Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jennifer Roback Morse: Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Fair Family Doesn't Work

Jennifer Roback Morse. Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence Publishing, 2001). ISBN 1890626952

A typical quote is “Basing family life on the political and economic philosophy of individual autonomy rather than the personal philosophy of self-giving love, …, is a prescription for individual unhappiness and social turmoil.”

Well, finally, after all these years, conservative writers have discovered that they can question regarding family and human relationships as akin to economic transactions. Souls could not a make a stock market or profit wars. Anyone remember the transactional analysis of the 70s – “I’m OK, You’re OK” – and the swing to open relationships?

Morse provides a cogent and welcome discussion of the proper attitudes we ought to take towards our own families. The main point of her book is that libertarianism, as a political theory, really is not a recipe for superficial self-autonomy to the point that family relationships (especially marriage itself) are to be regarded coldly as “contracts” or “partnerships.” Human relationships do stem from long-run self-interest but in a free society involves paradox and self-restraint, as demonstrated by her discussion of “The Prisoners’ Dilemma” and later even her discussion of “suspicion” as a “cost: of love. She provides a lucid account of how libertarianism (and classical liberalism) arose from earlier totalitarian or authoritarian ideologies. But earlier moral thinking had always been tempered by the unstated postulate that “family values” would be beyond question.

That parents should make their children first in their lives seems hardly controversial, nor that married couples should remain faithful and that “serial monogamy” is harmful to children. But more important is the idea that all people are helpless at some times in their lives, at least as children and often enough when elderly. A free society must depend upon deeper love, in which dependent people will be valued in family contexts and not simply be judged as would be totally autonomous adults. No quarrel there.

Again, the millionaire’s question centers around that little conjunction “if,” the conditional. What about the self-driven, self-absorbed person who simply never enters into total commitment (however post-adolescent and morally compelling as evidence of “adulthood”) but continues to use the handkerchief of potential love as a vehicle for self-expression? This seems to be the case, in my opinion, with a lot of the gay community, and she never gets around to saying that (or to discussing homosexuality), although she does discuss the self-absorbed person (“me”) as an outlier in the spectrum of psychological health. Indeed, however, she points out social security and welfare programs grant a false sense of freedom, allowing adult children to believe that they have no further responsibility for their parents when making what they believe to be totally valid choices in a “self ownership” context. Although she does not try to provide public policy solutions, the implication is that all adults should recognize that the right to choose or refuse to ”love” is not absolute, and that everyone owes some psychological risk-taking to be regarded as a credible adult. (Her “distinction with a difference” between “risk” and “uncertainty” is interesting, particularly in the context of deciding to postpone having children or to have fewer children.) The question then is what kinds of restraint ought to be practiced by currently unattached people in all kinds of areas (entertainment, Internet speech, self-promotion) for the general welfare of children even when one does not have children of one’s own. We could take this discussion into the areas of gay marriage and parenting, too (she doesn’t) and deal with the biological arguments.

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