I am currently, as I’ve noted before, teaching a course on the family in political thought. This past week, we discussed Tocqueville; after Spring Break, we’ll tackle Hegel, Mill, and that book about marriage whose title I can’t recall. From time to time, I’ll also pass along to the students something currently in the wind. This piece is one example. Today’s essay at the invaluable Public Discourse is another.
This essay on how economists view and study the family does a very good job of highlighting the limits of that approach. Here’s a taste:
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.
As they say, read the whole thing.