Given that today is Valentine’s Day a post on love seems appropriate. [In the words of the greatest writer of our times, please don’t tell us how it’s a made-up corporate holiday. Don’t mention Hallmark. We get it. We’re okay with it.]
There are few things less romantic than economics, and applying economic analysis to love seems wildly inappropriate. It would take a very strange person to subject love to rational self-interest and find anything heartwarming. Fortunately for you, I am a strange person.
Some great work has been done in economic analysis of human relationships: Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family is one of the best examples. It defines marriage as a contract designed to maximize joint utility through joint consumption and joint production. The former refers to doing things with a companion we like. The latter refers to the division of labor within a marriage, which has meant that men hunt/farm/earn and keep the family safe, and women cook, clean, and bear and raise children. Given how much of human history [everything until about 200 years ago, and still in some places] was spent battling for survival, the joint production aspect was crucial: families could often only survive if each spouse did his/her job, and the ability to do the job was a major factor in selecting a mate.
Because of its importance to survival, marriage became important and subject to lots of rules. Royalty could marry other royalty, and noble families intermarried with each other. The upper classes married among themselves to maintain wealth and status – the castes still do. Even the adage that “peasants marry for love” was usually not true: where marriage was not arranged by the lord or the family, it was strictly limited by the pool of eligible singles available, which is pretty much “your village.” Additional limitations have, until today, been national, ethnic, religious, or racial lines. Crossing them has been taboo: the last anti-miscegenation law in the US was struck down in 1967. In many parts of the world, marriages that break any of these rules may technically be legal but are subject to such social stigma that they almost never happen. Romantic love is clearly not the rule.
The exceptions, however, are on the rise.
In the developed Western world, thanks to the market economy, the majority of people don’t have to battle death and starvation every day. Social norms are such that family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and race are no longer strict barriers to interaction. Because of the market economy, people don’t need a spouse: the services previously only provided by a spouse can now be purchased on the market. A man can pay a maid and a cook; a woman can earn her own money and buy an alarm system to stay safe. The joint production aspect of marriage simply is no longer that important. For some, this portends the death of marriage and, by implication, the breakdown of society. Of course, they forget the joint consumption I mentioned above. The fact that people don’t need do get married doesn’t mean they won’t want to. Only now, they will do it for the right reasons.
Because of the rise of the market economy and the breakdown of arbitrary restrictions on relationships, people can now look for mates solely to maximize joint consumption. Since there is no reason to find someone who can help you survive, you can look for someone you like having around, and because tolerance is rising, the pool you choose from is essentially the whole world. People can finally be together for no reason other than love.
You have to admit, that’s pretty romantic.
Filed under: commentary | Tagged: dating, economics, love, marriage, women | 1 Comment »