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Beyond Economic Man

Mises Daily: Wednesday, May 23, 2001 by

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Jennifer Roback Morse’s Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2001) is a very thoughtful and timely book on important questions too often left to one side by classical liberals and libertarians. 

In effect, Morse puts our notions of individual natural rights back into the Natural Law from whence they emerged some three and a half centuries ago. Instead of treating familial and societal relations of human beings as "given"—that is, as background no more significant than land and other resources—she focuses on how and why intact families are an essential precondition to stable, free societies as well as to greater human happiness. 

It says a great deal about our times that such a book should be necessary. An economist, Morse remarks that her thoughts on these matters stem from her own experience as a mother. She employs language and arguments meant to enlighten people whose main frames of reference are free-market economics and limited-government philosophy.

She sketches out the "irreplaceable social function" of the family in civilizing and socializing the young. When families perform this role, we have self-restraining individuals whose overall behavior makes free and productive social cooperation possible. Absent such families, we shall have violence and chaos and increased statism to combat them. 

Morse finds it odd that an ethic of individual self-absorption as regards family matters rules the political Left and part of the Right. But a little reflection should show that even Randian superheroes were once helpless infants who required care, love, and physical maintenance. The nonobjective, nonscientific aspects of child-rearing are actually the most important ones. Government nutritionists might well keep the next generation breathing, but they could never turn out individuals who have internalized certain rules necessary for living with others.

Babies and children need to learn to trust others so that they can be trustworthy themselves. They learn cooperation and behavioral norms best from those whom they have come to trust. None of this takes place overnight. 

Raising decent human beings requires that someone take on the job full time. Historically, this has been the role of married mothers. Morse argues that social relations can best be understood as voluntary or involuntary (coerced). This is not the same as saying that all noncoercive relations rest on contracts analogous to those in commerce. The role of mothers cannot be appreciated in terms of its narrowly economic results. 

This leads Morse into a discussion of marriage as a partnership, based on commitment to a specific unique person and sustained in the face of radical uncertainty about the future and the lack of a substitute partner with the same qualities. Thus, it is in people’s long-term interests, properly understood, to stick with what they have agreed to. Marriage brings one into close contact, not just with one’s own children, but with the partner’s blood relations; such relations cannot be brought under the heading of voluntary or involuntary. They are an implication of  the marriage itself. 

Trust, cooperation, generosity, and love itself become possible in committed families and wider social groupings based on them. Morse treats various proposed alternatives—single-parent "families," the state as moral instructor, universal socialist daycare, and the like—and finds them wanting. The problem with making individual mothers "independent" with other people’s money via tax-based bureaucratic programs is that they are in fact still dependent, but in a less natural and socially beneficial way.

A mother made independent in this sense becomes insulated from family pressures which might otherwise regulate and improve her behavior. Moral hazards arise on all sides, as contemporary policy effectively severs sex, marriage, and the care of children into separate realms of action, in an increasingly fragmented society. 

Morse notes how Social Security has "collectivized the care of the elderly" (p. 114) and undermined intergenerational responsibility. Thus, the state can "support members of families by transferring income to them" but "in doing so the state pulls the props from under the structure of the family" (p. 119). Collectivists have wanted that result. Classical liberals have acquiesced in it by failing to put individual liberty in its social context.

Morse dismisses the idea that the state can rescue society by teaching values itself in a few pages dealing with voting theory and the absence of universal agreement about values. On the way, she paints a nice picture of America’s actual "civic religion" as it existed into the early 1960s: "Granted, the American public school system once inculcated the civic religion of republicanism against a backdrop of Protestantism. . . . The country was overwhelmingly Protestant, both in confession and culture." 

Catholics and Jews provided for religious schooling of their own: "In neither case did they attempt to force the public school system to respond to their religious views. This was an entirely practical position to take in an era of low taxes, cheap land, and minimal government regulation" (pp. 124-25). That way of doing was irreparably damaged by the events of the '60s, although I think Morse might have mentioned the role of the Delphic Nine in the process. 

If the state itself isn’t up to raising our children, how about strangers hired to do so? After all, Morse notes, we believe that markets do everything more efficiently. She deflates this alternative with a survey of recent studies on the degree of social attachment and trust found in children in daycare versus those with a mother at home. Universal state-provided or state-run daycare seems even less promising on that evidence.

Morse now escalates her argument to a higher pitch. People who think that anyone can raise children because children are, empirically, more or less interchangeable have not thought things through. She suggests that properly rearing a child involves knowing and dealing with that child, daily, in a way for which there is no adequate substitute, whatever social scientists and behavioral experts may believe. 

Morse sees a mother’s interactions with a child as involving whole realms of "tacit knowledge" (in Hayekian terms). To benefit from this knowledge, and in the long-term interests of the child, what is called for is a mother in the home and a husband who can enforce norms and protect mother and children. Morse will be getting a lot of hate-mail from the moderns and postmoderns who cannot contemplate such a restoration of the hated "patriarchal" and "nuclear" family. (I am not sure which is thought more evil: patriarchal or nuclear.) 

Feminists in particular will hate this book. Morse is saying that they have sold women a bill of goods about the joys of employment, when in fact the most important work women do is the rearing of their children. It is odd, by the way, that feminists, who tend toward socialism, so strongly wish for women to become full participants in the marketplace; but we may leave that to one side. Certain writers, indeed, have claimed that the "bourgeois" order depended precisely on the kind of family Morse recommends. For some reason, these writers regard that link as a self-evident indictment. 

Whatever some right-wing activists may think, Morse doubts that political action can bring about such a revival of real families. What is needed are "efforts in the cultural and social sphere" (p. 165). For such efforts to succeed, people must think seriously about the nature of love, solidarity in a partnership, and the nature of the will. Such matters take us far from the framework of conventional economics. Nevertheless, Morse makes a number of interesting analogies and suggests that, in places, a use of economic insight can improve our reflection on such matters. 

Thus, she writes, time is scarce. Other things are scarce. Someone genuinely committed to maintaining a family and a marriage does incur costs. It is useful to understand why and how someone might do this. Here the argument is explicitly Christian and Catholic, as was (implicitly) Morse’s earlier discussion of the will. 

Morse’s argument flows from one topic to the next in an orderly fashion. She does not present a political program but, instead, a reorientation of thinking about family matters addressed to those who already understand and favor economic freedom. It seems to me to be quite a solid case. 

Now I come to a few comments. My only real problem is the use of the term "laissez faire" to refer to the anti-family values and policies under attack. By using the term as loosely as Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw (two noneconomists of note) would, Morse (or whoever wrote the subtitle) creates a fundamentally misleading impression. 

Historically, laissez faire was the policy conclusion to which those trained in economics inevitably came, after all the schemes of intervention had been vetted. Economic liberalism was a form of social cooperation resting on rules about property and contract, and not a demand to do everything one might wish to do. Even less was it a claim to such a right, to be paid for by other people. 

Irresponsible, libertine, and familicidal policies have historically come from the Left, or from nonideological proponents of state power. Ludwig von Mises had much to say about such proposals in his Socialism ([1936] pp. 87-107). Most feminists carry forward a class-struggle notion derived from Marxism, according to which there is an inherent conflict between men and women as such. Morse rightly rejects this notion and speaks of the "complementarity" of men and women, which can be fulfilled in marriage (pp. 226-27).

Morse’s most important realization, perhaps, is that we cannot arbitrarily choose just "any type of social arrangement": "A limited government and free market cannot exist without a substantial component of self-restraint among the citizenry" (p. 231). This looks toward natural law. At the same time, it restates a central theme of republican theory. Drawing on Michael Novak, Morse writes that there are actually three sorts of liberty: economic, political, and moral-cultural. These are mutually supporting, and Morse wishes to direct those who understand the first two to an understanding of the third. 

This is all to the good. By and large, Morse’s attempt to present her case with arguments consistent with economic theory and with other arguments analogous to those used in economic reasoning works. One can only hope that she will dig deeper into the Austrian tradition as upheld by Mises. There she will find an economic science which was never wedded to "economic man" and his close allies: nominalism, empiricism, and model-building.

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Joseph Stromberg (stromberg@mises.org) is historian-in-residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive.  You can also purchase from Amazon.com.