The economics of cultural change

One of the most interesting Blogs on the Web is the Becker-Posner Blog, in which two of the smartest intellectuals in the US argue in public about important issues. Gary Becker is a Nobel laureate in economics; Richard Posner is a polymathic judge who has written provocatively (and intelligently) about a wide range of subjects.

Recently, the two have been debating the question of why French society is proving so resistant to measures needed to make it economically successful. Posner argued that there are two major reasons, habit and coordination costs, why cultures, including those of nations and companies, often change very slowly.

In his response, Becker argued that “major economic and technological changes frequently trump culture in the sense that they induce enormous changes not only in behavior but also in beliefs” — and then used my homeland to illustrate the point:

Ireland is an excellent example since not long ago Irish family patterns were the object of study by demographers only because they were so different. These patterns involved late ages at marriage, high birth rates, no divorce, and married women who spent their time mainly caring for children and their husbands. Enshrined in the Irish Constitution of the 1930’s is the hope that married women would not work but instead they would be home taking care of their families.

All aspects of Irish family behavior changed radically during the past two decades: the typical family now has only about two children, divorce was legalized and is growing rapidly despite the Catholic Church’s opposition, and the labor force participation of married women is becoming like that in other parts of Western Europe. The rapid economic growth Ireland experienced during the past couple of decades had a revolutionary impact on the incentives of parents to have many children, on attitudes about whether married women should work, and on whether married couples were obligated to remain together throughout their lives. What is fascinating about the Irish example is that these and other changes in family patterns of behavior occurred while Ireland remained a highly devout nation, with the highest rates of church attendance and other measures of religious belief in the Western world…