Frank Sheed once argued that sanity consists in seeing the world as it is—“seeing what is there is sanity, or the health of the intellect.” Economists take pride in seeing what is there. They are inclined to a hardheaded empirical realism about human behavior.
For the purpose of explaining market prices, this inclination is scientifically healthy. For example, economists take actual offers to buy and sell as truer indicators of dollar value than responses to hypothetical survey questions. Show me how much of your time, talent, and treasure you devote to something, and this will show how much you really value it. Economists regard their discipline as the queen of the social sciences because economics has a core theoretical framework, demand and supply, and a ready source of empirical data in prices and quantities from market trades.
When economists successfully uncovered the regularities of market behavior, they began taking their market analysis to other domains of human activity, such as politics and government, religion, and even to marriage and the family. In these settings, the realities of buying and selling at actual prices in actual markets gave way to analysis of as-if exchanges at “shadow prices” in metaphorical markets.
Theodore Schultz, Gary Becker, and their colleagues at the University of Chicago were pioneers in the 1960s of what was dubbed “new home economics.” As Becker suggested in an article on marriage, “economic theory may well be on its way to providing a unified framework for all behavior involving scarce resources.” Becker’s conjecture was based on the broad definition of economics as the study of the use of scarce means to attain unlimited ends, not its narrower definition as the study of markets. Scarcity, the universal excess of desires over means, is a core idea of economics. The recognition that we face scarcity in all areas of life, not just in the factory and the marketplace, opened new worlds for economists to study.
In new home economics, the family is treated as a productive enterprise similar to a business firm. The family combines inputs to produce output either for sale in the market or for its own direct consumption. Children are considered both capital goods and durable consumer goods. When parents provide sustenance, education, and moral training for their children, they are investing in human capital.
Like entrepreneurs who invest in a business enterprise, parents who invest in children do so with the expectation of a return on their investment. The return may be financial, as when children work for a family farm or business, or provide support for their parents in their old age. Or the return can be more immediate, in the pleasure parents derive from their children. Children add to their parents’ welfare in the same manner as a pet, television, or a vacation home. Moreover, children and these other “durable consumer goods” are interchangeable, an insight used by economists to explain changes in birth rates.
When modeling marriage and divorce, economists assume that matches are made in a competitive marketplace, analogous to the matching of employers and workers in the labor market. People choose to marry or remain single, given the constraint of available mates, to maximize their utility. They choose marriage if their expected market and non-market income following marriage will yield higher expected utility than remaining single would. Marriages are terminated if doing so yields higher expected utility than remaining married. In economists’ models, marriage itself is nothing more than moving in together to form a household. Most marriages are legally sanctioned and are between a man and a woman, but neither condition is essential. The marriage bond is an implicit contract with indefinite life.
In the fallen world in which we live, economists’ models seem to capture some of the reality of how marriages are made and broken. Economists can rightfully claim that their models are supported by data on marriage and divorce, and thus help explain a portion of what goes on in the marriage market. But economists’ models are blind to the essential reality of marriage. To use Frank Sheed’s terms, if utility maximization is all we see in marriage, then we are not fully sane and our intellects are not in good health. How do economists miss the essential reality of marriage?
First, economists assume self-interested behavior, even when it appears not to be self-interested. In the economist’s view a man proposes marriage to maximize his welfare. The woman accepts the proposal to maximize her welfare. Enhancing their separate welfare is made possible by the mutually beneficial exchange of services within the marriage. If one party to the marriage has a comparative advantage in earning income and the other in doing housework, they both benefit from the exchange of services. The sum of their individual welfare is greater in marriage than in the single life.
Superficially, economic models catch a little of the truth of marriage in our culture. There is even something noble in economists’ assumption that social life is based on mutually beneficial exchange, rather than on coercion and plunder. But this is not nearly so noble and beautiful as what philosophy, theology, literature, and married men and women throughout history can tell us about the real substance of marriage. This substance is love, which is willing the good of another as other. Love in marriage is willing the good of your spouse, full stop. It is not willing the good of your spouse so that your spouse will return the favor.
Love is not an exchange. It is more correctly seen as a transformation. Love transforms the lover into the one who is loved. When we love our spouse, we become one with our spouse. Thus a model of self-interested exchange between two autonomous individuals cannot capture the heart of marriage.
Second, economists view social relations as based on contract. This follows directly from the assumption of voluntary exchange. The marriage bond is seen as a contract of indefinite duration. But if marriage is viewed as a contract, it should be viewed as a contract qualitatively different from commercial contracts. For in marriage a man and a woman, in their natural complementarity, are joined together as one—bodily, emotionally, and spiritually.
Third, economists assume that in all endeavors there is a fixed resource constraint such that every gain has an accompanying cost. Benefit is received when the gain from an action exceeds the cost. All gains and costs resolve to pleasure—“utility.” There is no notion of any happiness of a higher order than pleasure. Pleasure is pleasure, whether its source is a movie, a meal, or the birth of one’s child.
But pleasure does not make a marriage. Self-giving love makes a marriage. It is love and not pleasure that leads to true happiness. For true happiness is found in living a virtuous life. Pursuit of pleasure leads to unhappiness. Moreover, the resource constraint of economics does not apply to love, for love begets love. The supply of love is limited only by our unwillingness to love.
We can put this into the jargon of economics by suggesting that substituting utilitarian pleasure in place of virtuous happiness in marriage leads to satisficing rather than maximizing behavior. Pursuit of wealth and pleasure is not efficient because it stops short of the maximum potential value in marriage and family. When we follow the secular culture, and economists’ models, in matters of marriage and family life, we “leave change on the table.”
The positivist turn in the understanding of reality and the related claim that empirical science is the only source of knowledge have created a faith that economics, or psychology, or neurology, or evolutionary history can potentially explain all that can be known of human behavior. Modern scholars, economists included, are trapped in a ditch that was first dug four centuries ago with the dawning of the “Enlightenment.” The ditch is now so deep that they cannot see over the top. As Pope Benedict pointed out in his address to the science faculties of the University of Regensburg, if all knowledge is based on science and science is restricted to empirically falsifiable statements, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced. Economists have made a significant contribution to the reduction of marriage and family to the merely mundane.
J. Daniel Hammond is Hultquist Family Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University.