Why Love Is Expensive

Jul 18, 2001 |Sean McMeekin

Review of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work by Jennifer Roback Morse

Have you ever blown an entire month’s salary on a gift for someone you love? Not on Christmas or a birthday, mind you, but just to brighten someone’s day, without giving a second thought to the matter?

Well I haven’t. And I suspect that many of you haven’t, either. We Americans are not notorious romantics. And, while not reputed to be quite as uptight about money as, say, Germans, we’re certainly not a nation of spendthrifts, either. True, credit-card debt is now soaring to record levels, especially since Visa and Mastercard began recruiting suckers so aggressively on college campuses. But this kind of debt principally plagues the foolish; it is almost certainly accruing more from personal "lifestyle" spending than from any larger obligations.

The issue of American consumer spending habits is one of many that has been vexing me since I began spending time in Russia, an extremely poor country where even the concept of credit cards has not caught on yet, and yet where people somehow scrape together enough cash from their erratic ruble incomes to support a thriving gift economy. Industrial production dropped to near zero when the centralized Soviet system collapsed, and domestic consumer goods are still, for the most part, shoddily produced and unable to compete with imports.

But walk down any street in Moscow or St. Petersburg on any day of the week, and you will be surrounded by stalls of freshly cut, gorgeously arranged flowers. And these are only the legal dealerships. Outside every Moscow metro station, unlicensed babushkas mop up the overflow in floral demand, undercutting official prices by a wide margin (although often with a serious decline in freshness or quality).

Meanwhile, domestic chocolatiers such as Krasny Oktyabr do a booming business, although not to the detriment of major European labels from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, which all seem to do just as well. Even the most unimpressive-looking kiosk will stock dozens of brands of sweets and candies, along with a wide array of wines, liquors, vodkas, and cognacs, many of them already bedecked with ribbons, lest a gift buyer needed an extra hint.

Just what is it about Russians and presents? Part of this phenomenon traces simply to the country’s famous flair for romantic seduction, which long predates the Communist era, as any reader of Pushkin or Tolstoy knows. But Russians, especially men, don’t just spend an outlandish percentage of their hard-earned money on women they are trying to seduce for the first time; they do this without the slightest hesitation for their steady girlfriends and wives too. If they have money, women will do much the same with it, always spending more on loved ones than on personal extravagances, devoting every spare kopek to the happiness of their children.

All of this selflessness may not be a recipe for steady economic growth (especially since so many of the most popular gifts bought in Russia are imports for which the domestic economy has no answer), but it does greatly strengthen marital relationships and, especially, families. Perhaps, I am sometimes inclined to think, this is what an educated, western society looks like once it has been stripped bare of the individualistic ethos of capitalism. This economic dystopia of self-impoverishing romantics and child-spoiling mothers may not be what Lenin intended to create when he set out to destroy private enterprise root and branch, but it does appear to bear his signature to a significant degree. Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" – that intangible nexus of self-interested decisions by free individuals which collectively enrich capitalist societies as a whole – well, that just doesn’t seem to work in post-Communist Russia.

In America, by contrast, we seem to have the opposite problem. With property rights, contract law, and the social primacy of the individual enshrined in the Constitution itself, we have attained unheard-of levels of prosperity following precisely the recipe Smith laid down in The Wealth of Nations. The "invisible hand" now reaches into every sphere of our public and private life, with food, shelter, clothing, medicine and child care now attainable at market-competitive prices. Even marriage and childbirth have been commercialized, to the point where it is possible to mail-order wives, husbands, or even donated sperm and egg deposits. Time, many Americans have apparently decided, is money, and if you’re trying to accumulate the latter, why bother with all the evidently time-consuming business of courtship, marriage, and child-rearing when others can handle this for you?

Inevitably our family life has suffered from the relentless march of the market into every phase of human existence. And yet our 19th century ancestors were acquisitive capitalists, too, and somehow they grew wealthy while maintaining the traditional structure of family life. What was their secret, and why do we no longer possess it today?

The basic social problem with contemporary American society, Jennifer Roback Morse proposes in her audaciously titled new treatise on Love & Economics, is that we have forgotten what love is. Television, movies and popular music blare at us 24 hours a day about "love," and still most of us have no idea what it is. We think "love" is about what we feel inside, instead of about what we do.

This confusion, Morse argues, arises from the infusion of "laissez-faire" thinking into family life since the 1960s, a process that has been unstoppable because the ideology appeals to influential lobbies on both sides of the political spectrum. An unlikely coalition of conservative-leaning libertarians and "lifestyle liberals," she proposes, have progressively convinced a broader and broader section of the American public to apply the "contractual mentality" to family issues. Once the magic words "choice" and "freedom" began to cast their spell on the baby boom generation, the divorce rate was bound to soar.

With divorce becoming more and more an accepted social practice, an entire cottage industry of consultants has arisen to apologize for it and sell the single-parent household (aided by government welfare benefits, of course) as a reasonable alternative to the traditional family. And yet the social-science data, Morse makes painstakingly clear, is overwhelming: children of a single parent (or second-marriage stepfamilies) do, on average, worse in school, run into more problems with the law, have more children out of wedlock, and are more likely to divorce their own spouses later in life, than those raised by a father and mother.

Although hundreds of feminist pundits make careers out of denying these statistics, in fact the reason for the blaring discrepancy should be plain to everyone. In Morse’s description, "the job of child rearing is too big for an individual person to do." Laying out the argument for the traditional family in the methodical style of an economist, Morse leaves no doubt in this book that single-parent families, even if supported by the ever-growing child-welfare bureaucracy, simply don’t cut it. Mothers will always depend on someone else to support them while raising children, she notes; modern "alternatives" such as day care and government welfare programs for single mothers merely mask this dependency by transferring it from a father to impersonal institutions whose employees cannot possibly be expected to know children’s needs, or care, as much as a parent will.

More important, fatherless families lack the most crucial element in a child’s moral evelopment: the example of cooperation between husband and wife which teaches the importance of trust, commitment and loyalty. There is simply no substitute for this moral example. Stepfamilies, Morse believes, may even be worse than single-parent households in this regard, for by their very nature they must cultivate conflicted loyalties and even competition between parents, sending the message that one should always look out for one’s advantage. Then there are the practical issues involved in traveling back and forth between parents’ distant residences, which have been explored in countless afterschool specials on TV. With all the scuttling about and scheduling stress this entails it is no wonder stepchildren receive, on average, much poorer grades than students living in intact traditional families.

A great strength of Morse’s book is her emphasis on the irreplaceable importance of fatherhood. A divorced dad, even if he sends regular checks to his ex-wife, will never really contribute the bulk of his income to a family’s well-being in the way a committed husband will. Only a resident father can enforce the behavioral rules necessary to preserve a family’s sanity; only a father can protect children from harm’s way merely by his presence in a household. In our feminist age, it has become unfashionable to speak of a man’s role in preserving a daughter’s honor, but as Morse shows, the facts speak clearly: "young girls in fatherless families are at greater risk for abuse by men outside the circle of their families and their mothers’ friends." Boys, too, benefit from this protection. In is clearly no accident that single-mother household-dominated neighborhoods, without male authority figures around to intimidate troublemakers, so often fall prey to crime and juvenile gangs.

That both mothers and fathers play a crucial role in a child’s development should not be news to anyone with his or her head screwed on tightly, but Morse is right to make her case so methodically. Two immense lobbies – feminists, along with the paid child care bureaucracy – are committed to denying every single common-sensical proposition underlined in this book. Reinforcing the feminist argument that childrearing is drudgery, uninteresting work fit only for those mothers too stupid or lazy to get real jobs, childcare consultants promote the idea that this job is anyway best done by trained "experts" who, because of their specialized degrees, know more about children’s welfare than any overworked parent could. Morse shows how damaging this kind of thinking is not only to families, but also to the emotional well-being of the parents themselves. When it really comes down to it, she writes, the contemporary preference for full-time employment over raising children is often absurd on its face even in terms of personal satisfaction. Since when did pushing someone else’s papers around an office come to seem more fulfilling than bringing children into the world?

The ubiquity of paid child care, no less than the frequency of divorce, illustrates just how deeply the me-first "laissez-faire" ideology has taken over family life in America. No less than the misguided Marxists who tried to collectivize child care in Eastern bloc state orphanages notorious for the way children were fed "like hampsters," Americans have in Morse’s view succumbed to a kind of morally bankrupt materialism that impoverishes children. Surely it is a kind of unrealistic "utopianism," she proposes, that "leads people to throw away perfectly good marriages to perfectly decent human beings in the hope that some other person or life will finally bring perfect happiness?" It never works anyway. Trotting out yet another statistic to make her slam-dunk case against the divorce apologists, Morse reminds us that second and third marriages are even more likely to founder than first ones.

Bearing the brunt of the moral "laissez-faire" revolution of the 1960s, the baby boomers’ hildren have inevitably become wary of even marrying in the first place. So many of us have learned from our parents’ fleeting commitments to one another that our own feelings, too, are more important than trust or selfless devotion to others. Enter "cohabitation," the ever-more popular phenomenon that has crowded out both dating and marriage as the mating ritual of choice. According to those who practice it, this arrangement serves to teach a man and woman about one another, thus contributing to a more stable relationship in the long run, in case they ever decide to marry and have children. But as Morse points out, the social-science data demonstrate conclusively that "people who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get ivorced than people who do not cohabit."

Why is this? Instead of teaching the necessity of unconditional giving of one’s self, cohabitation inherently involves an egoistic calculating of personal advantages and isadvantages (not to mention grocery bills and rent). By holding on to the possibility of a painless withdrawal, Morse suggests that cohabiting men and women invariably neglect the "skills necessary to keep a relationship functioning." They fail, that is, to learn how to make the kind of true sacrifices marriage requires.

Love, according to Morse’s definition, demands a true leap of faith. "To love is to will and do the good of another" – without conditions. It is a "decision," which we cannot back out of without causing serious emotional damage to others. It requires not only constant financial and emotional support, but also clear-sighted criticism, the ability to live with a loved one’s faults while trying gradually to improve them. And it is expensive, asking of us both the time it takes to really get to know someone, and the money necessary to support a family. Perhaps we notoriously cynical post-Boomers are also, in the end, penny pinchers, as unable to believe in the possibility of love as we are unwilling to pay for it.

But we are paying a great price by refusing to try. "What’s in it for me?", too many of us are inclined to ask, whether thinking about marriage or something as simple as picking up the tab on a date. Reluctant gift-givers do not make great lovers, much less parents. So maybe we should take Morse’s advice and give some thought to the emotional costs we pay by failing to love instead of always mulling over the burdens of romantic or marital commitment.

In a chapter called "Why the Decision to Love Is Reasonable," Morse makes a strong case that even on "utilitarian" grounds, choosing lifelong "self-fulfillment" over marital sacrifice is a dead end. Suspicious egotists who are unable to trust others will never be happy. Egalitarian feminists who don’t want to place themselves in "debt" to a man condemn themselves to a lifetime of romantic frustration. The rest of us may simply resist letting others know us well enough to expose our "faults and weaknesses," but by doing so we close the door to knowing others, too.

We don’t really know ourselves, Morse concludes from her own experience marrying and raising a family, until we have been forced to consider the well-being of others on a long-term basis. How well do we self-sufficient singles really know ourselves anyway? Without challenging ourselves to change, without throwing caution aside and splurging on that spontaneous present that will make someone’s day, without being able to forget our own problems for a minute by thinking more deeply about someone else’s, we are fated to remain lonely and anxious about all of life’s inevitable setbacks.

Aside from being a stellar analysis of the intellectual poverty of the feminist, strict libertarian, and liberal approaches to questions of family life, Morse’s book offers all kinds of useful advice to those of us still struggling to love. Generous gift-giving and instinctive chivalry, I have learned in Russia, can do wonders for a man’s romantic prospects; but it is only when this is followed by trust and unconditional commitment that one can really claim to love another. I know I, for one, still have a long way to go, but I am grateful Morse has helped point me in the right direction.

Copyright 2001 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.

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