Joseph Stiglitz often jokes that the “most important decision in life is choosing the right parents”. So is the “choice” of being born in a household of divorcing parents really a poor one? This aspect, relatively unexplored in the article, calls for additional developments, after indicating, in agreement with the authors, that it is largely the parents’ responsibility if they choose a partner with whom they are unable to live in harmony.
Divorce can be interpreted schematically as an incompatibility in the mating procedure that, in western societies,
This is in no way a value judgment regarding the merits... is left entirely to individuals and no longer concerns the family, as was the case in traditional societies. This incompatibility may arise because couples adapt poorly to unforeseen events (such as upward or downward career mobility of one of the partners) or cannot cope with the difficulties involved in cohabitation. But the authors do not address the fact that although divorce results from decisions taken by individuals, a certain amount of social determinism may be at play. The decision to divorce may be influenced by one’s own parents’ divorce, or there may be an intergenerational correlation between unfavourable characteristics from the original environment and the probability of a divorce in the population of descendants.
For example, do children of divorcees divorce more than the others? Can union instability or mismatches be transmitted from one generation to the next? If such is the case – and this point is not examined in the article – we believe that the reasoning of John Roemer (1998) applies (see also Roemer and Trannoy, 2015). Roemer distinguishes between “circumstances”, including the factors of influence imposed on the individual such as social environment and the hazards of life, and “effort”, a general term designating factors for which the individual can be held responsible. A systematic difference in choice on average is a circumstance, a characteristic independent of individuals. As with any circumstance, it should be addressed by a compensation policy on the part of the public authorities to re-establish equal opportunity. What form could that policy take? Habitual thinking would advocate monetary redistribution, while a vision informed by equal opportunity would prefer a preventive policy over a curative policy, at least where an ex ante approach is preferred over an ex post approach. Vouchers could be provided to partly cover the cost of consulting relationship counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists, even though relationship counsellors can already be consulted free of charge at family planning clinics. In the absence of children, alimony between former spouses belongs to the private domain. In theory, a Coasian analysis (Coase, 1960) can be applied to the negotiation of alimony between the two former spouses, whereby the individual instigating the separation should compensate the other individual unless, by common agreement, the two individuals wish to recover their freedom and consider alimony in the light of the specific investments made in the couple. The author makes an accurate analysis of the imbalance between the two sexes. In most cases, men have invested more in the job market, the returns of which are, in theory, independent of marital status, even if a number of studies highlight a marriage-related “wage bonus” that may result from a selection effect or a greater investment. Women, particularly those who stopped work to take care of children, have generally invested more in domestic activities, the yields of which are specific to the marriage. The analysis could be extended to pension schemes. With funded pension schemes, the capital accumulated by the two partners could be divided in two, as could the wealth acquired during marital life. Under a points-based pay-as-you-go pension scheme, like that in Sweden, the total points accumulated by the partners could also be divided between them. The pay-as-you-go scheme in France is not unified and pensioners cannot claim their entitlement until they actually retire, so it is unfortunately not amenable to this sharing solution. The pay-as-you-go pension scheme can also be a source of inequality at the moment of separation if it encourages individuals to save too little for their old age. In such cases, the wealth accumulated prior to separation and which can potentially be shared will be lower than that accrued in a funded pension scheme. But in the case of France, this argument needs to be qualified since the savings rate of the population as a whole was still around 14.5% in 2015 according to INSEE, above the level observed in many other countries.
While parents are responsible for divorce, children are its passive victims. For the latter it is clearly a circumstance, at least if being a child of divorced parents confers a disadvantage in education and, as a consequence, in the job market, as well as in social and private relations. The classic conflict between the principle of natural reward and the principle of compensation applies with particular force here. Under the principle of natural compensation, whereby people should not be compensated for factors for which they can be held responsible, parents must accept the consequences of their decision to divorce. As children are linked to their parents, at least until their majority, no compensation for the disadvantage is awarded. But if priority is given to the principle of compensation, then public policy must introduce provisions enabling the children of divorced people to overcome their disadvantage. Social policy in France largely favours the principle of natural reward. This is clearly illustrated in a comparison of the income tax rules applying to divorced people and those applying to widows and widowers who still have dependent children. Divorced people enjoy no specific tax breaks and have the right to the same tax reductions as all lone parents with dependent children (the family with one dependent child is counted as 1.5 “parts” in the “quotient familial” system). However, widows and widowers still raising children are taxed in the same way as married couples or civil partners with dependent children, i.e. the family with one dependent child is counted as 2.5 parts (tax advantage capped at €4,672 in 2014). This differentiated treatment is interesting in that, even if Marc Fleurbaey and François Maniquet (2012) consider that one of the principles can take priority over the other, philosophers and economists working on the concept of equal opportunities tend to give priority to the principle of compensation. Let us imagine that we follow this route. The key question, then, is to ascertain whether children could potentially be targeted rather than parents. No thought is given to this matter in social policy. The only tool available in the fiscal and social arsenal for indirectly targeting divorced parents is the tax reduction for lone parents (widowed or divorced). The reduction applies to people living alone and having raised alone, for at least five years, a child who is no longer dependent. Before 2014, the five-year threshold was not required to qualify for this provision, which reduced income tax payments within a limit capped at €897 (in 2014) – a rather modest reduction. The grounds for this provision are far from clear from the perspective of equal opportunities. Parents benefit from it even though they are responsible for the divorce, which in theory runs counter to the principle of reward; and it can help the children indirectly only, especially since the children have already been raised. A recommendation directly concurring with the principle of compensation would be to help children by targeting the goods that concern them, through a policy of vouchers, mainly for the comfort and quality of housing, private lessons, and holidays. This policy will be criticized as paternalistic, and it undoubtedly is, since it involves helping children without overly helping parents. The version of this policy for children who have entered adulthood, mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, would constitute the second part of a policy designed to offer the children of divorced people greater chances of success in their adult lives.