Post Separation: Property Rights and Wrongs

Good afternoon everybody, and thank you for joining me in the ‘Divorce Capital of the World’ to discuss post-separation property division. I imagine that an economic approach to answering the problems that I have no doubt people of your calibre are well aware of may seem either dry – or gross. Dry – because we have, as a civilisation, accepted a degraded, perfunctory and narrow concept of economics, lacking in moral imagination. Gross – because we all know that the victims of separation who need protection are the children who are denied access to loving parents, and that loving parents who have to struggle in the hopes of being granted the ‘right’ to parent their children will willingly expend any and all money they can in their battles to do so.

I do believe though, economic justice would naturally defend family justice (if it mitigates animosity and removes incentive to minimise an-other parents time with children).

Raising children requires the taking of responsibility. From our days on the African Savanna (and way beyond – right up until reliable birth control became readily available), men and women took responsibility for children through a division of labour, all but universally. We are technically past that! But our instincts, in addition to the lobbying of special interest groups (including those who weaponise gynocentrism, and those who profit from the tragic mess we’re in) are preventing us from adapting to current conditions.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not necessarily concerned about the divorce rate in terms of total numbers in our society – but what I do find troubling is the disparity in the rates of men and women initiating divorce. The disparity suggests to me that men and women have different, often conflicting, systemically granted, incentives and/or disincentives to pursue divorce. I cannot believe that there is such a disparate ratio of unsuitable husbands as compared to wives! I would probably feel more comfortable if the overall rate remained the same but with fewer women initiating divorce – and more men initiating divorce!

One reason that I’m not worried about the total number of divorces is that I don’t think it’s so unusual. Many hunter gatherer societies have been and continue to be serially monogamous, just like we are. I was once told by a friend that our modern day divorce rate is proportional to typical rates in hunter gatherer societies. I’ve never found conclusive evidence for that claim – if anyone can confirm or deny that, I’d be very happy to hear! But the prevailing pattern of serial monogamy is absolutely there.

Regarding somewhat more recent history, there is a book by Maria Nicolaou called ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Sold.’ In which the author argues that, during the period between 1500 & 1847 (precisely – so I for one have zero clue what was going down in 1848, please don’t ask me about that), there is substantial evidence that divorce was a constant feature of British society, that there were ways to end marriages and that it was often generally tolerated.

I would argue that the rise in divorce numbers (that we can see has been happening since the 1960s) is – at worst – an inevitable side-effect of otherwise generally positive development trends and – at best – that it presents opportunities for greater human happiness (with people empowered to move on from relationships that are not optimal). Barriers to the best-case scenario being: the unscrupulous behaviour and unnecessary conflict that our present approach to dividing property post-separation encourages – and the impact of these negative behaviours on wider family members (including children). It also happens to be a system that perversely punishes productivity which is a problem for society at large.

In 21st Century U.K., sentimental ideas of women’s inferior abilities to provide for themselves and men’s responsibilities to provide for women are upholding morally repugnant (and socially dysfunctional) legal standards of property division, post separation. There is currently:

  1. No cap on the amount of capital or value of assets that can be awarded in a divorce settlement,
  2. No time limit on how long payments to maintain a former spouse “in the condition to which they’ve become accustomed” can last,
  3. No time limits within which former spouses can apply for financial settlements,
  4. And prenuptial agreements are non-binding, in the U.K.

There is, is a concept of 50/50 splits in marital assets (which are inclusive of any assets accrued by either party during the marriage) … But this is typically disregarded anyway, when there are children involved (who typically find themselves living with their mother after their parents separate by the way).

Evidence from China, however, shows that there is another way: their 2011 interpretation of their Marriage Law revolutionised the way in which property is divided there, post-separation. Previously very much akin to current U.K. law, in China today, assets belong to the purchasing party (or in the case of immovable objects purchased by parents as a gift, eg.; assets belong to the party in whoever’s name they’re registered in), essentially.

Despite concerns that women would suffer as a result of these changes, after a short dip in women’s reported well-being post-separation immediately after the changes came into being, the adverse effects for women have weakened as people have adapted to new conditions. Disputes have been minimised, an incentive has been removed for the practice of ‘marrying for money’ and (God willing) women have been gifted a more noble incentive: to become the strong, independent creatures that we are capable of becoming!

But it’s if and how this helps children that is the real moral question. And I think that’s easily answered with another question: which parental provision is most important for children? Money? Or time?

There are people out there who like to paint pictures of non-resident parents as irresponsible. I believe that irresponsible non-resident parents are RARE. Human beings have a long evolutionary history of heavy investment in our offspring. We are hardwired to be motivated to prioritise our children’s needs, for a remarkably extended period as compared to most mammals. All we need to be is: free to do so. Right now, perverse incentives encourage some separated parents to deny their ex-partners the opportunity to provide their children with what they really need (co-parenting).

Perverse economic incentives. It is a collective failure to protect children’s interests that allows resident parents to appropriate money and property from non-resident parents, in order that resident parents might relinquish responsibility for their children’s financial provision.

It is also a collective failure to protect collective interests that punishes productive people by forcibly redistributing their wealth to ex-partners. We run the risk here of discouraging diligence in our population. That’s a virtue that we weaken at our collective peril!

Obviously, it’s not good enough only to reject child maintenance awards in divorce orders, as standard, if the state is ready to redistribute the money of tax payers to fund the lifestyles of single parents-by choice. There are also a lot of working-class children whose resident parents maintain sole custody – not so that they can stay home while their ex earns necessarily, but – in order to maximise their eligibility for welfare benefits. Those children should not be forgotten. The U.K. was the first state to ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1951, including Article 16.3:

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

If a state branch could potentially be funding the destruction of families, I believe we have a legal (never mind moral) obligation to exercise preventative measures. That might involve viewing claims in more detail, obliging the state to ascertain why it is that one parent has sole custody before awarding benefits on that basis. It might involve the state denying awards on that basis where it is found that a non-resident parent is willing and able to care for the children involved more so than he or she does but is being denied the opportunity by a resident parent.

I hope that it goes without saying here that the family court reform that should never have become necessary – that allegations of unfitness for parenting need to be judged to a standard ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ rather than the ‘preponderance of evidence’ (or 51% wins out) standard that outrageously passes for justice within family courts today – needs to happen with urgency. The same would need to be true wherever the state was to arbitrate a question of whether one parent should be entitled to full benefits on account of being solely able to raise children. The obligation to protect the family might even involve a more generalised reduction in benefits entitlements (to make refusal to work less attractive), which would leave some children poorer.

Is that a bad thing?

It feels bad, right?

But in the words of Jiminy Cricket:

the right things may seem wrong, sometimes, or sometimes, the wrong things may be right at the wrong time, or vice versa.”

I turn to the work of a highly moral economist, Thomas Sowell. In his empirical research, he has repeatedly found no causal link between transferences of wealth and positive outcomes for children who are supposedly intended to benefit from these transferences. In fact, he talks rather of a preponderance of negative outcomes – when the incentive to develop personal human capital (ie. the ability to create wealth) is mitigated. In a 2016 discussion published by the Hoover Institution, he even suggests that “the pain of poverty” is a useful motivator for individual self-development. Making relative poverty more comfortable (particularly in a society wherein ‘the poor’ have smart phones, flat screen TVs and obesity problems) does not ameliorate relative poverty – it only increases the intransigence of the problem.

In Sowell’s book, ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’, he explores ‘Black Education – Achievements, Myths and Tragedies’. One relevant myth he debunks is the idea that being born into the working class is a death knell for prospects of success. He highlights the incredible history of Washington DC’s Dunbar High School. Dunbar was known as the states’ one academic high school for black students. Reflecting on the consistently outstanding academic achievements that the school maintained between the 1890s and the early 1950s, 1970s academics were quick to insist that the students in attendance during that period were middle class. Taking the academic year 1892–93, of the known occupations of Dunbars’ parents, there were 51 laborers, 25 messengers, 12 janitors, and 1 doctor! The single academic high school for blacks in the District of Columbia at the time,

as late as 1948, one-third of all black youngsters attending high school in Washington attended Dunbar High School. “If we took only the children of doctors and lawyers,” a former Dunbar principal asked, “how could we have had 1400 black students at one time?” Over the entire 85-year history of academic success in this school, from 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went on to higher education. This was very unusual for either black or white high school graduates during that era. At one time, the reputation of graduates from this school who did not test entrants was such that they did not have to take entrance examinations to be admitted to Dartmouth, Harvard and some other selective universities.”

Dunbar provided a remarkable foundation for the betterment of students who were lacking in economic privilege in their day, never mind as compared to ours, bringing to the U.S.: the first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction and, among many other notables, the doctor who pioneered the use of blood plasma, the historian Carter G. Woodson, author and poet Sterling Brown, and Duke Ellington, who studied music at Dunbar.

During World War II, when black military officers were rare, there were among this school’s graduates “many captains and lieutenants, nearly a score of majors, nine colonels and lieutenant colonels, and one brigadier general”.

Sowell suggests that Dunbar was not alone, that many schools entirely or predominantly attended by economically underprivileged students in the U.S. have nurtured impressive outcomes. He recalls a visit to Albany Avenue School during the 1970s:

Inside those classrooms were black children much like children you can find in any ghetto across the country. Many came from broken homes and were on welfare. Yet, inside this school, they spoke in grammatical English, in complete sentences, and to the point. Many of the materials they were studying were a year or more ahead of their respective grade levels.”

And the capacity for young people to defy the expectation that the household income they go home to remains – in the chapter, Sowell recounts a long list of modern U.S. schools whose poor students are accomplishing seriously impressive results.

Substantial changes to systems as complex as welfare of course would need to be pursued with an adaptive cautiousness of course, by societies appropriately aware that it is significantly easier to make complex systems worse rather than better! But substantial changes are in order.

Feminist Janet Street-Porter, in a 2017 article for ‘The Independent’, expressed moral condemnation for current divorce law excellently when she asked:

[W]hy should divorce entitle a former wife to an income for life? Expecting to be supported long after any children have finished their education seems to be asking for special treatment. Yet most judges (men) seem to think that women need help, and should be allowed to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed… [M]arriage… must be treated like a simple contractual agreement, where the terms of separation, division of property and financial arrangements in the event of a breakup are included in the legal document that binds one person with another.”

In Porter’s estimation, the status quo that we have come to with regards to property division post-separation is “a patronising load of tosh, spouted in the name of chivalry.” In my anti-feminist estimation, the misandry and gynocentrism that feminists have deliberately weaponised in their quest for control can only have served to encourage most ‘judges (men)’ to be more sympathetic to the pleas of divorcing wives as opposed to their husbands.

Furthermore, the ‘thin gruel of rights’ (as Jordan Peterson has referred to) that women in particular have been bombarded with by feminists, the opportunities that women have in cases of divorce (that have had no serious feminist pushback, for all their talk of equality) and the liberation of (relational) feminine aggression that has been championed by feminists can only pervert women’s morality (which may be particularly vulnerable as a result of the emotional strains of breaking up).

However, I honestly think it is possible that we will move in the Chinese direction in the U.K., and it would not surprise me to see feminists at the barricades – prompted by the growing rate of divorce settlements that disadvantage productive women (see Adele). And, if and when that happens, I for one will cheer!


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