From Contract to Cooperation: In Family and in Business

Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse

The subject of contracts is not particularly sexy, which is part of the reason I’d like to talk about contracts—and how we might reach beyond them.

In one sense, we have come to ignore, downplay, or disregard the value of contracts. Across the world, we continuously see grand planners like Jeffrey Sachs trying to impose markets and social stability with the flick of their wands, paying little attention to cultural factors like trust and property rights or the institutions required to make contracts mean something. Similarly, here in America, our government seems increasingly bent on diluting or subverting our most fundamental agreements, whether between husband and wife or Foreclosed Billy and his bank.

Yet in other areas, we are overly contract-minded, particularly when it enables us to slack off or lead predictable, controllable lives. Our default setting as humans is to pursue the minimum amount of work for the maximum reward—to put in our 40 hours, shrug our shoulders, and say, “that’s that.” Take the recent union battles in Wisconsin, where protestors proudly insist that their gripes aren’t about the money, but rather, securing a specialized right to privilege and protection. If such an alarming display of entitlement and self-obsessed insulation-seeking isn’t adequate evidence of our new-found comfort level with legalistic, minimum-effort thinking and living, I don’t know what is.

Contracts certainly play an important role in ordering our affairs—as indicated in my preliminary jab at Mr. Sachs—but we mustn’t forget that they can only take us so far. We may indeed need to establish some minimums in our commitment-making (and enforce them accordingly), but that needn’t mean that the minimum is all we aim to achieve.

This is an issue that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians consistently get tied up with, with our discussions consistently centering on words like “coercion,” “obligation,” “voluntaryism,” and all the rest. Yet in trying to understand the dynamics of these features, we must recognize the limits of such categories, lest our aforementioned human tendencies to carve out rationalistic legalistic frameworks impede or limit our thinking about responsibility and commitment to only involve rationalistic legalistic frameworks.

Here’s where that tricky little thing called “love” comes into play, for it so comprehensively breaks such propensities, and, in doing so, shatters the type of line-item, pseudo-rationalistic entitlement and selfishness that ultimately holds individuals back and consequently drags entire families and societies down into the muck.

If there’s one person who understands this, its economist Jennifer Roback Morse, whose book, Love & Economics, argues that love, particularly as encountered in marriage and parenting, helps to show our convenient political-theory buckets for what they are and teach us crucial lessons about how we are to view people and progress. “Familial relationships are not coercive in the usual sense, nor are they voluntary in the usual sense,” argues Morse.

Marriage may be “contractual” in certain ways, but Morse prefers to see it as a “partnership”—one filled with what she calls “radical uncertainty.” “Will we both remain healthy?” she asks. “Will we both continue to be employed at our current level of income and status? Will our needs change in ways we cannot fully predict?”

As Morse notes, a partnership reaches beyond our preferred and overly nit-picky me-vs.-them comparisons (see also: “love keeps no record of wrongs”), focusing more heavily on the we aspect and thus transforming our efforts to be in service of someone and something higher than ourselves:

Partnerships feature ongoing, joint decision making during the life of the relationship. In purely contractual relationships by contrast, the parties negotiate most, if not all, of the significant decisions prior to entering into the contract. In a partnership, the partners share responsibilities, decision-making, and risks…

 …In a partnership, both partners have enough at stake in the relationship that they have an incentive to do all the unstated but necessary things that can be known on the spot and in the moment. The contract is neither the end of the relationship nor the method for how the parties relate to one another.

Orienting our perspectives around we-centered uncertainty requires us to reject the type of liberal, me-centered individualism and risk-averse insulationism that progressivism seeks as an ideal, while also reaching beyond the vast analyses of “rational self-interest” we conservatives and libertarians have become so crafty in constructing.

Yes, fostering sacrificial relationships may be in our long-term self-interest and may, in the end, yield some kind of holistic “net worth,” but what about when we are living in the heat of it? What about how we engage in our day-to-day decisions and sacrifices? Is love really love if it has to constantly be held up and critiqued against some contrived cost-benefit spreadsheet?

For Morse, the answer is “no,” and marriage, properly understood, helps illustrate this truth:

At the most superficial level, a marriage is the sharing of a household by two adults and usually involves exclusive sexual rights. But at a deeper level marriage involves something much more. A successful marriage requires the complete gift of the self to the other person. It is not reasonable to give of the self at the same level unless there is a complete commitment. These are the elements of marriage: commitment and self-giving to another person. (emphasis added)

Further, and as I’ve already indicated in my initial paragraphs, marriage and family are not the only areas where such an outlook is necessary. As Morse explains, we should be reaching beyond basic agreements in all of our endeavors, including business:

The employer-employee relationship is more productive when people can move beyond a purely contractual arrangement. The combination of collective bargaining, large bureaucratic workplaces, and federal legislation has created the need for ever more detailed job descriptions. These detailed specifications of labor contracts in many cases disrupt the vitality of the workplace. “It is not in my job description” is an excuse to do the minimum necessary. In this context, the attitude engendered by a contractual mentality is one of minimal compliance rather than maximal cooperation. The attempt to specify every detail of a person’s responsibilities destroys the spontaneity and the sense of partnership and teamwork.

In all of our relationships and engagements, then, whether in serving our spouses, children, friends, bosses, employees, customers, church leaders, congregants, etc., we need to stop simply “putting in our 40” and start striving for much more than the minimum.

Reach beyond the contract. Or, as Morse writes, “Live with abandon, not obligation.”

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