Economics emphasizes the power of incentives to influence how people behave. When I started reading economics, I found this focus on incentives very plausible, because I had seen firsthand a very strong example of how the incentives created by a system of rules clearly influenced the way whose people were making a major decision in life – to get married.
It’s almost a cliché to say that servicemen get married too quickly and too young, which leads to lots of divorces and broken families, with all the emotional and financial strains you’d expect. But why do young soldiers marry so young and so quickly, compared to the rest of the population? This is because the system strongly incentivizes it, both officially and unofficially.
When you complete your formal training and arrive at your first duty station, you are assigned a room in the base barracks. Life in the barracks isn’t exactly pleasant, especially when you’re low-ranking. But married Marines don’t have to live in barracks. If you’re married, you get paid significantly, often more than double your salary, so you can afford to live off base. Your spouse will become a soldier health care for free (and in my experience, military health care is worth everything you pay for). When you are inevitably sent to a new duty station, the military will pay to move your new spouse with you.
Imagine for a moment if other institutions operated this way. Think of a pair of high school sweethearts who have just reached adulthood. One of them is going to college, the other isn’t. They are heartbroken to part ways. Then imagine that the college announces a new policy. If they were to marry, the college would pay for the new couple to move in together, subsidize their living expenses so they could live in an apartment in town instead of dorms, and provide the newly married couple with care benefits. health. no additional cost. I suspect the percentage of married freshmen would increase by leaps and bounds within three seconds of this policy taking effect. You see the same with new Marines rushing to marry their high school sweethearts the instant they graduate from boot camp.
But the question goes even further than that. An extremely common occurrence was a form of outright fraud casually called “contract marriages”. This is when a Marine and a civilian (or less commonly, two Marines) were married entirely for financial gain. The gist of the deal was “Let’s get married,” and I can get off base and escape the routine of barracks life, you’ll get health care and other benefits, and I might send some of the extra money your way too. In every unit I was in, everyone knew at least a few people who were in contract marriages. They barely made the slightest effort to hide it either, because no one in particular had a strong incentive to treat it the way a private profit-and-loss business has an incentive to root out fraud or embezzlement.
Most military commanders recognize the problems that arise from a policy that encourages the young and immature to rush into marriage, let alone contract marriages. But at the same time, they don’t have the ability to adjust the rules that create those incentives – the policy makers who create those rules are very far from FA Hayekis the proverbial man on the spot. This means that the only tool available to a commander who wishes to solve this problem is to try to give briefings by, in effect, saying “Hey, stop behaving the way we strongly urge you to behave! ” I’ve attended many, many such briefings over my years in the military, and they’ve been just as effective as you’ve probably guessed.