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Why a Free Society Needs the Family

Children who spend their formative years deprived of the love and attention of caring families often have grave difficulties forming attachments throughout their lives. Locked away inside themselves, they care nothing about what others think of them—whether love, hate, or indifference. Only fear of physical force or loss of privileges can motivate them to good behavior. Otherwise, these damaged children do what they rationally calculate they can get away with—lying, cheating, stealing, and hurting others without conscience. As adults, they may smile and appear charming and gregarious, but it is an act, as many people who encounter them, sensing phoniness, eventually realize.

An Exact Stand-In for Homo Economicus

By any standard, the so-called attachment-disordered personality is a stunted human being—even a potential sociopath. But as economist Jennifer Roback Morse observes in her fascinating book Love and Economics, he is also an exact stand-in for homo economicus: “rational, calculating economic man, the person who considers only his own good, who is willing to do anything he deems it in his interest to do, who cares for no one.” Love and Economics is an extended exploration of the inadequacy of the model of economic man as a full account of the acting subject in a free society. What is missing from that model, Roback Morse argues, is exactly what the attachment-disordered personality never experienced as an infant: love.

This is more than an academic matter. Over the last several decades in the United States (and in other free societies), Roback Morse points out, the self-interested way of thinking represented by homo economicus has moved beyond the sphere of economics, where it serves as a useful explanatory tool, to become an ethical imperative driving the “lifestyle” choices of individuals. “If it feels good, do it”: Such has been the influential dream of sixties-style liberals and too many libertarians on the right.

Though Roback Morse once was a doctrinaire libertarian who embraced this worldview, her experience of motherhood—she has two children, including an adopted boy suffering from some degree of attachment disorder thanks to an infacy spent in a brutal Romanian orphanage—has led her to modify her thinking. Applied to family life, “laissez-faire” thinking, she came to realize, is a recipe for disaster, as we see in today's high abortion and divorce rates, rampant illegitimacy, and the large number of families who farm out even tiny babies to daycare centers. Though the 2000 census offers some evidence that the decline of the American family may at last be starting to turn around, no one can plausibly deny that it remains in crisis.

The family's weakness is hugely significant politically, observes Roback Morse, for it threatens to undermine the economic and political liberty at the heart of democratic capitalist societies. The free society requires citizens who exhibit a host of virtues—key among them are trust, cooperation, and self-restraint—in order to flourish. Without trust, for example, economic exchanges would be like drug deals between criminal gangs; without self-restraint, democratic citizens would soon become dependent subjects; and a firm whose employees do not cooperate and need everything spelled out in complicated work rules would soon find itself crippled in today's fast-paced global environment. Only the loving, involved family reliably inculcates such social virtues (present only as potentialities at birth), believes Roback Morse. “Without loving families, no society can long govern itself.”

Resisting the “Laissez-Faire Family”

Take daycare: It certainly cannot replace the family. What harried daycare worker, surrounded by needy children, can match the sacrificing love of a parent? Or can have anything close to the tacit knowledge that a loving mother has of her child's unique needs and wants? “Raising children collectively is comparable to centrally planning an economy,” writes Roback Morse in one of her book's most arresting images: Collective “care givers” simply lack the intensity of the love and the know-how to do it right. (A recent governmental study showing that the more time children spend in daycare, the more aggressive they tend to become, only confirms that daycare is a poor substitute for the family.)

The love of a father and mother is also important to rearing children capable of exercising the virtues of free citizens. Divorced parents, she notes, have a harder time getting their kids to be cooperative. And children born out of wedlock, as all but the most obtuse now admit, are far more likely to fail in school, commit suicide, get involved with crime, do drugs, and on and on, across a depressing series of indicators, than children brought up in traditional families.

Yet it is undeniably the case that the logic of homo economicus is hard to square with the commitment to family that leads parents to sacrifice for their children or to get and stay married. How to resist the “laissez-faire family”? For Roback Morse—and here she remains an ardent opponent of big government—the best bet is to pursue cultural, rather than political, change. “Inculcating an ethic of fidelity is one of our most pressing national social priorities,” she stresses. “If we can hold the family together at the individual and personal level, we could have less need for grand schemes to replace the family at a social level.” A powerful agent of transpolitical cultural change (perhaps the most powerful), Roback Morse thinks, is religious faith.

Networks of Love That Vivify the Free Society

Social theorists have often underscored the crucial role of biblical faith in the American experience as a transcendent moral orientation of human freedom—ordering liberty that might otherwise slide into democracy-destroying relativism. Roback Morse shares this view, but what is so striking about her argument is its emphasis on religiously grounded love as a support for the family and, hence, as a support for democratic capitalism. When we are sure we cannot love enough, she explains, “There is one source of love that we can always count on, that is always in infinite supply and readily accessible to us: the love of God.” Drained by others' demands—our helpless and needy children or our perhaps insufficiently attentive husbands and wives—we can “place ourselves in the presence of God and allow ourselves to be filled up with his love.” The result: Life's demands become less pressing because we are less needy ourselves. We become more capable and willing to extend the networks of love that vivify the free society and, indeed, make it possible.

Love and Economics has several weaknesses. It is surprisingly abstract for a book concerned with the concrete. Above all, I wish the author had gone into much greater detail about her own experiences as a mother rather than merely hinting at them. The book suffers from considerable repetition, and yet the central theme too often seems to disappear. But these are minor criticisms. Roback Morse has provided a fascinating exploration of the philosophical anthropology of the free society and, as social thinker Michael Novak has rightly said of her work, she has forever changed the way we must use the term homo economicus.