does not pretend to offer a complete explanation of gender inequality, which typically persists even when women enjoy perfect legal equality with men.2 However, it does help explain the relationship between economic development and the emergence of more egalitarian marriages in the West, and it highlights the role of collective action in improving women’s positions. In so doing, it touches on Marxian insights into the relationship between private property and women’s subordination in the home (Friedrich Engels 1948). Furthermore, our analysis draws an interesting analogy between concerns about the efficiency of the capitalist firm raised by Joseph Stiglitz (1975), Gregory Dow (1987), and Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1990), and feminist concerns about the efficiency of patriarchal marriage.

We begin with a brief review of the family economics literature, emphasizing new approaches that explore bargaining and inequality within the family. Next, we discuss the concept of residual claimancy and its applicability to the family, drawing from a variety of historical sources to show that patriarchs 2 Elsewhere, Folbre (1994) has argued that patriarchal constraints must be interpreted in terms of assets, norms, and preferences, as well as legal rules.


in Great Britain and the United States enjoyed property rights that allowed them, in the absence of negotiation, to act as residual claimants. Finally, we present a simple model of household decisions to allocate women’s labor between productive and reproductive activities, comparing the outcomes of egalitarian governance and patriarchal governance.


The Economics of the Family

Efforts to understand the economics of the family have been dominated by Gary Becker (1991) and his new home economics. Although Becker’s analysis has changed somewhat over time, he consistently asserts that (a) the family behaves as if it were an altruistic unit; and (b) the sexual division of labor emerged because it is efficient. A less explicit, but no less significant claim is that (c) groups based on gender do not engage in collective action designed to enhance their collective well-being. Becker’s critics have contested these particular claims, but have not yet developed a coherent alternative approach.



The altruism assumption has received by far the most attention. With few exceptions, economists have treated the family as an undifferentiated unit, a kind of miniature communist collective. Becker moved beyond this assumption with his Rotten Kid Theorem, which shows that, under certain conditions, the family may act as though it is perfectly altruistic even if it is not. If the head of the family who controls its collective resources is altruistic then rotten kids who act against the interests of the family only hurt themselves. Their self-interest should lead them to behave altruistically toward the family because the family 5

behaves altruistically toward them. The assumption regarding the family head’s motives is stringent—the theorem should be named after the benevolent patriarch rather than the rotten kid.

In any case, the benevolence of the patriarch has come into question (Diana Strassmann 1993). Observed patterns of intrafamily violence and inequality, including significant levels of paternal desertion of children in some countries, suggest that family members occasionally pursue their own self-interest at the expense of other members (Daisy Dwyer and Judith Bruce 1988; Folbre 1986a, 1986b). Detailed household surveys provide a means for empirical hypothesis testing. If families always acted as though they were “one,” it should not matter which family member actually controls income; recent econometric studies show that it does (Duncan Thomas 1990; T. Paul Schultz 1990).

An alternative microeconomic formulation of household decisionmaking applies Nash-bargaining models, postulating that individuals act in ways that maximize the product of their utility gain relative to an independent fallback position, such as the level of utility they would enjoy outside the marriage (Marilyn Manser and Murray Brown 1980; Marjorie McElroy and Mary Jane Horney 1981). Outcomes can be shaped by subjective differences in utility functions and by objective differences in bargaining power. It is important to note that these approaches do not deny the importance of altruistic preferences within the family, but suggest that self-interest and power also play a role (Oded Stark 1995).


This bargaining approach to marriage has institutional implications.

Fallback positions may be influenced by property rights, family law and other factors that McElroy (1990) terms “extrahousehold environmental parameters” or EEPs and Folbre (1997) terms “gender-specific environmental parameters” or GEPs. Even though these institutional factors are exogenous to marriage, they bear rules that can be binding within marriage. Anglo-American law still stipulates that individual contracts between spouses regarding features of the marriage other than the disposition of income and wealth after divorce are unenforceable by law.

A third, even more recent approach moves beyond simple Nash-bargaining and considers possible articulations between cooperative and noncooperative games.3 The separate spheres model proposed by Shelley Lundberg and Robert Pollak (1993) defines fallback positions as those arising from a non-cooperative equilibrium within marriage determined by social norms. Noncooperative models have also been proposed by Kristian Bolin (1997), Michael Carter and Elizabeth Katz (1997), and Kjell Lommerud (1997). None of these models explicitly consider the impact of patriarchal property rights. Yet the history of these property rights offers an even more profound challenge to assumptions of familial altruism than empirical evidence of allocational 3 In this context, cooperation is synonymous with overt negotiation; noncooperative processes are those where individuals cannot agree on mutually agreeable (and enforceable) rules for allocation and distribution.


inequality. If marital relations are perfectly altruistic, why do many husbands demand legal and/or cultural authority over wives?


The Sexual Division of Labor

The issue of familial altruism is linked to a gendered division of labor.

Women often specialize in the care and nurturance of children and other family members, while men specialize in activities that are more directly productive. If family members never allow their own self-interest to lead to reductions in total family welfare, it is hard to imagine any reason other than efficiency why they would adopt such a division of labor. However, choices regarding the type and amount of work performed, like choices regarding shares of household output, may be constrained by asymmetric property rights, other institutional rules, social norms, or individual bargaining power.

From a bargaining perspective, specialization in childrearing is a liability because children are public goods whose benefits cannot be captured by the person who devotes time and energy to them (Alessandro Cigno 1991; Folbre 1994; Lommerud 1997).4 Wives who devote themselves to family care develop family-specific skills that are less portable and more likely to depreciate over time than labor market experience (Paula England and George Farkas 1986).

Becker acknowledges that the sexual division of labor is more costly for women than for men. He notes that “the housework responsibilities” of married women are a key factor in gender earnings differentials (1985: 35). The use of the word 4 Still, it must be recognized that motherhood may also provide benefits of interaction and intimacy with children typically unavailable to fathers.


“responsibility” rather than “choice” is telling; he seems to leave open the possibility that this responsibility was imposed from without. But the implicit role of social institutions in his model is simply to reinforce the gains to specialization and make non-conformity more costly.

The conventional economic account of changes in the sexual division of labor focuses primarily on shifts in relative prices. With technological change (particularly, the declining importance of physical strength as a factor of production) comes a reallocation of women’s labor time to new productive activities outside the home, increasing the opportunity cost of childcare and motivating fertility decline.5 A variation on this argument suggests a slightly different causality, in which increases in the cost of children lead to a reallocation of women’s labor time (Robert Willis 1982). The end result, in any case, is increases in women’s market participation and a gradual reduction in labor specialization by gender.

Feminist approaches to the gender division of labor do not contest the claim that some degree of female specialization in reproductive labor is efficient.

However, they argue that men have some incentives to force women to overspecialize in reproductive labor (Folbre 1994, 1997). This approach is consistent with a larger distributional-conflict paradigm that insists on the importance of processes of collective aggrandizement. As Jack Knight puts it,

“the ongoing development of social institutions is not best explained as a Pareto-superior response to collective goals or benefits but, rather, as a by-product of 5 For a more detailed historical version of this argument, see Claudia Goldin (1990).


conflicts over distributional gains” (1992: 19). But Knight puts the contrast too sharply—such conflicts are typically influenced by the emergence of more efficient solutions that can offer mutual gains—as well as vice versa.

Changes in the sexual division of labor might be advantageous as a result of changes in relative prices. However, men may resist these changes if they threaten to reduce their bargaining power. As a result, gender-based forms of collective action, such as women’s efforts to gain the right to vote, or to change the nature of the marriage contract may be a necessary part of the larger adjustment to technological change. This general approach could be substantially clarified by explicit efforts to model the effects of gender specialization on both efficiency and distribution within the family.6


Collective Action Based on Gender and Age

Despite a long history of skepticism about collective action, many economists are now studying rent-seeking behavior, or efforts to claim unearned revenues, including investments designed to influence electoral and political outcomes (Anne Krueger 1974; Mancur Olson 1975, 1982). As Gary Becker puts it: “Individuals belong to particular groups—defined by occupation, industry, income, geography, age, and other characteristics—that are assumed to use 6 This is not to say that changes in relative prices that drew women into the paid labor force are everywhere and always a benign aspect of development. The context we address is a very specific one – the genesis of changes in the sexual division of labor in recent Anglo-American history. Activism and historical contingency may have played a large role in the manner that the decline of the relative value of reproductive labor took place in the West.


political influence to enhance the well-being of their members.” (1983: 372) Neither Becker nor the others cited above mention groups defined by gender, but there is no reason why they cannot be added (Folbre 1997).7

Often, rent-seeking is conceptualized as an activity that distorts market outcomes and therefore lowers efficiency. But rent-seeking can also influence the organization of non-market institutions, such as property rights, with efficiency implications that are unclear. Much of the debate over the economics of slavery in the United States, for instance, focuses on its implications for labor incentives and productivity (Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman 1974; Fogel 1989).

Parallels with patriarchy are obvious. In many countries, women have been (or still are) explicitly excluded from access to wealth ownership, education, and remunerative jobs. Many systems of family law have given (or still give) the male head of household authority over his wife and children. Many social policies, including divorce law, child support enforcement, and provisions for poverty and unemployment affect women differently than men.

The degree of explicit legal disadvantage suffered by women seems to diminish in the course of economic development and fertility decline, partly as a result of political organization among women themselves, and partly as a result of increases in individual bargaining power. A model of household production should clarify the process by which such empowerment occurs.

7 An interesting attempt to render the effects of collective action on Nash bargaining is provided in Bharati Basu and Brigitte Bechtold (1998), who model the interaction of feminist lobbying efforts and the evolution of parenting preferences within marriage.



Patriarchal Property Rights

Gathering information and coordinating production across markets can be expensive, so many economists have sought to explain the emergence of social institutions by their efficiency-enhancing effects. From an evolutionary point of view, both the family and the firm offer some advantages over individual transactions in a spot market (Ronald Coase 1937). Families as well as firms benefit from long-term relationships that require investment in specific forms of knowledge and skills (Pollak 1985). Constant negotiations are time-consuming and expensive. Stable property rights, or, more broadly, stable “rules of the game” offer obvious advantages (Gary Libecap 1989). Yet they also offer opportunities for collective rent-seeking and hence targets of collective action.


Residual Claimancy

The concept of residual claimancy emerged from analysis of the capitalist firm. A residual claimant has the right to claim the residual, or surplus, that remains after all costs of production have been paid. This right gives her or him a strong incentive to maximize efficiency and carefully monitor the performance of all workers. In their classic discussion of team production, Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz argue that the five following rights of the residual claimant/monitor define the ownership structure of the classical capitalist firm: 1) to be a residual claimant, 2) to observe input behavior, 3) to be the central party common to all contracts with inputs, 4) to alter the membership of the team, 5) to sell these rights (1972: 783).


The capitalist’s dilemma is that workers have incentives to shirk and to figure out ways of claiming a larger share of the surplus. Information and monitoring problems may reduce the economic gains to hierarchy (Stiglitz 1975).

Bowles and Gintis (1990) emphasize that the capitalist firm requires an endogenous enforcement mechanism that gives rise to involuntary unemployment because the threat of job loss can be used to discipline workers only if they are paid a higher-than-market-clearing wage. Dow (1987) makes the more general point that capitalists may act opportunistically to increase their own power in ways that reduce overall efficiency.

Whatever its advantages and disadvantages, residual claimancy was at least partially institutionalized in the traditional patriarchal family. The male head of household was the principal, and his wife, children (and sometimes other family members) were agents. Like a landlord or a capitalist, the patriarch typically owned and controlled the means of production, and could impose economic sanctions on his agents, or workers. He had a legal claim on the labor and income of his wife and children and was required by law to provide them, in return, with a subsistence income.

This existence of residual claimancy rights is not inconsistent with Gary Becker’s approach. Indeed, the Rotten Kid theorem treats the head of household as a principal who controls the allocation of family income, and the rotten kid as an agent who must be disciplined. What distinguishes Becker’s head of household from a capitalist is altruism, which renders residual claimancy itself redundant as an incentive. By definition, the benevolent patriarch maximizes the 13

utility of the family as a whole. The not-so-benevolent patriarch is motivated by the prospect of a personal claim on the family’s surplus, though the utility of other family members can still enter into his own utility function.

Economists have devoted relatively little attention to patriarchal property rights and family law. Among the important exceptions is Steven Cheung, a pioneer in the institutional analysis of landlord/tenant relations who also explores the contractual arrangements governing pre-twentieth century Chinese families.8 The eldest male member of a household held title to all family property and could dispose of it, as well as the earnings and savings of all household members. He held the right of life and death over his children and could sell them into slavery (1972: 642). In other words, he held rights even stronger than those stipulated by Alchian and Demsetz as characteristic of capitalist governance.

Cheung argues that wealth maximization constrained by the costs of enforcing and transferring property rights in children could explain marriage practices in traditional China. Parents prohibited the establishment of separate families upon a child’s marriage in order to protect their investments in children.

Marriage entailed the transfer of property rights from one family to another, as daughters were sent to join their husbands’ households. It was cheaper to marry daughters off and keep sons because women were cheaper to control, one reason being that footbinding could limit their mobility without reducing their 8 Another important exception is Donald Parsons (1984).


productivity in certain types of work. Social norms also reinforced female subservience.

Whether Cheung’s explanation of the traditional Chinese family is correct or not, it establishes a clear precedent for analysis of principal-agent and bargaining problems within the family. He speculates that the growth of non-family firms gave young people new opportunities and raised the cost of patriarchal control over them. He also notes that legislative changes in Chinese family law in 1916 reduced parental power.


Family Law in Great Britain and the United States Anglo-American family law never gave the older generation as much authority over their children as did Chinese law. Indeed, relatively weak patriarchal power over adult children in Europe may have promoted the early development of labor markets there (Folbre 1994). The nature of the marriage contract, however, provides a clear parallel to the Chinese family. Between at least the seventeenth and the late nineteenth century, a husband in Great Britain and the United States enjoyed an explicit right of control over his wife’s property, her person, and the products of her labor, including her minor children (Mary Ann Glendon 1989; Lawrence Stone 1979). As Abigail Dunaway put it, lobbying the Oregon legislature for marital property reform in 1878, “Married women are servants without wages.”9

A husband was required by law to support his wife and children (Glendon 1989: 112). However, the concept of “support” was never explicitly 9 Cited in Reva Siegal (1994: 39).


defined, and was legally construed as providing only a bare minimum of subsistence. The gender asymmetry of this contractual arrangement becomes extremely clear when contrasted with an arrangement in which a wife who specialized in non-market work would have a legal claim to one-half of her husband’s market earnings, a demand unsuccessfully asserted by women’s groups in both Great Britain and the United States (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Jocelyn Gage 1882, Vol. 1).

Feminist activists were successful in modifying legal inequalities, particularly those pertaining to control of inherited wealth and market earnings.

The Married Women’s Property Acts passed in 1870 and 1882 have been called

“one of the greatest expropriations and reallocations of property” in English history (Lee Holcombe1977: 27). In the United States, many states began according married women some property rights after the Civil War. However, legislators explicitly stipulated that a wife and mother had no explicit claim on her husband’s income. For instance, an 1869 Illinois statute giving married women control over their own earnings added “This act shall not be construed to give the wife any right to compensation for any labor performed for her minor children or husband.”10 (Reva Siegel 1994: 46)

10 Community property laws in effect in southern and western states in 1850 did not give women equal control. For instance, Louisiana law made the husband the “head and master” of the partnership of gains, allowing him to administer and even alienate community property without his wife’s permission. Community property jurisdictions did not endorse a principle of joint management until the late 1960s and 1970s. (Siegel 1994: 18) An interesting area for future 16

The lack of an enforceable claim on a husband’s wealth or earnings is particularly consequential when relatively few married women work for pay outside the home. When combined with lack of control over fertility, and denial of custody over minor children in the event of marital separation, the consequences are rather obvious. Married women and their children were largely dependent on male altruism for resources beyond subsistence, while married men could rely not merely on altruism, but also upon contractual power to guarantee the provision of family services.

Still, the husband in the traditional patriarchal family in Great Britain and the United States lacked two prerogatives Alchian and Demsetz attribute to the capitalist: right #4, to alter the membership of the team and right #5, or to sell ownership rights. These restrictions were related to legally enforced monogamy, (Kevin MacDonald 1995) and were also likely to increase agency problems for the male head of household. A wife could, for instance, shirk or feign illness if she felt poorly treated. Furthermore, the conspicuous importance of personal preferences and altruistic sentiments within families probably created significant scope for individual negotiation that could offer gains to both husband and wife.


The Patriarch as a Residual Claimant

By thinking of the patriarch as a residual claimant, patriarchal household production can be likened to a principal-agent problem or a noncooperative game where the pat