Feminism, open borders, and nannies

A while back, Joel Newman and Victoria Ferauge wrote a couple of posts on open borders and women. Joel argued that women would particularly benefit from the opportunity to escape countries where women’s status is low and their opportunities restricted. Victoria said that “open borders would be great for women,” for the same reasons they would benefit everyone but also because many women migrate to be with husbands, and in citizen/non-citizen marriages there is an inherent power imbalance which a generalized right to migrate would resolve.

My take is a bit different.

First, a little about myself. When I was single, I preferred younger women, and had a mild basis against careers. Younger women tend to be more beautiful, and promise more years of beauty to come, but that was a minor factor. More importantly, they have more years of fertility ahead of them, and I like big families. Careers were a minus for the same reason: a woman with a career is more likely not to feel she has time for children. A century ago, when contraception wasn’t the norm and childbearing a marital duty, I might have had less of a bias against career women, since fertility was an obligation, but nowadays, a man can’t assume that a right to get his wife pregnant inheres in marriage. She has to want it. She can’t commit, either. If she changes her mind, tough luck. At least, as far as I understand. My church (pious membership in which was an absolute precondition for me marrying anyone) quietly but definitely disapproves of voluntary childlessness, and that was some protection. Certainly, I would be safe from a church wife aborting my child. But I’d feel a little more comfortable with a wife for whom childrearing was the major item on her life agenda, than with a woman with her heart set on a career. I’m happy to say, I found one. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend it to other bachelors.

Now, these preferences of mine would be very retrograde and reprehensible from a feminist perspective. If all men had them, women’s opportunities in life will be quite different from men’s. Men have more time to pursue careers, which will then help them find wives. Women who focus on career in their 20s will sacrifice their most competitive years in the marriage market, and the hard-won career will continue to count against them. It might even be helpful to sacrifice careers pre-emptively to signal their housewifely ambitions to potential husbands. Universities, law schools, and employers may accept them on an equal basis with men, but if they take these opportunities, their prospects in personal life, unlike those of their male colleagues, will be deteriorating fast. Not fair! Yet my preferences were not only in harmony with my instincts and tastes, they were a wholly reasonable way to pursue a very natural and worthy goal. Truth be told, I am rather unsympathetic with the “gender equality” agenda. Yes, domestic violence is a problem, single mothers in poverty are a problem, Saudi Arabia limits women’s freedom far too much, and I’m all for women being allowed to enter the full array of professions and public offices. But I’m not troubled if few women choose to enter some professions, or turn out to be competitive in them, or if voters usually elect men; I’m not bothered by male advantages in average pay which usually reflect differences in work hours, risk tolerance, competitiveness, experience, etc.; I don’t think men who prefer housewives to career women ought to be blamed for it; and it’s absurd to regard housewives in comfortable suburbs as victims just because circumstances and childcare responsibilities haven’t given them the same opportunities to pursue careers as their husbands enjoy. I am sympathetic to women who, rather than demanding equal opportunity as a right, simply feel that childcare is too easy a job for them, and want to make more use of their talents for the good of humanity. To that, I’ll return.

For now, using my own experience/preferences as a point of departure, here’s a little exercise that may shed light on how open borders could affect the marriage market. It may be more amusing than insightful– when I first saw the old demand-and-supply model applied this way, I thought it was a hilarious joke, but nothing more– but at least it makes a certain interesting hypothesis clear.

Figure 1 represents the effect of feminism on the marriage market. It requires a bit of explanation, and it may take a bit of thought to get your head around it. First, “P(men)” means “the price of men,” where “price” is paid, not in money, but in what might be called “marital accommodations,” e.g., cooking, cleaning, childcare, sexual fidelity, subordination when it comes to major decisions like moving house or having kids, tolerating time-consuming solo pastimes such as watching sports, praise, etc. Everything a man might want from a wife. Similarly “P(women)” means “the price of women,” which again means marital accommodations, such as flowers, remembering anniversaries, domestic comforts, shopping money, accepting a career, perhaps taking an equal share of childcare, cleaning, cooking, etc., to make that possible, compliments, sexual fidelity again, etc. Everything a woman might want from a husband. Now, of course, people are not commodities, nor perfectly substitutable for one another, but men and women certainly compete for one another, and decide among multiple candidates if available, and can do things to enhance their mate value for the other sex. There are trade-offs between dedicating effort to enhancing mate value and pursuit of other goals, so the demand curve for men is downward-sloping vis-à-vis the price of men, and the demand curve for women is downward-sloping vis-à-vis the price of women. The really ingenious thing about this model is that demand for men in the marriage market is supply of women, and vice versa. So equilibrium occurs where these demand curves intersect. There is an “equilibrium price,” in this market, meaning the balance of marital accommodations that equilibrate the market for mates, such that the number of men willing to marry equals the number of women willing to marry, and an “equilibrium quantity,” meaning the number of people who marry, with the rest remaining single, though most of them would marry if the mate values on offer from the other gender were high enough.

Feminism and the marriage market chart

Figure 1 shows not one, but two equilibria, and thereby depicts the effect of a certain event, namely, a shift in demand. Feminism is interpreted, in Figure 1, as a downward shift in the demand for men. Women demand their rights! They won’t be oppressed anymore! It’s time for men to give them a better deal! Thanks to new attitudes like these, demand for men at any given price falls, or to translate some of the jargon, there are fewer women willing to get married on the old terms, and to lure these women back into the marriage market, men have to be more accommodating. Thus “Feminist D(men)” is to the left of “Pre-feminist D(men).” Note, however, that it isn’t that far to the left. I am assuming that sex/family is a pretty high priority for almost everyone, in the long run, so few people will ultimately be willing to forego marriage just because marriage norms are not especially to their liking. That makes the mate demand curves quite inelastic, and just for that reason, feminism can be highly effective. Even if only a small minority of women is actually feminist enough to prefer permanent spinsterhood to being an old-fashioned housewife, these women induce a major change in the equilibrium, whereby all women enjoy a large windfall of extra marital accommodations from their menfolk. The total quantity of marriages does fall a bit, so a few women do pay the price of lifelong singleness for their feminist attitudes, but not many.

The model sort of fits the stylized facts. Marriage rates have fallen, but not enormously. And men are a lot more inclined to accommodate women, especially their careers, than they were in times past. Now let’s see what happens under open borders.

Feminism the marriage market and open borders chart

Now there is a world “price,” which the domestic equilibrium cannot change. The interpretation of this is that since men and women can immigrate, emigrate, and marry foreigners at will, the marriage market goes global. The equilibrium price is set in this global marriage market, and in this example, turns out to be the same as the pre-feminist equilibrium in the domestic market. Now the effect of feminism is quite different. When women “stand up for their rights,” this simply induces some men to marry foreigners. Feminism induces some native women to refuse the going marriage deal, but the result is simply that they remain single, while immigrant wives fill the gap. Most native women, meanwhile, continue to marry native men on the old terms, thus rendering themselves competitive with immigrant women. The balance of power within marriage doesn’t shift at all. Marriage stays just as it was before, except with feminist-minded native women replaced by more submissive foreign wives.

I’m partly being facetious with this model, glorying in the mere versatility of the supply-and-demand model to suggest counter-intuitive possibilities. Yet I suspect there may be some truth in the model. Of course, it assumes that feminism primarily affects women’s preferences. It’s also possible, indeed it’s surely true to some extent, that feminism has affected men’s preferences, altering the criteria by which they measure mate value, making women working seem normal and normative. It’s probably true that men in rich countries don’t think about wanting more traditional wives, since they’ve been told not to by feminists and since fewer such women are available than in the past. But if many such wife candidates became available, they might find the desire reawakened. The role of American Housewife, which American women have been abandoning since the 1950s, would seem very attractive to many women from poor countries and traditional cultures around the world. Obviously, there are difficulties with such international marriages; they tend to lead to culture clashes; but that barrier would be greatly ameliorated if potential foreign wives could come, not on a fiancée visa with 90 days to marry or bust, but on their own power, pre-emptively as it were, and then meet American men on their home turf, knowing English and already much less foreign than when they arrived. Importantly, moreover, men would not have to suspect that women were merely using them to get a Green Card, and planning to leave after that. Under open borders, no one would need an American spouse to get a Green Card. The same model would have the opposite effect in countries where women get a particularly raw deal from marriage: there, emigration would reduce the supply of women, and force men to compete by offering marriage on more favorable terms. Worldwide, there would be convergence to a middle way, somewhere between the feminist West and patriarchal Africa and South Asia and Islam.

Let me conclude, though, on a note that feminists will like better. I mentioned above that some women may dislike being trapped in a housewife role, not because they feel ideologically entitled to equality with men, but simply because they have a lot of talent and childcare, whatever may be piously said in its praise, is rather easy, and not suited to everyone, and may be boring for active, well-educated minds. For such women, it just seems inefficient for their talents to go waste like that, cooking and cleaning and looking after kids. They don’t want to be childless, but they don’t want to be bored either. Well, for such women, open borders could be a godsend, because it would give them access to a vast selection of nannies. Not many Americans want to work as nannies, and not many Americans can afford them, but a global market would drive down costs dramatically, and allow American households to bid up quality. They could insist on morally upright live-in nannies who would be likely to stay a long time, and the wages they’d offer could be fairly minimal, given the alternatives that workers from Third World countries face. Open borders, by creating an influx of cheap nannies, could free professional women to have it all, pursuing high-powered careers, while bearing as many kids as they like, and getting involved in raising them as time permits. Having this option would help them compete for men, too, since men wouldn’t have to worry so much, as I used to do, about career women opting for childlessness because their careers don’t leave them time to chase toddlers. Who’ll look after a man’s kids if he marries a high-powered lawyer? The nanny.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

One thought on “Feminism, open borders, and nannies”

  1. I think there’s a lot of room for us to expand on the feminist/women’s rights argument for open borders. The “nannies” argument in particular is quite compelling to me, because I grew up in countries (Singapore and Malaysia) where it’s really really common for middle-class families to hire live-in or part-time maids. It’s a big win for women to be able to leave the home and work or simply attend to other things when they have a maid capable of caring for their home and family.

    Open borders would also be a significant win for women’s rights, as Victoria Ferauge has pointed out before, in simply allowing them to independently find work or reside where they choose without being at the mercy of a spouse’s or partner’s visa. One wonders how many women are trapped in abusive relationships, or simply ones that they would otherwise exit, if not for the constraints of their visa today. Similarly, one wonders how many women have been tricked into sexual slavery on the premise that their foreign employer will be able to circumvent the arbitrary visa system and give them a good job in a foreign land. When women can apply for and obtain permission to work independently, they will be much less susceptible to some of the worst abuses imaginable in the modern world.

    (One can of course think of many practical difficulties with ensuring women can access the visa system, even if we throw open the borders. But it’s appalling to me that we intentionally make the visa system even more difficult for them today, and as a result throw so many people into slavery, simply because they see no other choice but to take that chance of being enslaved.)

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