Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work

by Jennifer Roback Morse

Spence Publishing Company, 2001

288 pages, $27.95

“Motherhood provoked me into writing this book,” explains Jennifer Roback Morse in the prologue to her insightful exploration of family, economic and political issues — though this is not a book most mothers would have written. After all, most women don't come to motherhood with the perspective of the professional economist. Morse, a Register columnist, taught economics for 15 years at Yale and George Mason University; now she is a research fellow of Stanford University's Hoover Institute and a senior research scholar of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

Neither is this a book most economists would have written. Love and economics are unusual bedfel-lows. Moreover, Morse writes as one of those relatively rare intellectuals who allow their personal lives to act as a reality check on their professional theories.

Reality hit home for Morse in 1991, when she and her husband became the parents of two children — a naturally conceived daughter and an adopted 2-year-old boy from a Romanian orphanage. Up to that time, Morse's captivation with the ideas of free-market economics and libertarian political theory had inclined her toward a laissez-faire approach to family life, in which family members pursue their own self-interest within the framework of agreements with each other. Musing on the radically different developmental paths followed by her two children led her to a different view: The laissez-faire family does not make for either personal happiness or the common good of a free, democratic society.

Economic and political theorists, Morse explains, believe in the importance of rational, autonomous individuals who engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. Without them, limited government and free markets cannot function. Theorists consider such individuals “the social glue for the good society.” But, Morse points out, observations of children who have developed attachment disorders show that, by itself, being rational and autonomous is not social glue but social solvent. Lacking relationships with trustworthy adults, such children risk becoming calculating manipulators who are “unfit for social life” and who are “literally running the cost-benefit analysis on every opportunity for theft, lying, and cheating.”

Actually, Morse argues, theorists implicitly recognize this problem and assume that rational, autonomous individuals will restrain themselves in the interests of society. But the presence of socially responsible individuals in society cannot simply be assumed, Morse insists. “We are born as helpless babies,” she emphasizes. We must learn to be socially responsible.

The place where the social glue is created, Morse argues, is in the family — specifically, in the self-giving, committed love of a father and mother taking personal care of their own children. “The family performs a crucial and irreplaceable social function,” Morse explains. “Inside a family, helpless babies are transformed from self-centered bundles of impulses, desires, and emotions to fully socialized adults. The family teaches trust, cooperation, and self-restraint. The family is uniquely situated to teach these skills because people instill these qualities in their children as a side effect of loving them. Contracts and free political institutions, the foundations of a free society, require these attributes that only families can inculcate. Without loving families, no society can long govern itself.”

Read Love & Economics if you need convincing that there is no substitute for the traditional biological family. (Morse explores the deficiencies of private child-care, government programs and single parenthood.) Read it for big-picture perspective on the value of the countless humble tasks that comprise good parenting. Read it for enlightened recommendations for public policy priorities and for practical help in setting your own priorities for family life.

Finally, read Love & Economics for its thought-provoking discussion of love's workings in the family. Sometimes couched in the language of economics, sometimes in the language of apologetics or even meditation, Morse's reflections will leave you motivated to build a civilization of love, starting with your own home.

Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.