Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jennifer Roback Morse rewrites "Love & Economics": is the "laissez-faire family" an oxymoron?


Author: Jennifer Roback Morse
Title: "Love & Economics: Why It Takes a Family to Raise a Village".
Publication: San Marcos CA, Ruth Institute, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9816059-1-3.
Description: 306 pages, paper, endnotes but not index. 4 Parts. 12 Chapters, Introduction and Conclusion.

This book is a rewrite of an earlier book that had appeared in 2001, titled “Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work,” then published by Spence in Dallas. The new version appears in “collegiate” and “streetfighter” editions. This is a review of the “collegiate” version and I’m not sure as to how they are different. The book's subtitle is an obvious reference to Hillary Clinton's famous book "It Takes a Village" (1996, reissued in 2006 in an anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster.

I can relate to this book on two or three different levels. For most of its text, Morse is describing how the nuclear family should work, how parents need to be connected in love, recognized by society as their marriage, and how children, born helpless and needy until they become productive adults themselves, fare best in a traditional family. Ideally, she maintains, the father accepts the responsibility to protect and provide for the mother and children, and the mother stays home enough (and so does the father, to some extent) to raise the children and teach the children the socialization that it takes to function in a free society.

There’s something so fundamental about this, that goes beyond words. If you’ve ever watched a lioness train her cubs to hunt in a nature film, you see how motherhood underlies the continuity of a species at a certain level. Human civilization can grow and develop because it adds fatherhood and adds a social structure (the family) to pass its values down through generations.

One can debate her criticism of alternative arrangements that parents make, for example, using day care or nannies, and of her questioning the political progress in gender equality. She calls the modern “laissez-faire family” as the “problem that has no name.”

She has, however, described how unconditional and committed love should work within a marriage, and why children need to see this in their parents. No one can really question the soundness of these central ideas. She never mentions same-sex marriage or homosexuality per se, but some of her ideas about marriage really do apply to same-sex couples. She talks about love and power, as a balance between competing virtues that people bring to a marriage. She is not, however, willing to admit that this is not as dependent on gender as most people think. That gets into the “polarities” and the ideas of Paul Rosenfels, whom I discussed in this blog in April 2006.

I say that I have to discuss the book in levels, because throughout the book she is relating her ideas about marital love to her social and political philosophy, which she still says is libertarian. As the book title says, a free market society with minimal government cannot prosper without strong families transmitting care among generations.

Even as we have seen in the recent financial crisis, one of the most important requirements of a free society is a certain amount of trust among its citizens. People are not born with this; they learn self-control and proper boundaries and respect for others from parents. Morse discusses "The Prisoner's Dilemma" as a paradigm to show how people need to learn to perceive self-interest in terms of committed, long term relationships. That paradigm does really explain a lot of problems on Wall Street as well as it does in intimate relationships.

Early in the book, she discusses attachment disorder, which appears in children, as in overseas orphanages, who do not have proper attention from parents. Such children grow into adulthood with a very short-term sense of “rational” self-interest, focused on quick gratification. They often do not have respect for law and become sociopathic. However, judging from other characterizations (as on Dr. Phil) the term might be used for people who grow up without the normal facility to share feelings and emotions, but who are able to adapt to society by themselves and make a living within society’s norms of lawful and ethical behavior applied globally. Morse considers Attachment Disorder to be important enough to provide a special bibliography for it. I have to come back to that later.

At various places in the book, she questions the way we perceive the libertarian idea of personal autonomy or sovereignty. She says that most libertarians realize that pure “atomistic autonomy” is not possible, because all are dependent on other people, starting with our parents, to exist. In fact, absolute individual sovereignty could lead to a kind of social Darwinism that could eventually invite in totalitarianism again (that’s a good sci-fi theme). Indeed, arguing for libertarian policies in economics, government and foreign affairs does not mean we can advocate change in the essential nature of human social organization through the family, especially the raising of children. She points out that there is a cost to personal autonomy and "pride" when both giving and receiving love, particularly when it seems to be on someone else's terms (and particularly, I think, when expected outside of a marriage among members of an extended family).

She does make some important distinctions in our conceptual terminology. Marriage should not be regarded as a “contract” they way a home purchase is; it is rather a committed partnership. And we should accept that, while many of our adult relationships are chosen (a spouse, most of all), not all are. By a kind of negation of the “axiom of choice” in mathematics, we cannot choose are parents. And we cannot chose our other relatives, especially parents and siblings, and sometimes we will be expected to show some responsibility for them. These relationships are not “coerced” but they are not “chosen” either. They are simply a given, rather like a hypothesis for a math problem. There is a bit of Philosophy 101 in all this. She has a brief passage arguing against the folly that one can "divorce one's parents."

She also discusses the concepts of “risk” and “uncertainty”. When parents have a child, they have no control of which set of their own genes the child will get. Any family could give birth to a child with special needs, beyond the best attempts of any medicine; or any family could give birth to the next Da Vinci. (Or the child could be both.) “Risk” is a statistical concept that can be modeled with actuarial concepts, the domain of insurance companies. “Uncertainty” cannot, and simply leans on trust, and on the idea that a social order will get its members to accept and share uncertainty in the family unit. But the acceptance of "uncertainty" ties in (unfavorably) to libertarian ideas of "rational self-interest." Imagine a world where all adults decide that having children is "irrational" because they could bear the sole risk of raising a child with a disability, which cannot be predicted completely. One could indeed wind up with the apocalypse of the film "Children of Men."

The central problem, from my perspective at least, is that some people go their own way in life (like me) without forming their own families. Nevertheless, their willing participation can be important to the family units that they came from.

Let me deal with one excursion here, social security. Morse provides a discussion that says that social security has relieved adult children of responsibility for their parents, and has even encouraged elderly people to move into their own communities, often in the Sun Belt, breaking up extended families to pass down intergenerational values. She’s getting at something important, but I don’t think her analysis is correct. Social security is funded largely by a worker’s own contributions, and also provides spousal benefits (a big boon for traditional marriage in any book). If social security were replaced by a pre-tax privatized plan, essentially if could function the same way, as an annuity for oneself and spouse based on one’s own lifetime work record and earnings. It would be intended to help the elderly remain solvent without their kids. However Medicare is essentially a single payer system to take care of the major part of the senior’s medical care, but families are left on their own (or Medicaid) for long term care. This gets into the subject of filial responsibility laws which I have discussed in detail elsewhere on these blogs.

Let’s get back to her main train of thought. She mentions several times the importance of being willing to love other people when they are less than perfect. It’s not always clear if she is talking just about the husband and wife in a marriage, where the well being of the children is at stake. She mentions that some people are preoccupied with their own plans and agenda in lives (sometimes with a lot of fantasy investment) and have very little interest in permanent co-dependence with others. That’s true. It actually happens a lot in marriages (and contributes to divorce) But what is more significant to me, at least, is that many times such people don’t marry and have kids at all. They decide it is too expensive or requires allowing other people to make unwelcome intrusions into their emotional space. Sexual orientation may figure into this, but it would complicate the discussion here within the scope of the book review. So might medical issues, such as milder developmental “disorders” like Aspergers, or personality “disorders” like schizoid, that seem related to Attachment Disorder. But such persons do not become criminal or destructive; they simply want to manage their own space and live their own way.

The book leaves the impression that people, even those who do not marry and have their own children, should regard themselves as parts of a family, governed by the marital sexual commitment of the parents, than as competing individuals in a global society. It is common for unmarried or childless people to discover that they are expected to care for elderly parents (as noted in the previous book review) and sometimes to be expected to raise siblings’ children after family tragedies (as in more than one Hollywood film). In some cases, single adults might be expected to make huge changes in their own lives and priorities because of problems that others in the family had or even caused. Meeting such an expectation (and sometimes proving that one can “head” a “pseudo-family”) might be “easier” for an adult who had, after all, entered the committed intimate life of marriage and raised his own kids earlier; otherwise he (or she) is left, relative to the values of the modern world, in the (potentially shameful) position of someone who could not compete well enough to have his own family and must subordinate himself to the sexual commitments of others. This kind of situation is not often formally discussed, so indeed it becomes part of Morse’s “problem with no name”. I’d love to see Dr. Phil and Oprah willing to deal with this more often, although Dr. Phil recently had a program where a young man had to ponder giving up an athletic career to be tested to give up a kidney to a brother. This sort of thing does happen.

It seems that if one is going to say this in a book in a “play footsy under the table” fashion, one should have a separate chapter and deal specifically on what should be expected of unmarried people. Go ahead and blurt it out and take the criticism for being politically incorrect if necessary. Even from the vantage point of the “ethics” of “radical individualism” known to libertarians (call it “karma”), “singletons” were helpless once as babies (after all, as she says, everyone was – that’s a given) and therefore putatively owe some caregiving to others (and some "uncertainty sharing") even if never committed themselves to having their own children.

Morse spends almost no space on discussing specific family policies. Specifically, she avoids rehearsing all the usual conservative arguments against gay marriage. She is espousing libertarianism, but that it must be founded on a spontaneous order in which personal interactions involving the family come about on a voluntary basis, where people keep their marital promises but also where people on the fringe of the conventional world of marriage understand that they must be receptive to other people, too, sometimes on terms other than their own. But, in the book by Polikoff that I reviewed previously, that’s precisely a reason why public policy needs to recognize caregiving and co-dependency arrangements other than marriage, so that people can afford to step up to them. Morse seems to imply that “marriage culture”, if implemented consistently enough (especially on outliers like me) would take care of caregaiving without inviting intervention by government.

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