Hang in there, New Jersey families.

Family Isn't Fair, and It Should Be

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Governor Chris Christie has signed a bill that ends the practice of permanent alimony in the state of New Jersey. Unsurprisingly, the people who have been agitating for this change are men paying permanent alimony.

There is undoubtedly a lot of unfairness in the alimony system. Someone who gets alimony can decide never to work or marry again, while their former spouse has to make their payments monthly on pain of court sanction. On the other hand, someone who -- with the consent of their spouse -- dialed down or abandoned their career in order to support their spouse’s career or to raise the children, then sees their ex-partner walk off into the sunset with all their earning power while they have to make do with whatever they can find, is also the victim of unfairness.

I don’t hear much sympathy for them from the folks who complain about alimony (or vice versa). Everyone is convinced that their side has all the real victims, while the other side is getting a free ride. In reality, the wrongs go in both directions. I’ve known people who say that ex-wives are delaying getting remarried to stay on the alimony gravy train; I’ve also known kids who grew up with mothers struggling to stay in the lower middle class because their wealthy fathers departed just before they cashed in on that law degree or MD she helped pay for, then paid not one dollar more than their child custody agreement specified. But I don’t know how common either situation is, or how you’d even go about collecting the necessary statistics.

In marital law, saying that something is unfair just doesn’t get you very far. Family isn’t fair. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness; it just cares whether you survive and pass on your genes. Men are bigger and stronger, even though this disadvantages women in all sorts of ways, and we get to carry the babies inside us for nine months even if we’d really rather have something a bit more equitable.

The fundamental unfairness of reproduction carries over into the partnerships we form to assist it. The ideal of an egalitarian partnership in which both partners work outside the home and inside the home in equal measure isn’t achieved even in those Nordic paradises where everyone gets scads of fully paid parental leave and subsidized day care -- and women are even less likely to end up in a private-sector job or management than they are in the heartless U.S.

Instead of talking about how unfair it all is, it’s probably more useful to talk about what we want to achieve. Do we want to encourage the formation of marriages in which one spouse charges harder outside the home and the other spouse assumes more domestic duties? Or should we penalize spouses who made the mistake of counting on their partner to provide the lion’s share of the earning power? That was the argument of many feminists in the 1970s; they didn’t want women to have the choice of becoming housewives.

Though it’s not my choice, I’d like for other women -- and men -- to have it. If two people agree to prioritize one career, there ought to be a way to ensure that the spouse who invests in domestic duties is protected if the marriage goes awry. The old presumption that a woman was automatically entitled to most of her husband’s salary, forever, is obviously out of step with the modern economy. But so is the presumption that it’s every man for him- or herself. Family has never worked that way, and it would be pretty awful if it did.

It seems to me that New Jersey should have left the discretion in the hands of judges rather than making a blanket rule. Fairness is important. But family matters, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net