Economics emphasizes the power of incentives in influencing how people behave. When I began to read 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 was clearly influencing the way people made a major life decision – getting married.
It’s almost a cliché that people in the military get married too quickly and too young, which in turn leads to lots of divorces and broken families, with all the emotional and financial strain you’d expect. But why do young members of the military get married so young and so fast, compared to the rest of the population? It’s because the system heavily incentivizes it, both officially and unofficially.
When you complete your official training and arrive at your first duty station, you get assigned a room in the barracks on base. Barracks living is not exactly pleasant, particularly when you’re a low rank. But married Marines don’t have to live in barracks. If you’re married, you get paid significantly, often more than doubling your pay, so you can afford to live off base. Your spouse will get military health care for “free” (and in my experience, military health care is worth everything you pay for it). When you inevitably get sent to a new duty station, the military will pay to move your new spouse with you.
Imagine for a moment if other institutions worked this way. Think of a pair of high school sweethearts who have just reached adulthood. One of them is leaving for college, while the other is not. They are heartbroken to be separating. Then imagine the college announces a new policy. If they were to get married, the college would pay for the new couple to move together, would subsidize their living expenses so they could live in an apartment out in town instead of in dorms, and would provide the newly married couple with health care benefits at no additional expense. I suspect the percentage of married college freshmen would increase by leaps and bounds within three seconds of that policy going into effect. You see the same thing with new Marines rushing to marry their high school sweethearts the instant they graduate from boot camp.
But the issue goes even further than that. An extremely common occurrence was a form of outright fraud casually referred to as “contract marriages.” This was when a Marine and a civilian (or less commonly, two Marines) got married entirely for financial gain. The gist of the deal was “Let’s get ‘married’, and I’ll get to move off base and escape the grind of barracks life, you’ll get health care and other benefits, and I’ll maybe 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 any effort to hide it either, because nobody in particular had a strong incentive to address it in the way a private company operating on profits and losses has an incentive to root out fraud or embezzlement.
Most military commanders recognize the problems that arise from a policy that encourages young and immature people to rush into marriage, to say nothing of contract marriages. But at the same time, they don’t have the ability to adjust the rules which create these incentives – the policymakers who create these rules are very far from being F. A. Hayek’s proverbial man on the spot. This means the only tool available to a commanding officer who wants to address this problem is to try to give briefings saying, in effect “Hey, stop behaving in the way that we are heavily incentivizing you to behave!” I sat through many, many such briefings during my years in the military, and they were exactly as effective as you probably have guessed.