Posted: May 20, 2002
he central fact of the human condition, argues Jennifer Roback Morse, is that we are all born helpless babies. Her maternal reflections on this fact lead the formerly staunch libertarian to question the adequacy of libertarian doctrine for understanding social or political life. Supplementing her training in free-market economics with her experience as a mother, Morse discovers the libertarians' missing ingredient: Love.
As any mother can tell you, infants, though savages, are hardly noble. They are, in Morse's words "totally self-centered, impulsive and demanding." Naturally — they are incapable of supplying even the most basic of their own needs. Newborns, of course, cannot even manage to hold up their own heads for several weeks. So what is it that compels adults to attend to the needs of these helpless tyrants? Why do we take on the great burdens and costs of child rearing? Morse argues that strict libertarianism, with its emphasis on cost-benefit analysis, is powerless to answer these questions. Further, by answering these questions, we see the impracticality of social policies wholly derived from libertarian thinking.
It is love for our children that compels us to take on the great burden of raising them — love, minimally defined by Morse as "to will the good of another." A professor of mine once told a story of his Jewish grandfather who always said that the purpose of marriage is to raise the children well. We can see the sense in this and glimpse the beginnings of society if we consider the care an infant requires. Clearly, a single mother without the aid of civilization would have had an impossible time of it. She would need help to meet the most basic human needs: Enter the father — and welcome to the family.
But what happens when there are many families? How does one continue to raise one's children well amid so many strangers who harbor no special feelings toward these children? Political societies form for the protection of the family. According to Morse, it is not enough to say that the ends of politics are the protection of life and property. This is insufficient because it ignores the higher ends for the sake of which the family and political society come into being — the good of our children and the love that serves that good.
If our families and our political society exist because of the love we have for our children, clearly we are doing much today that needs fixing. Morse, however, draws a careful distinction between the policies and practices she thinks are merely inconsistent with this love and therefore wrong and those that are both wrong and should be considered unlawful.
As a libertarian economist Morse says, "I do not set up as an ideal a world in which the government has unlimited power to create good people out of bad beginnings, or to control the outcomes of personal decisions, or to create a good society." She says, rather, that her aspiration is a world in which objectively moral conduct is acknowledged and supported by the vast majority of society and reinforced by government in the most basic and reasonable ways. As a proponent of this ethic of love, on the other hand, she argues:
[A]dvocates of minimal government need to take the issues surrounding marriage and family seriously. Children who do not receive the necessary adult help in maturing may very well become the types of people who cannot participate in a free and open society. Every society has a number of such people, to be sure. But if we embrace ideas about marriage and family that produce a large enough number of such people, a free society will not be able to absorb them all without damaging its basic institutions of minimally regulated markets and popular political participation.
Concluding her book with a kind of cost-benefit analysis on the decision to love, Morse makes clear her own belief that reinvigorating our understanding of love is the key to alleviating much of the social pathology that has afflicted American family life for the last 30 years or so. She also thinks it is the way to preserve our very nature as a free people. We have to come to see that love is a sentiment in accordance with and not in competition with reason. And this means that we must recover the fullness of reason that is lost in the truncated, calculating, self-interested "reason" of libertarianism.
The merits of Love and Economics certainly outweigh its deficiencies. But Morse's virtues as an author are also vices. The thesis with which she begins the book — on the origins and ends of political life — is so ambitious that the reader is almost sure to be disappointed by what follows. If a hard-core discussion of political philosophy is what you are looking for, you won't find it here. Morse is an economist; had she been anything else the title would have been (and it should have been)Love and Politics.
But what Morse lacks as a student of political philosophy she makes up for with her experience as a mother. The best material in this book is anecdotal, which some may count as a strike against her. But being anecdotal is also what makes it good, original, and thoughtful. Aristotle, Locke, and the rest of the boys taught me a lot about politics, to be sure. But what serious student of politics who also happens to be a mother could honestly say she didn't learn something more from her own children — particularly when the question is about the role of love in politics?