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A review of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work. By Jennifer Roback Morse.

Nov 11, 2003

Spence Publishing, 2001.

What does the free-market have to do with the family? What does libertarianism have to do with community? What does the minimal state have to do with social order? Indeed, what does love have to do with economics? Good questions indeed.

Those opposed to libertarian principles will of course answer these questions differently from those in favour. But Jennifer Roback Morse offers an interesting third proposal. She notes that attacks on the family have not just come from welfare statism on the left. It has also come from radical individualism on the right. Interestingly, while she is a political and economic libertarian, she is aware of the shortcomings of moral and social libertarianism.

Thus she is far from hostile to libertarianism. She is, in fact, a free-market economist. But she is not blind to the short-comings of laissez-faire social policy. Indeed, she believes it to be unworkable. Says Dr Morse, “We cannot afford to take a completely laissez-faire attitude toward the family and the issues that surround it.”

So how does a libertarian defend marriage and family? Well, that is what this book is all about. She attempts to show that a genuine libertarianism must be one stripped of its “bankrupt materialism” and must be open in fact to the supernatural. That is, a secular, atheistic society does not contain within itself the ability to long sustain a free people. A free society requires three legs to stand on, as Michael Novak long ago pointed out. It needs economic liberty, political liberty, and moral-cultural liberty. The last, which includes the importance of religion, has too often been ignored in this discussion.

A minimalist state is one that depends on a substantial component of its citizenry exercising self-control and self-constraint. People making sacrifices for others, foregoing instant gratification, controlling anti-social desires are what make for a free society. And these kinds of virtues are basically learned and developed in the home, and buttressed by religion.

The internalised ethic of love, self-control and cooperation can nowhere better come into being than in the home, where mothers and fathers model such virtues to their children. The cooperation and restraint needed for a society to last is first and foremost found in the home.

It is in the home that a naturally selfish and me-centered  child learns the rules of social harmony and cooperation. All of these virtues can be subsumed under the word love. And love, as the author reminds us, is not an emotion or a feeling, but is in fact willing the highest good of another. “Love is the force that moderates self-interest and makes it possible for self-interested people to live together without causing each other too much trouble.”

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If it is rare for an economist to talk about love, it is even more rare to hear one talk about God. As a Catholic, she knows that in God we have an infinite supply of love accessible to us. “A society of free people requires more human connections, more generosity, and more love than almost any other kind of society we can imagine. Surely the existence of an inexhaustible supply of love, available to anyone for the asking, is of more than passing importance for a society like ours.”

But I have so far spoken in generalities. Also found in this book are detailed chapters of the importance of marriage, family and the problems of day care, and other related topics, all backed up with thorough documentation. For example, her chapters on the importance of fathers, or the dilemma of daycare, or the shortcomings of cohabitation, offer good assessments of recent research on those questions.

Taken together, here we have major social, economic and philosophical themes addressed with an eye to detail on the public policy connections. And we have a rare blend of a mother’s concern for family coupled with the tough analysis of an economist. The result is an informative and an incisive look at some of the most pressing social issues of the day. A welcome volume for all concerned about families and society.

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2 Responses to A review of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work. By Jennifer Roback Morse.

  • Hi Bill,

    An excellent piece on what seems a fascinating book (the argument is quite good – indeed I think the left and right are to blame for breakdown of society’s once Christian value set). I’ve not read this one yet, but will add it to my ever-expanding reading list!

    I was wondering if you have read any of Gary North’s books re Christian perspectives on economics? I’ve not yet but was considering reading them, because I’ve heard good reports of them.

    Regards
    Andrew
    Hope Valley, SA

  • Thanks Andrew

    Yes I have read some of his economic volumes. In many ways they are quite helpful indeed. He of course has been part of the Christian Reconstructionist, or theonomy, camp.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

    (BTW, sorry for a very late reply!!)

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