Thursday, February 21, 2013

Love and Economics

That's the title of a Jennifer Roback Morse book, leading to something between a smile and laughter in response. The subtitle is more descriptive-- but still not fully helpful: "Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work".

In a nutshell, the book is an effort to derive a libertarian social philosophy-- an oft-overlooked complement to a libertarian political philosophy (p. 4, 161-165, 224-225, 231-232). Morse argues that the combination is essential and that an exclusive focus on politics is reductionistic and otherwise troubling. "If a libertarian minimal state requires loving families, then a libertarian social theory must inculcate an ethos of generosity and loyalty within the family." (8)

In this, her effort parallels the work of groups like The Acton Institute which seek to connect markets and morality, recognizing that market activity and political institutions take place within a social and moral context. Ignoring this context is not helpful. Beyond that, failing to foster morality and sound social institutions will undermine markets.

The omission also serves to make libertarianism vulnerable to the critique that it doesn't care about community or family (59-61), seeming to focus on an "atomistic individualism...a position no thoughtful libertarian actually holds. I think it is well to admit, however, that our inattention to family life and community responsibility have left libertarians open to the charge..." (28)

In this book, Morse is most interested in applying this to the importance of the family: "The family performs a crucial and irreplaceable social function...helpless babies are transformed from self-centered bundles of impulses, desires, and emotions to fully socialized adults. The family teaches trust, cooperation, and self-restraint. The family is uniquely situated to teach these skills because people instill these qualities in their children as a side effect of loving them." (5) As such, the family is important to both children, to themselves, and to society.

Morse notes that "the child must have some attachment to the parent for the parent to be a credible source of this kind of moral information" (37). When I read this, it reminded of adoption, where the adoptive child connects to the adoptive parent because of the relationship, not the blood connection to birth parents. When we were moving toward meeting birthparents, a small part of us wondered/worried that our children would feel attached to them. But mostly, they're complete strangers-- and the thought of going/being with them would be roughly equivalent to going to live with random people. 

In the Economics classroom, it's common to point to the market and legal institutions that limit, restrain and even productively harness potentially problematic motives. Markets encourage producers to treat consumers well. Governments can work to limit transgressions against others. But a reduction in honesty and morality makes it more difficult for markets and governments to police potentially beneficial activity. Moreover, a reduction in morality makes it more likely that agents will use markets and particularly the force of government to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Morse is also helpful in describing the role of mediating institutions-- from family to social institutions to government (130-135). The expanding circle is describes by Protestants (following Kuyper) as "sphere sovereignty" and by Catholics as "subsidiarity". "The rate of child abuse among married parents is lower than among other types of parents, but still not zero...The family's chief strength is also its weakness: the family is small. Two parents can know and respond to the needs of their own children. But small size becomes a weakness for the family if one of its adult members becomes incapacitated, or disappears, or is irresponsible." (131)

Morse ably defines marriage (ch. 4) and notes its practical abilities to produce results (throughout part 3; see: esp. 97-100). I have an forthcoming article in Markets and Morality (Fall 2013), connecting the classic book by Michael Harrington (The Other America) with the recent work of Charles Murray in his important book, Coming Apart.

This book is a must-read for Libertarians and anyone interested in a broader analysis of markets.


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