All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 2002

Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work

A Compelling Case for the Connection between Love and Economics

Reviewed by Ryan H. Sager

In Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse explores territory where many libertarians fear to tread: The importance of the family to civil society. In her view, libertarians have spent so much time making the case for the autonomy of the individual that they have become reluctant to consider the importance of strong, and even restrictive, family bonds. Autonomy is not just a libertarian fetish though, according to Morse. Many on the left have also been tempted by the desire to shirk the responsibilities of hearth and home. Both, however, fail to appreciate the essential role of the family in shaping individuals and holding together society.

To open the book, Morse singles out what she calls the new problem that has no name. She dubs it the “laissez-faire family.” In this family, the members take the libertarian approach to economics and government to its logical extreme in their personal lives, considering themselves bound to their spouses and families only insomuch as they have consented to be bound. Such an arrangement is untenable, in Morse’s view, because human relationships are too complex to be conceived of as contracts, and because it devalues one of the most basic human values, namely, love.

Economists usually are not comfortable with amorphous and perhaps embarrassing-to-discuss concepts such as love, but Morse, who taught economics for 15 years at Yale and George Mason universities, makes a compelling case for the important connection between love and economics.

As economists know, trust is the central factor in establishing a working economy. (Not even the most primitive exchanges can take place if one party thinks that the other is going to club him over the head and run away with all the smooth rocks; a banking system of extensive lending and borrowing takes that concept to a significantly higher level.) Trust, however, is not an inherent human quality, and is not arrived at through the marketplace. Instead, Morse argues, it is incubated within the family. Parents must give their children love, not seeking anything in return, to begin the cycle of trust and reciprocity.

The question of how parents achieve this leads to perhaps the most insightful discussion in the book as Morse applies economics to the realm of parenting, drawing heavily on her own experience as a mother of two children. Building on F.A. Hayek’s concept of tacit knowledge-the innumerable and unspoken reasons behind people’s economic actions-Morse goes into great detail showing the plethora of ways in which parents, especially mothers, often unknowingly contribute to their children’s development through seemingly meaningless and random actions. From the simplest rocking of a newborn (which stimulates the nervous system and helps with sensory integration) to the more complex game of peekaboo (which builds the basic concept of trust and reciprocity), parents continually shape their children in ways that can scarcely be imitated by people or institutions outside of the family.

Unfortunately, in Morse’s view, it is to just such people and institutions that many on the left and the right wish to hand the care of their children. For those on the left the ideal alternative to parental care is state-run, or at least state-supported, day care. Those on the right favor market-based day care. No alternative, however, can match the care of a dedicated parent as far as Morse is concerned. State-run day care, where it has been tried, such as in many of the former Soviet bloc countries, operates with all the warmth and humanity of a puppy mill. And even the most highly paid au pair cannot help but fall short–unable to form the permanent bonds a child needs.

Later in the book, Morse turns her attention to the common conceit of analogizing marriage to a contract between a husband and a wife. In a quite thorough and illuminating section, she demonstrates that marriage is closer to the legal definition of a partnership than a contract. Whereas in a contract specific exchanges are laid out ahead of time, in a partnership resources are joined and control of the enterprise is shared, allowing for far more flexibility. A marriage cannot be a contract, she argues, because of the inherent complexity of human relationships, which need the flexibility of committed partnerships to survive. Bonds between parents and children, and between other blood relations, rise even above the level of partnerships.

Despite a somewhat garbled discussion at the end of the book of whether the decision to love is reasonable–a section that attempts to answer such intractable questions as “what is love?” (perhaps best left to non-economists)–Morse makes a compelling case for libertarians and others to pay more respect to the role of the family. While many commentators have certainly made the case for strong families, Morse’s economic approach is a novel and thought-provoking addition to a long-running debate.

R.H. Sager is a news assistant at the New York Sun.