The “market for love” is a bad metaphor

Feb 14 JDN 2458529

Valentine’s Day was this past week, so let’s talk a bit about love.

Economists would never be accused of being excessively romantic. To most neoclassical economists, just about everything is a market transaction. Love is no exception.

There are all sorts of articles and books and an even larger number of research papers going back multiple decades and continuing all the way through until today using the metaphor of the “marriage market”.

In a few places, marriage does actually function something like a market: In China, there are places where your parents will hire brokers and matchmakers to select a spouse for you. But even this isn’t really a market for love or marriage. It’s a market for matchmaking services. The high-tech version of this is dating sites like OkCupid.
And of course sex work actually occurs on markets; there is buying and selling of services at monetary prices. There is of course a great deal worth saying on that subject, but it’s not my topic for today.

But in general, love is really nothing like a market. First of all, there is no price. This alone should be sufficient reason to say that we’re not actually dealing with a market. The whole mechanism that makes a market a market is the use of prices to achieve equilibrium between supply and demand.

A price doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary; you can barter apples for bananas, or trade in one used video game for another, and we can still legitimately call that a market transaction with a price.

But love isn’t like that either. If your relationship with someone is so transactional that you’re actually keeping a ledger of each thing they do for you and each thing you do for them so that you could compute a price for services, that isn’t love. It’s not even friendship. If you really care about someone, you set such calculations aside. You view their interests and yours as in some sense shared, aligned toward common goals. You stop thinking in terms of “me” and “you” and start thinking in terms of “us”. You don’t think “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” You think “We’re scratching each other’s backs today.”

This is of course not to say that love never involves conflict. On the contrary, love always involves conflict. Successful relationships aren’t those where conflict never happens, they are those where conflict is effectively and responsibly resolved. Your interests and your loved ones’ are never completely aligned; there will always be some residual disagreement. But the key is to realize that your interests are still mostly aligned; those small vectors of disagreement should be outweighed by the much larger vector of your relationship.

And of course, there can come a time when that is no longer the case. Obviously, there is domestic abuse, which should absolutely be a deal-breaker for anyone. But there are other reasons why you may find that a relationship ultimately isn’t working, that your interests just aren’t as aligned as you thought they were. Eventually those disagreement vectors just get too large to cancel out. This is painful, but unavoidable. But if you reach the point where you are keeping track of actions on a ledger, that relationship is already dead. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to pull the plug.

Very little of what I’ve said in the preceding paragraphs is likely to be controversial. Why, then, would economists think that it makes sense to treat love as a market?

I think this comes down to a motte and bailey doctrine. A more detailed explanation can be found at that link, but the basic idea of a motte and bailey is this: You have a core set of propositions that is highly defensible but not that interesting (the “motte”), and a broader set of propositions that are very interesting, but not as defensible (the “bailey”). The terms are related to a medieval defensive strategy, in which there was a small, heavily fortified tower called a motte, surrounded by fertile, useful land, the bailey. The bailey is where you actually want to live, but it’s hard to defend; so if the need arises, you can pull everyone back into the motte to fight off attacks. But nobody wants to live in the motte; it’s just a cramped stone tower. There’s nothing to eat or enjoy there.

The motte comprised of ideas that almost everyone agrees with. The bailey is the real point of contention, the thing you are trying to argue for—which, by construction, other people must not already agree with.

Here are some examples, which I have intentionally chosen from groups I agree with:

Feminism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “women are people”; the bailey is abortion rights, affirmative consent and equal pay legislation.

Rationalism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “rationality is good”; the bailey is atheism, transhumanism, and Bayesian statistics.

Anti-fascism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “fascists are bad”; the bailey is black bloc Antifa and punching Nazis.

Even democracy can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “people should vote for their leaders”; my personal bailey is abolition of the Electoral College, a younger voting age, and range voting.

Using a motte and bailey doctrine does not necessarily make you wrong. But it’s something to be careful about, because as a strategy it can be disingenuous. Even if you think that the propositions in the bailey all follow logically from the propositions in the motte, the people you’re talking to may not think so, and in fact you could simply be wrong. At the very least, you should be taking the time to explain how one follows from the other; and really, you should consider whether the connection is actually as tight as you thought, or if perhaps one can believe that rationality is good without being Bayesian or believe that women are people without supporting abortion rights.

I think when economists describe love or marriage as a “market”, they are applying a motte and bailey doctrine. They may actually be doing something even worse than that, by equivocating on the meaning of “market”. But even if any given economist uses the word “market” totally consistently, the fact that different economists of the same broad political alignment use the word differently adds up to a motte and bailey doctrine.

The doctrine is this: “There have always been markets.”

The motte is something like this: “Humans have always engaged in interaction for mutual benefit.”

This is undeniably true. In fact, it’s not even uninteresting. As mottes go, it’s a pretty nice one; it’s worth spending some time there. In the endless quest for an elusive “human nature”, I think you could do worse than to focus on our universal tendency to engage in interaction for mutual benefit. (Don’t other species do it too? Yes, but that’s just it—they are precisely the ones that seem most human.)

And if you want to define any mutually-beneficial interaction as a “market trade”, I guess it’s your right to do that. I think this is foolish and confusing, but legislating language has always been a fool’s errand.

But of course the more standard meaning of the word “market” implies buyers and sellers exchanging goods and services for monetary prices. You can extend it a little to include bartering, various forms of financial intermediation, and the like; but basically you’re still buying and selling.

That makes this the bailey: “Humans have always engaged in buying and selling of goods and services at prices.”

And that, dear readers, is ahistorical nonsense. We’ve only been using money for a few thousand years, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we actually started getting the majority of our goods and services via market trades. Economists like to tell a story where bartering preceded the invention of money, but there’s basically no evidence of that. Bartering seems to be what people do when they know how money works but don’t have any money to work with.

Before there was money, there were fundamentally different modes of interaction: Sharing, ritual, debts of honor, common property, and, yes, love.

These were not markets. They perhaps shared some very broad features of markets—such as the interaction for mutual benefit—but they lacked the defining attributes that make a market a market.

Why is this important? Because this doctrine is used to transform more and more of our lives into actual markets, on the grounds that they were already “markets”, and we’re just using “more efficient” kinds of markets. But in fact what’s happening is we are trading one fundamental mode of human interaction for another: Where we used to rely upon norms or trust or mutual affection, we instead rely upon buying and selling at prices.

In some cases, this actually is a good thing: Markets can be very powerful, and are often our best tool when we really need something done. In particular, it’s clear at this point that norms and trust are not sufficient to protect us against climate change. All the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” PSAs in the world won’t do as much as a carbon tax. When millions of lives are at stake, we can’t trust people to do the right thing; we need to twist their arms however we can.

But markets are in some sense a brute-force last-resort solution; they commodify and alienate (Marx wasn’t wrong about that), and despite our greatly elevated standard of living, the alienation and competitive pressure of markets seem to be keeping most of us from really achieving happiness.

This is why it’s extremely dangerous to talk about a “market for love”. Love is perhaps the last bastion of our lives that has not been commodified into a true market, and if it goes, we’ll have nothing left. If sexual relationships built on mutual affection were to disappear in favor of apps that will summon a prostitute or a sex robot at the push of a button, I would count that as a great loss for human civilization. (How we should regulate prostitution or sex robots are a different question, which I said I’d leave aside for this post.) A “market for love” is in fact a world with no love at all.

Why we give gifts

JDN 2457020 EST 18:28.

You’ll notice it’s Sunday, not Saturday; I apologize for not actually posting on time this week. Due to the holiday season I was whisked away to family activities in Cleveland, and could not find wifi that was both free and reliable.

But since it is the Christmas season—Christmas Day was last Thursday—the time during which most Americans spend more than we can probably afford buying gifts (the highest rate of consumer spending all year long, much of it on credit cards, a significant boost for the economy in these times of depression), I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about why gifts are so important to us.

As I’ve already mentioned a few posts ago, neoclassical economists are typically baffled by gift-giving, and several have written research papers and books about why Christmas gifts are economically inefficient and should be stopped. Oddly it never seems to occur to them that if this is true, then there is widespread irrational consumer behavior that has nothing to do with government intervention or perverse incentives—which already means neoclassical economic theory is in serious trouble. Nobody forces you to buy gifts, so if it’s such a bad idea but we do it anyway, we must not be rational agents.

But in fact it’s not such a bad idea, and it’s “inefficient” only in a very narrow-minded sense that takes no account of relationships or human emotions. Gifts only make us not “rational agents” in that we are not infinite identical psychopaths. There is in fact nothing irrational about gifts.

Gift-giving is a human universal; it has been with us far longer than money or markets or indeed civilization itself. Everyone from tribal hunter-gatherers to neoclassical economists gives gifts, and in fact most people who descend from populations that lived in higher latitudes (that is, “White people”, though perhaps in a later post I’ll explain why our “race” categories are genetically absurd) actually celebrate some sort of gift-giving ceremony around the time of the Winter Solstice. Many of our Christmas traditions actually come from the Germanic holiday Yule, which is why we say things like “Yuletide greetings” even though that has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. We celebrate around the Solstice because it was such a momentous season for us, the darkest night of the year; as if the darkness and cold weren’t bad enough by themselves they are the harbinger of the dreaded winter that prevents our crops from growing and may not allow us all to survive. We reaffirm our family ties and promise to help each other through this dangerous time. Music, gifts, and feasting are simply the way that humans organize our celebrations—again this is universal.

What do gifts accomplish that a simple transfer of cash would not? I can think of three things:

      1. Convey closeness: First of all there is of course the fact that by buying someone a gift at all, you are expressing the fact that you care about them and want to be close to them. But the choice of the gift also matters. Your closest friends always buy you the best gifts, because they know you the best. Thus the sort of gift you receive from someone is a measure of how well they know you. Many of us give each other lists of ideas to buy, but I always include more on the list than I expect to receive and encourage people to buy things that are not on the list that they think I might enjoy. A computer program can buy things off a list; the point is that we express our relationships by choosing things we know people want without them having to ask. We trust people to know us well enough to get it right most of the time; they’ll probably make mistakes (most people think they know others better than they actually do), but the mistakes are made up for by the successes. The disappointment in getting something you didn’t want isn’t even so much in the thing as it is in the fear that your loved ones don’t know you as well as you thought they did; this is why I consider it important to express—gently and tactfully of course—when you really don’t like a gift you received; you want them to know you better and do better next time, not keep giving you things you hate while you brood behind fake smiles. What you choose to buy conveys what you know and how you feel; this is why the best gift is one you love to have but didn’t ask for. That’s why I’m honestly more excited about my new travel pillow and copy of Randall Monroe’s What If? than I am about my new Bluetooth headset; of course the headset is more expensive and more useful, but I specifically asked for it. My sister and my mother knew me well enough that the book and the travel pillow I didn’t have to ask for.
      2. Grant permission to indulge: This is particularly important in the United States, because our society has Puritanical roots that make us suspicious of any activity that isn’t directly linked to productive efficiency. Honestly when those economists criticize Christmas as “inefficient” they are not so much making a serious economic argument as they are expressing in terms familiar to them the centuries-old Puritanical norm. It is considered unseemly to buy things for yourself that are purely for fun, particularly if they are expensive. You are expected to buy only the minimum you need, because any more is greedy; the notion seems to be that there is only so much stuff to go around, and if you take more others will have less. (This could scarcely be further from the truth; your frivolous consumer purchases can save children from starvation by giving their parents jobs in factories.) Neoclassical economists often think they are immune to this sort of norm, but aside from their discomfort with Christmas, the sense of righteousness they often have around “raising the savings rate” says otherwise. The link from savings to investment is tenuous at best, but one thing saving definitely does do is prevent you from spending indulgently. But since buying things that make us happy is actually kind of the entire point of having an economy in the first place, it is necessary to find workarounds for this oppressive ethic. One solution is gifts; to give someone else an indulgent gift allows them to engage in indulgent activities, while preserving their own status as someone who wouldn’t normally waste money in that way, and since you are not the one indulging you can hardly be accused of frivolity either. This is also what gift cards accomplish; in economic terms gift cards seem weird, because they are at best as good as cash, and often far worse. But gift cards are typically for retail stores where it is hard to buy something that’s not indulgent, thus offering permission to indulge. This is why a gift card for GameStop or Dick’s Sporting Goods makes sense, but a gift card to Walmart or Kroger seems odd. This is also why receiving cash or an Amazon gift card doesn’t feel as good; since you can buy just about anything, the social norm toward spending responsibly returns. (Never buy anyone a VISA gift card; it’s basically the same as cash except you’re giving some of the money to VISA.)
      3. Conveys your own status: By buying expensive things for other people, you raise your own reputation as an individual. This one is easy to become cynical about, so it’s important to be clear what it actually means. Conveying your own status doesn’t necessarily mean arrogantly domineering over other people. It certainly can mean that, which is why if your cousin has $20 million and buys everyone in the family a new car every year, you’d honestly not be that thrilled about it; yeah, it’s nice getting a new car, but your cousin is clearly showboating his superior wealth and trying to make everyone else look cheap and/or poor. But there is a way to elevate your own status without downgrading everyone else’s, and truly generous gifts are a way of doing that. If the things you buy are really things your loved ones truly need, then you express your generosity and love for them by buying more than you can easily afford. Philanthropy is also a means of conveying status, and again comes in both forms. When Carnegie built buildings and named them after himself, he was being arrogant and domineering. When Bill Gates established a foundation to combat malaria and poverty in Africa, he was being genuinely generous. This kind of status is always a bit paradoxical: The best way to earn a reputation as a good person is to honestly try to help people and have little concern for your own reputation; people who try too hard to improve their own reputations just end up seeming arrogant and narcissistic. In order to deserve status, it is necessary not to directly seek it. The clearest example here is Jonas Salk: He invented a vaccine that saved the lives of thousands of children, making him more deserving of a billion dollars than anyone else I can think of. And he had a chance at a billion dollars, but he specifically gave it up, because in order to get it he would have had to enforce a patent that would raise the price of the vaccine and allow children to needlessly suffer and die. It was the very character that made him deserve the wealth that caused him to refuse it. The only way to hit the target is to aim much higher.

If you really want to insist, yes, there’s also some sort of net transfer of wealth involved in gift-giving, because it is expected that the richer you are the more you’ll spend on gifts. But that’s a very small part; even in hunter-gather societies that have negligible levels of inequality human beings still give each other gifts. Gifts are a part of us; they are written in the language of life itself upon the ancient thread that binds us to our ancestors and makes us who we are—by which I mean, of course, DNA. We could probably no more stop giving gifts than we could stop feeling love.