IN our conscious life ideas of self-interest are usually more sharply defined than ideas of convention and authority. People meditate upon their interests, but as to the social atmosphere in which they find themselves, or the political authority under which they live, these they accept without intensive application of thought. This conscious preoccupation with interests is perhaps a peculiarity of the Western mind; there is evidence that some peoples are less disposed to do their thinking from the standpoint of personal advantage. Even in Occidental civilization there is never such absolute concentration of attention upon self-interest as was attributed by nineteenth century economists to humanity in general. The fact remains, however, that the point of view of self-interest is an important one, and that it is raised in domestic life every time there arises in the mind the thought of “What do I get out of it?” or “What is there in it for *me?“*

What is there in marriage for any one? To answer that question completely, taking account of all its implications, requires nothing less than a complete doctrine of family life. Every thesis and postulate of domestic theory as herein developed must be brought to bear, more or less directly, upon the advantage to self of entering upon marriage and family responsibilities. There is moreover [p.90] a more restricted purpose which can be followed out within the confines of a single chapter: just as the doctrines of sociology and political theory were laid under contribution to supply information as to the nature of the family, so also the doctrines of classical economics can be drawn upon to serve the same end.

The principles and method of economics can be brought to bear upon the problem of self-interest in the family only on condition that these principles are understood in their broadest possible sense. It is not economics as a science of the appropriation of material things, nor the new, nonpsychological, statistical economics, but economics as a way of stating psychologically the problem of conflict of interest that will he useful in the analysis of the domestic situation.

The familiar dictum that “economics has to do with making a living” is after all an inadequate statement of the scope and application of classical economic theory. The greater part of its content does not relate to the primitive processes which are actually necessary to the maintenance of human life, but to the operation of a certain intricate system which correlates innumerable activities of civilized man. Most of these activities relate only indirectly to alimentation and warmth – the brute facts of getting a living. The facts which economics sets before us have a maximum of meaning in the business of the stockbroker. The “natural economy” of primitive peoples hardly constitutes a subject matter for economic theory of any kind, and is usually relegated to the attention of anthropologists.

The brute physical fact that men require food and warmth in order to live is so pervasive that no social [p.91] study ignores it. Economic theory is not alone in giving attention to this fact; sociology and political theory must also take it into account. None of these studies, however, can give exclusive attention to these physiological necessities of life. Such facts as postage stamp collecting, musical entertainment, travel for culture, or rivalry in fashionable dress are related to “getting a living” by only the most tenuous connection. These are matters which in themselves are far more fruitfully studied by the method of sociology than by the method of economics. Nevertheless, economics finds a place for them, just as sociology finds a place for the fact that man must get a living. Economics is distinguished from the other social studies not so much by any special preoccupation with getting a living as by certain theoretical postulates which it takes for granted in the study of human conduct. These presuppositions, which distinguish economic theory from other theories, are the following:

  1. That there are individuals having desires
  2. That these ends or desires are at present competitive (i.e., that they have magnitude on a scale common to a number of individuals).
  3. That the interaction between the individuals with respect to these desires produces a common resultant, which follows automatically from the competition of the individuals, and can be stated relationally.

The first presupposition is the economic man; the second is the economic good; the third is the market or economic system.

It matters not who is conceived as the “individual” so long as he seeks his own end. Classical economics takes [p.92] the natural man as the individual, but other economic theories speak of classes, nations, communities, or corporations as the true individuals of economics. Anomalies sometimes result when different conceptions of the “individual” are confused in the same argument (as when one infers that whatever benefits England must benefit all Englishmen), but any conception of the individual is valid in deducing: an economic theory. Even the family can be regarded as an individual in such a deduction.

Moreover, it makes no difference what it may be that the individuals seek as their aim, so long as it is competitive. They may seek for glory or Japanese prints or potatoes. The Tlingit and Haida Indians of the Northwest American coast strive to excel each other in giving away their property so as to keep each other under a maximum social obligation. This is the potlach institution, fundamentally economic. In modern capitalist society the individuals usually strive to acquire as much money or property as possible, and therefore the greater part of our modern economic theory corresponds to what Aristotle would have called chrematistics, the art of money-making. There is no ethical limitation as to the nature of an economic desire. Mere thermo-dynamic “efficiency” is the only intrinsic ethic of an economic system; aside from this, economics is ethically blind. And if there are associated with domestic life any pleasures or satisfactions which can be measured on a common scale, those can stand as the goods of an economic theory.

Moreover, the economic individual must not only have an appropriate desire, but must also be aware of the magnitude of his desire. He must not only want some[p.93]thing for which he must compete, but he must know how much he wants it. Knowing this, he places himself in the market, along with other men who are equally familiar with the magnitude of their desires. And then, however the rules of the market or economic system may be drawn up, an operation of selection and substitution takes place by which the desires of individuals are satisfied in varying degrees. This is a highly generalized statement of classical economic theory. If the desire is for money, and the rules of the market are those which prevail in a capitalistic world, then our familiar textbook type of economic theory can be deduced from these postulates.

Granting these three assumptions, any number of economic theories can be deduced from them. Buyer can always meet seller in a market, supply and demand can match each other, consumer and producer have their interests adjusted, and all the complex calculus of marginism will be manifested. We can draw upon our imaginations for a great variety of economic system$, each explained by its own theory, just as it is possible to imagine a variety of geometries. Capitalist economics and Euclidean geometry happen to be the most familiar and the most useful to us, but other theories of economics and other geometries are worthy of study. The economics of postage stamp collecting is probably distinct from capitalist economics generally, because the usual economic rule that the latest increment of goods is less valued than earlier increments is reversed in the collecting of stamps; additional postage stamps have constantly increasing value to the owner as his collection nears completeness – which it never attains. Thorstein Veblen has given us an [p.94] amusing new economic doctrine in his theory of the leisure class. We might draw up an economic theory for hermits and saints in which there would be competition for poverty rather than for wealth, and whereby we would discover a marginal saint whose austerities were just sufficient to bring him recognition.

There are three ways in which the concepts of economics can be applied to the study of the family. First, we can regard the family as an economic individual; or we can treat the separate family members as economic individuals and think of them as seeking some “good” which inheres in family life; or, third, we can regard the family as an economic system in itself.

The hypothesis that the family is an economic individual is familiar to us through the writers who discuss the so-called “economic functions” of the family. When the housewife spins and weaves and the children work on the farm, the family is a productive unit. When the wife and children do nothing at all but spend father’s money, the family is still a consuming unit. In both cases it can be regarded as an economic individual, which is rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, compared with other families in the economic system.

We can learn very little about the nature of the family from this hypothesis. It may or may not be true that a family which has some clear-cut position as a unit in the economic system displays a more satisfactory family life on that account. The husband and wife who share the work of a farm may or may not enjoy a better domestic existence than the city-dwelling couple who work in different offices and take their meals out. There is not any proof that the decay of household industries which fol[p.95]lowed the industrial revolution sapped the foundations of family life. There is no evidence that a home is a better home if it is also a little factory and a little restaurant.

Moreover, the wealth or poverty of one family as compared with another is not an index of its domestic excellence. It is notorious that a wealthy family is not necessarily a good family, and that poverty may increase family solidarity. Dr. Hamilton in his research found no correlation between wealth and marital satisfaction. A family can pass from wealth to poverty or from poverty to wealth without impairing or improving the quality of its domestic life. Here we can see that poverty is a cause of failure, there we can see it as a cause of success. The fortune of the family as a unit in the economic system is an element of the external environment only, and not of the inner nature, of the family. This is the fact which we feel in the words of the marriage service and which gives the phrase, “for richer, for poorer” its significance.

If we regard the family members as the “economic individuals” and think of them as seeking, each for himself, and in competition with others, some kind of a good which marriage provides, we have the elements of a sound theory of courtship and divorce – the origin and dissolution of families – but not yet the elements of a theory of normal family life.

Let us imagine that the delights or benefits of family life are apprehended by individuals on a quantitative scale, so that marriage will seem to be worth exactly so much but no more, and a prospective bride or groom will be valued at just so much sacrifice but no more. Two clearly economic questions will then formulate themselves: whether to marry, and whom to marry. Does the [p.96] advantage of the married state exceed that of the unmarried state? If so, marry. Marriage competes as an occupation with other occupations. The woman of the Middle Ages chose between home and convent; the woman of today may make the choice between family and career. Pantagruel debated painfully whether it was worth while to marry at all.

This question whether to marry is usually associated definitely with the question of whom to marry. Each marriageable individual competes with every other for a mate. Each seeks to secure for himself the most advantageous alliance that is possible. Where marriage is by purchase this competition is on a monetary basis; elsewhere the elusive imponderabilia of courtship are thrown into the scale. But always the situation is one of economics: there is competition in a market, and the possibility of substitution. The thought is always present that if the other man is better than this one, he would be taken and this one given up; if the career is more advantageous, it must be preferred to marriage. Then if the moment arrives when two people cease to weigh and balance the possibility of renouncing each other or their marriage, they are withdrawn from competition, from the market, from the possibility of substitution. Their situation is no longer economic, and economic theory no longer explains it. Their relationship becomes a personal one, which falls outside the scope of economics because in personal relationships there can be no transferring or substitution.

According to the genial theory of marriage which we have called the tomcat theory, this moment never comes. Even after marriage, the competitive situation of courtship continues. The wife competes continuously with all [p.97] other women for her husband’s love, and the husband with all other men for his wife’s loyalty. This competition, if it exists, is the fundamental economic tension of marriage

So long as this economic tension continues in marriage, divorce is always envisaged as the ultimate limit of competition. If the married state comes to seem sufficiently burdensome or unattractive, or if another person comes to be regarded as sufficiently more appealing than one’s mate, divorce has the character of a simple economic act, and is equivalent to a sale in monetary economics. Divorce is the consummitory economic act which bears witness to the persistence of a market situation in marriage.

So long as a family exists, the market situation is hostile to its well-being. A wife or husband can separate from his family just as an employee can leave the firm which employs him, and for reasons which are fundamentally the same: that he is offered better employment elsewhere. But the consequences of these acts are very different, for if the employee quits his job, the factory simply hires another man, while if the husband gets a divorce, the family is extinguished. This is, of course, a result of the fact that family relationships are personal and hence nontransferable.

Finally we can regard the family as an economic system in itself, existing in isolation from all other economic systems. Within this system the members are the economic individuals, and certain distinctive domestic services constitute the economic goods. These services have no proper currency beyond the limits of the family itself. It is a dangerous and disruptive procedure to attempt to [p.98] commute them for the values of the outside world. The anomalous nature of such an attempt is evident when a wife sues for alienation of her husband’s affections, or when a law is proposed requiring that the husband pay wages to the wife for her housekeeping.

What are these intimate domestic services which have no currency outside the isolated domestic system, and which are not to be commuted into the goods of another economic world? Here economic theory is indifferent, but sociology has an answer prepared. These services are defined in each society by its domestic institutions. They are implied in the socially established meanings of family membership. They are a part of the language of domestic life, which each civilization formulates for itself. In Occidental society, coitus is such a service; among the veiled Turkish women personal beauty was a service confined to one’s own home. A debate is now in progress in the Western world as to whether housekeeping is properly an intimate domestic service, or whether it is rather to be regarded as an article of commerce. If it is regarded as an intimate service, then any scheme by which a husband pays a wife for her housekeeping is merely a convenient device for budgeting time or money, for keeping accounts or fixing responsibility within the household organization, and does not make of the wife’s duties an article of commerce in the outside market. But if housekeeping is not regarded as an intimate domestic service, then a wife who finds that she can make more money as a sales manager than it would cost to hire her housework done may seek outside employment as freely as she might look for a better apartment or change her milkman. [p.99] The method of economics has taught us something of the external environment of a family, and something of the way in which families come into existence or pass away. Here it conforms to that which sociological doctrine has already revealed, that the family is an isolated thing; it withdraws itself from the rest of the world; it has its history and its values which it cannot safely share outside its close-drawn limits. The primitive urge which drives two lovers to forsake companions and sit silently together forecasts the creation of something in which they alone can share and in which no outsider can participate. In most marriage ceremonies there comes the symbolic moment when the married pair flees, or the guests withdraw and leave them to themselves. In most civilizations it is recognized that this isolation is worthy of protection – hence the mother-in-law joke. Hence also the familiar tragedy of conflicting loyalties to the mate on the one hand and the parents on the other. For an attempt to render the distinctive domestic services outside of the limits of the family, even if it does not result in disaster, is certain to result in confusion. Our society (unlike a patriarchal society) has so defined the intimate services of domestic life that any newly married pair attempting to live in the household of a parent is courting domestic disaster.

If the family is thus isolated and autonomous, with its own set of values, one cannot intelligently measure his own interest and advantage in family life without understanding these values.

At the end of this labyrinth of thought, we come upon a conception of the family which is satisfying to the mind [p.100] as well as to the heart. The two who have been planning their future together agree that the family is for them not an institution given them by society but a situation given them by nature. It consists of a man and a woman together, and possibly a child. They have inspected this conception from different points of view, and each inspection has revealed to them a sound reason for believing certain things which they have wished to believe but which previously they had been unable to prove. Political theory taught them that the merging of their personalities is not properly an object of their domestic life; sociology verified their suspicion that real excellence in family life lies beyond social control, and requires more than mere conformity; economics confirmed their feeling that in setting up their family they are in a very real way cutting themselves off from competition with the rest of the world and creating a system of values for themselves alone. The family which they are to establish is too personal to be merely a political unit, too spontaneous to be merely a social institution, too isolated to be a mere organ of the economic system; it is something independently rooted in nature itself. Thus they have drawn up their definition of the family.