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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2002
Volume XVII, No. 2

For Love or Money?
An economist-mother looks at what makes society work

by Katie Garner

Jennifer Roback Morse, Love & Economics - Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work. (2001 Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 273 pp, hardcover, $27.95)

"All the members of human society stand in need of each other's assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy...."

- Adam Smith
Theory of Moral Sentiments
frontispiece of Love & Economics

Jennifer Roback Morse was compelled to write this book because of her admitted inability to successfully apply libertarian political and economic theory to her personal life, despite the fact that libertarian theory is based on the individual being the common denominator of free civilization.

The author is uniquely qualified to speak on both love and economics. In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, she is a regular contributor to Forbes magazine, a research fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, senior research scholar of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, and taught economics at Yale and George Mason University for fifteen years.

Morse believes love got lost in the analysis of precisely what ingredient will preserve free civilization. If love really is lost, it's arguably worth finding out why and how, and she does this systematically, leaving no skeptic's protestations unaddressed.

The skeptics would argue that love has nothing to do with preserving civilization. As Morse points out, they side with Adam Smith when he concludes in his first book, Theory of Moral Sentiments, that justice is more fundamental to the foundation of society than love. She concludes that Smith could argue this because he first assumed individuals had a modicum of decency, and he could do that because persons in his day expected more of one another; less than charitable behavior was frequently scoffed and denounced. But because parents and all members of today's laissez-faire family pursue their own self-interests with few, if any, critical repercussions, we may no longer assume they emerge as socially conscientious as Adam Smith's friends and neighbors. For today's purposes, Smith's theory assumes too much. Love is essential to form individuals who can be civilization-supporting citizens, and unfortunately, this elementary lesson must be remedially taught to Morse's 20th century skeptics.

To do this, she argues that there are variations of adult behavior that depend to a great extent on how individuals were raised. She looks at differences between the behaviors of children who come out of orphanages, versus those who are products of day-care, versus those who emerge from a loving family where the primary care of the children is managed by the parents of the child.

She finds that children who are left in extended day-care, for instance, emerge from today's laissez-faire family wounded by attachment disorders that markedly affect their ability to function as self-restrained adults. Combined results of multiple studies suggest that "regular non-parental care increased the risk of children developing insecure bonds by 66 percent [and that] if this increase were related to disease due to environmental factors, it would be considered extremely serious and would lead to public health initiatives to combat it". Instead, parents are constantly reassured that day-care is good for children.

Enter homo economicus
Morse points out that free market economists have a construct called homo economicus, or economic man ­ a rational person who, having been left alone to raise himself, "calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness". This extrapolated idea maintains that, no matter how he was raised, any individual can achieve a certain level of self-sufficiency, with the added bonus of potentially benefiting society in the long run. Upon this theory, says Morse, free market economists argue that substitutes for parental care can be devised to produce completely self-sufficient individuals. This means moms and dads may safely continue leaving most child-rearing to the professionals. Morse's personal experience led her to conclude that homo economicus, whose self-interests could theoretically be counted on to ultimately benefit society, is not self-made at all! He must emerge from a loving family, or civilization will not benefit much.

Morse uses myriad economic analogies, as she describes how the family cannot reliably be replaced by government-subsidized parental substitutes ­ day-care among the top culprits currently being marketed as good for children. Morse denounces this idea by cleverly revealing that homo economicus is no better than a mistrusting, calculating, attachment-disordered orphan ­ a 'trust bandit' ... [who] is superficially charming in his initial encounters with people and can deceive them for long enough to use them".

Clearly, this is not the economic man free-market economists envision. Homo economicus cannot come from the orphanage-type upbringing that characterizes the rearing at the minimally assisted end of the parenting continuum. He will serve society the way free market economists predict only if he is the product of involved, caring parenting.

Change attitudes
For Morse, then, the remedy is a correction in attitudes. The correction requires a veritable paradigm shift in libertarian thought, from the standard view that the individual is the basic building block of a free civilization, to the recognition that the "economic man" who can effectively serve civilization emerges from a family that has formed him responsibly. The paradigm shift migrates from the individual to the family. But even readers who are not political libertarians may have problems with the notion that an individual's self-interests should ideally be sacrificed for the greater good of society.

Morse concedes that her model civilization would demand that its government support families that stay together instead of, for instance, permitting divorce for almost any reason. She painstakingly argues her point, giving a convincing, well-researched voice to the rationale behind dedicated child rearing. In her chapter entitled "The Personal Ethics of a Free People", she reveals that efforts such as hers are the best ways to effect a change, rather than to advocate pro-active governmental legislation of objectively moral conduct. As a libertarian she would never wish government to be so active. Since precise legislation is not desirable, from the author's point of view, she wants to change attitudes among her party members and beyond.

Why we need a "civilization of love"
Ultimately, Morse is concerned with preserving a so-called "civilization of love". She believes that the self-restraint necessary to build a productive society is an internalized ethic that can only come about within families who take loving care of their own children. Morse directs her commentary primarily to her fellow libertarians as she challenges them to widen the scope of their focus from the individual to the family, and she believes society should encourage its members to nurture loving family relationships. Why? She says,

"The self-restraining individual is the basis of free institutions, both economic and political. The self-restraining individual is not born but made inside a loving family. There is no realistic alternative to the loving family as a foundational institution for a free society".

Most moms struggling with the decision to work outside the home before reading Morse's book won't struggle as much afterwards. They will either decide now that they definitely shouldn't, or they'll realize they need to re-evaluate their lives in preparation for a big decision down the road. Through Morse's compelling argument, the reader will appreciate that her gut-instinct to stay home is not simply a nebulous pang but is supported by objectively studied, statistically explained research that has been synthesized by a mother and a professional, like herself.

Katie Garner lives in St. Louis with her husband, Jeff, and baby son, Patrick. She has been involved in parish music for fifteen years, and before becoming a full-time mother, she worked as an advertising copywriter. This is her first contribution to Voices.

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