Despite the inevitable flurry of trite sugary clichés and predictable consumerism, Valentine’s Day is as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the nature of human love and consider how we might further it in its truest, purest form across society.
For those of us interested in the study of economics, or, if you prefer, the study of human action, what drives such action—love or otherwise—is the starting point for everything.
For the Christian economist, such questions get a bit more complicated. Although love is clearly at the center, our understanding of human love must be interconnected with and interdependent on the love of God, which persistently yanks our typical economist sensibilities about “prosperity,” “happiness,” and “quality of life,” not to mention our convenient buckets of “self-interest” and “sacrifice,” into transcendent territory.
The marketplace is flooded with worldly spin-offs, as plenty of cockeyed V-Day ditties and run-of-the-mill romantic comedies are quick to demonstrate. At a time when libertine, me-centered approaches appear to be the routine winners in everything from consumerism to self-help to sex, we should be especially careful that our economic thinking doesn’t also get pulled in by the undertow.
In her book Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, Jennifer Roback Morse cautions us against these tendencies and points us in the right direction, challenging us to reconsider our basic view of human needs and potential.
Morse begins with a critique of homo economicus (economic man), a portrait of man as Supreme Calculator, capable of number-crunching his way to happiness and fulfillment on the basis of cut-and-dry cost/benefit analysis. Such a view ignores the social and spiritual side of man while submitting to a cold, limiting, earthbound order. As Rev. Robert Sirico notes in the last chapter of his recent book, “Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization.”
To demonstrate the inadequacy of such a caricature, Morse points us toward human infanthood, that uniquely universal human experience of supreme dependency and irrationality:
We are not born as rational, choosing agents, able to defend ourselves and our property, able to negotiate contracts and exchanges. We are born as dependent babies, utterly incapable of meeting our own needs—or even of knowing what our needs are. As infants, we do not know what is good or safe. We even resist sleep in spite of being so exhausted we cannot hold our heads up. We are completely dependent on others for our very survival.
As Morse goes on to point out, the other side of this dependence, a nurturing family environment, is not an automatic given, and our response (or non-response) proves the economic man hypothesis to be dangerously incomplete, even while countering Rousseau’s view of the “state of nature.”
To prove her case, Morse looks to extreme situations wherein the family has been removed, focusing specifically on child abandonment and the attachment disorder that so often follows:
The classic case of attachment disorder is a child who does not care what anyone thinks of him. The disapproval of others does not deter this child from bad behavior because no other person, even someone who loves him very much, matters to the child. He responds only to physical punishment and to the suspension of privileges. The child does whatever he thinks he can get away with, no matter the cost to others. He does not monitor his own behavior, so authority figures must constantly be wary of him and watch him. He lies if he thinks it is advantageous to life. He steals if he can get away with it. He may go through the motions of offering affection, but people who live with him sense in him a kind of phoniness. He shows no regret at hurting another person, though he may offer perfunctory apologies.
Here we find a peculiar integration of economic man and the noble savage, a child “untouched by corrupting adult influences” who seeks only to meet his own temporal human needs, regardless of the social costs. As Morse summarizes, to avoid a society filled with such disorder, we must ground ourselves in something more than self-centered individualism:
The desperate condition of the abandoned child shows us that we have, all along, been counting on something to hold society together, something more than the mutual interests of autonomous individuals. We have taken that something else for granted, and hence, overlooked it, even though it has been under our noses all along. That missing element is none other than love.
Thus, before we get too deep into all the important Hayekian questions about knowledge and decision-making, proceeding to dichotomize between a centralized government Mother Brain and more rational individuals, we should stop and remember that without love properly defined and vigorously pursued, human holes will remain.
Whatever form of magical super-rationalism we humans might be able to concoct, whether through governments or markets, without love and the corresponding building blocks of family and community, our stomachs will continue to growl and the social stew will continue to stink. Without transcendent obedience and a willingness to sacrifice our own conveniences and our own temporal notions of prosperity, happiness, and fulfillment, society at large will slowly yield to the false caricatures of man that it was shallow enough to believe in the first place.
“Love is from God,” writes St. John, “and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” This is what we should strive for, to be born of God and to know God, from the way we respond to a baby’s first breath to the way we cultivate our families and communities to the way we conduct ourselves in our daily work.
On this Valentine’s Day, let us remember that love is about more than sentimentality and self-gratification. Love is what holds society together, and that means less Alex & Emma and more John 3:16.