Posts Tagged Jennifer Roback-Morse

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 Read the rest of this entry »

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Beyond the Noble Savage, Beyond Economic Man

Economic ManThe topics of self-interest and sacrifice are commonly discussed on this blog—my own view being that any form of either is bound to lead to selfishness unless both are aligned to God’s will (through good, old-fashioned obedience).

I’m currently reading Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, in which author and economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes a unique approach to the subject, arguing that our views of “rational” man have been severely lacking on both sides (if your ideological buckets are that neat and tidy, that is).

Without incorporating love into our usual assumptions about the self and the other, argues Morse, we will structure a philosophy of life around a fantasy and be doomed to a mechanistic, regressive society.

First, the not unique part—i.e. a summary of the context:

The decentralized market economy is probably the most celebrated self-regulating social institution. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” insight shows that people pursuing their own self-interest can actually end up furthering the public interest through no intention of their own. Since Smith’s time, free market economists have developed the Invisible Hand concept further through a construct called homo economicus, or economic man. Economic man is a rational person who calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness.

The obvious problem is that we are not, and can never be, fully rational, no matter how much Ayn Rand wishes it were so (though we can certainly be more rational than we are).

On the other side is a similar problem, one which, though more obvious, is plagued by increasingly abundant misunderstanding: other people have an even smaller chance of being “fully rational” on our behalves.

The lofty bureaucrat on top of the hill may think he has a better idea than we do about the appropriate price of an orange (or a cup of coffee), but our personal preferences would likely differ if Grocer Bob had the chance to experiment. Of course, the implications lead to deeper struggles than the prices of oranges and coffee, which is why more fundamental, philosophical variations on Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” have long served as platforms upon which many a tyrant has constructed his moralistic authoritarian palaces.

Yet even critiques of centralized approaches to knowledge and decisionmaking—Hayek’s, most notably—seem to only get us back to square one: that individual choice would be better (and it would!).

Yes, our knowledge is limited, and yes, our definitions of the “good” will not naturally conform. These are crucial realities to confront, but do they mean that Read the rest of this entry »

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#ActonU: The Week in Tweets

As already notedActon Institute, Grand Rapids, MI, I spent the bulk of last week attending Acton University, an event I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection of economics and religion. Although I will likely blog at length about some of the sessions I attended (or at least the topics discussed therein), I figured I’d dump my Twitter “notes” on the blog in the meantime. (The event was discussed at #ActonU.)

My apologies in advance for any abbreviations, misspellings, unnecessary exclamation points or other frivolous and/or undesirable elements of the Twitterverse. You can follow the blog on Twitter here or follow my personal Twitter feed here.

Tuesday, June 14

Evening Program: Kick-off — Rev. Robert Sirico

  • Autonomy is important, lest we become the communist man – a mere blur in society. -Sirico
  • Christianity amplifies, clarifies, & outlines the implications of the individual and the other. -Sirico
  • The human person is the most sacred thing that presents itself to our senses other than God himself. -Sirico
  • The believers at Antioch were moved, whether they knew it or not, by their view of human dignity. -Sirico
  • The question of the human person is at the center of economics, culture and family. -Rev. Sirico
  • RT @mikejmill Acton University started tonight. Biggest year ever. 625 participants from 70 countries…plus 40 faculty.

Wednesday, June 15

Christian Anthropology — Samuel Gregg

  • “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts even more.” -Samuel Gregg
  • The Christian view of reason is much “richer” than the secularist’s. -Gregg
  • If reason is merely instrumental, there can be no real basis for freedom or basic rights. -Gregg
  • Our genes and environment may influence our actions, but they do not determine our *choices* -Gregg
  • “Freedom is much more than choosing; it’s choosing to live in the truth.” -Gregg
  • Dominion is not an excuse to be destructive and stewardship is not a call to be passive. -Gregg
  • Reading Marx is like reading an Old Testament prophet who replaces the Messianic message with mere secularist ideology. -Gregg

Frederic Bastiat: Christian and Apostle of the Market — Todd Flanders

  • Bastiat anticipated Catholic Social Teaching on socialism by half a century. -Todd Flanders
  • RT @EricTeetsel The difference between a good economist & a bad one is simple: a good economist sees the present & what must be foreseen …
  • “Destruction is not profitable.” -Bastiat #yathink?
  • Standing armies may be necessary but let’s not pretend they are not an economic advantage. -Bastiat paraphrased by Flanders
  • Destroying value for the sake of creating work is akin to shunning the most basic of divine providence. -Flanders
  • Bastiat at the point of death: “I see, I know, I believe; I am a Christian.”
  • Some guy just compared Charles I’s scaffold speech with Bastiat’s view of the law and voter enfranchisement. Awesome.

Ayn Rand and Christianity — Rev. Robert Sirico

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