Mises Daily Articles
The Dating Market: Anarchy in Action
To defenders of the state, “anarchy” is a scary concept. They claim that we need government intervention to protect us or all hell will break loose.
But in fact we live anarchy every day, in one of the most crucial aspects of our lives: dating. Every day people meet, date, have one-night stands, fall in love, and break up; all without government intervention.
Dating, while it rarely involves the direct exchange of money for services, is nonetheless a market just like the labor market. Interested parties seek mutually beneficial relationships with others, who have what they need and want what they offer. Single straight men, for instance, seek mutually enjoyable relationships with available straight women. If two people want a relationship with the same person, they’ll often fight for him; think The Bachelor. That mirrors how two employers who both want to hire the same employee might fight for her, for instance with a bidding war for her labor.
This dating market is almost pure anarchy. No government bureaucrat tells you who to date. Straight white women aren’t legally obligated to only date straight white men. While sexual conduct with minors is forbidden, anyone over age eighteen can date anyone else over age eighteen.
And once you begin dating someone, no government agent steps in to tell you how the relationship must progress. There are no laws around what restaurants are “appropriate” for a first date; no burdensome rules around how many hours a date can last or how many drinks one party can imbibe.
And in the absence of government rules, unofficial codes of behavior spring up. Social norms emerge, crowd-sourced and shaped by society as a whole. It’s appropriate for a guy to buy the girl dinner. Getting drunk on a first date is frowned upon. Dating someone else on the side — cheating — is immoral and is generally cause for break-up.
No government official made these rules. No Department of Safe and Responsible Dating set these codes down in law. Instead, they form organically. Culture, from television shows like Friends to love songs, shape our social mores. How our friends behave when they date impacts how we behave. If your friends say that it’s wrong to cheat on a boy you’re seeing, you’ll probably absorb that as a rule of romance.
The result is anarchy: not an absence of rules, but an absence of rulers dictating how we behave and throwing those in jail who do not comply.
Of course, religion has generally driven our mores around dating and romance generally; and to the extent that governments have reinforced religions and spread their influence, one could argue that governments have thus shaped our dating society. For instance, the Roman empire’s adoption of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE contributed enormously to that religion's spread; and Christianity has obviously shaped our codes around marriage and, by extension, dating. This is certainly a valid critique. I would only point out in defense that few modern governments are theocracies, and so they no longer bear this role in shaping our dating mores. Religious institutions, while once sanctioned by government, have seeped so far into the popular culture that they no longer count as governmental. Additionally, secular dating habits have sprung up that religions ignore or actively oppose (I find it hard to imagine the Papacy sanctioning a hook-up, for instance), which reinforces the bottom-up nature of our dating “rules.”
Now, what if the dating market were regulated like other industries? In fact, one subset of it is: the marriage market. Government rules around marriage, far from improving on the concept, make it expensive and exclusionary. Regulations create perverse incentives: the high cost of a legal divorce, for instance, pushes unhappy people to stay together. Not so long ago, interracial marriages were banned, as government endorsed and encouraged racism. Today, many state governments still decree that only straight men and straight women can marry. Non-monogamous marriages are illegal; the Dangers, a family of three women and one man who are all married, face the threat of jail time for the crime of participating in a non-government-approved relationship.
These regulations, like many government actions, are ostensibly designed to protect something: in this case the “sanctity of marriage.” But government intervention cannot make private unions stronger or more sacred. All they can do is exclude broad categories of people from the act of marriage, and inflict bureaucracy and red tape on the couples permitted to legally enter into a union.
So which of these two markets is better: the anarchic dating market, or the regulated, constrained, bureaucratic marriage market?
No doubt there’s potential for abuse in the dating market. Sleazy men can treat women poorly; dishonest women can cheat on men. Some people get too drunk and do things they regret. Break-ups can cause immense emotional distress. We as a society recognize this, but we do not believe that this danger calls for government intervention. Instead, individuals take action to mitigate the damages above. A girl who dates a sleazy man will tell her friends about him, essentially giving him a negative review to steer others clear. People who drink too much and engage in behavior they later regret will learn from their mistakes and avoid similar behavior in the future. They make the similar mistakes again, but on the whole, the dating market contains a variety of complex mechanisms through which social pressure is applied to discriminate against those who break the rules of dating while favoring those who function within the established rules.
Dating and Other Markets
So why do statists allow anarchy in dating, while demanding government intervention elsewhere?
Partly, they believe that dating is too personal for government agents to get involved. And it is. One’s relationship with a significant other reflects unique and private aspects of one’s life, and is no business of the government. But this argument falls flat, because dating is not the only element of one’s life that is personal. So is a person’s job, where he or she pours time into learning what is necessary to create a product or service of value. Many people spend forty hours a week — almost one-quarter of one’s life — working. A career, just like a relationship, often reflects unique values and ideas and passions. It is every bit as personal as one’s dating life.
So, too, is a choice of one’s car personal. So are the illicit substances that some people choose to ingest. So is one’s decision to use types of medicine the FDA frowns on. If we accept that personal matters should not be regulated, than we must apply that lesson to most human behavior.
Partly, statists believe that government regulations in the dating market would do more harm than good. And they would. But if laws against break-ups are so absurd, are laws against firing — against ending the formerly-mutually-beneficial financial relationship between two people — any less absurd? If laws dictating that you must date a man (or woman) of a certain government-approved caliber would be insulting, are laws dictating that you must work only for certain government-approved wages any less so? Both trample human agency and restrict our choices “for our own good.”
Inherently, we realize that government rules around dating would be absurd. We realize that government agents have no business forcing themselves into our private lives, and how their attempts to do so in the marriage market just make things worse. We realize how feeble the claim is that government needs to set up rules and regulations because private actors cannot do so. Isn’t it time we applied those realizations to other markets?