Love and Economy. The Business of Marriage
December 8, 2021 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Linda Besner Takes a Look at the Marriages of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Romance is famously a form of lunacy, irrational to the core. But historically, marriage is a business deal. Building a shared life seems to demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping, in which a column counting cash and a column counting feelings are somehow reconciled.

Adam Smith was born at the tail end of the last outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe; between 1720 and 1723, half the population of Marseilles died. In Smith’s lifetime, smallpox also devastated the Indigenous populations of the Americas, in part due to its deliberate use as a biological weapon. While Karl Marx was living in Soho, the neighbourhood was the locus of an eruption of cholera; 23,000 died of the disease in England that year. John Maynard Keynes lived through the Spanish flu.
posted by 15L06 (19 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting article - thanks!
U_i = U_i (love_ij, love_ji, selfrespect_i)
In case anyone else is curious, it looks like this is from Women’s neoclassical models of marriage, 1972-2015. (Probably paywalled; there's no obvious other source.) Having briefly read the paper, I don't understand why writing this equation down is useful. But, it's way outside of anything I actually know about, so I'm probably missing something.
posted by eotvos at 1:20 PM on December 8, 2021

"Building a shared life seems to demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping"

Oh, my little accountant heart! I always said the principle of going concern was important too, in that, you have to assume the relationship will carry in perpetuity. If you act like it has an expiration date... whew boy.
posted by CPAGirl at 1:30 PM on December 8, 2021 [14 favorites]

CPAGirl: "demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping"

posted by chavenet at 2:56 PM on December 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is a really tender article, good find and good post.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:47 PM on December 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed reading this.
posted by extramundane at 4:26 PM on December 8, 2021

Kind of reminds me of the economist's version of Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2021

(Probably paywalled; there's no obvious other source.

Was not paywalled for me.

I sense the concept of "double entry accounting" as "zero sum universe" or some thermodynamics-like law of for something to become clean, something else must get dirty.

It doesn't seem correct but I guess that's why they call them feelings.
posted by lon_star at 6:56 PM on December 8, 2021

According to JK Galbraith there was a popular bit of doggerel circulating about Keynes and Lopokova around the time of their wedding: 'was ever such a marriage of beauty and brains, as Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes?' (No doubt I have that a bit wrong, but I couldn’t google up so much as a trace of it.)
posted by jamjam at 7:47 PM on December 8, 2021

Substitute Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, perhaps?
posted by cenoxo at 8:21 PM on December 8, 2021

Love is a system of exchange, and cohabitation and marriage seemed to literalize its terms

My admittedly limited experience as a married person contrasts rather starkly with my view of exchange systems and the idea of 'clean double entry books'.

If there's overlap in the ven diagram then it seems to me it would be in a Graeberian sense where you're long term lenders to each other. A sort of communist of the rich for a market of two. Or like Gilbert says, "If you're married to the guy who picks his nose, 'you know he has a heart of gold...don't touch the fruit cake' "
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:25 PM on December 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you want to dive further into the rabbit hole of love and capitalism, Eva Illouz has done a lot of work about this this links to an interview in the Wire.

Consuming the Romantic Utopia
Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
Link to book

If you are looking for more hard core academic theory, there is of course Chantal Mouffe.
posted by 15L06 at 2:37 AM on December 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

Historically, marriage was an outward-facing arrangement that wove otherwise unrelated groups into mutual-aid networks. Peasants used to sing songs and recite folktales that made fun of married love, as a way of reminding couples who were too wrapped up in each other not to forget their obligations to the wider community. Theologians used to caution married people not to love each other too much—it might distract them from the image of Christ in each other’s faces. But over time, western European and North American culture has idealized an ever smaller, more private, and more self-sufficient unit.
This paralleled and was intertwined with the development of capitalism itself, of course. There's quite a lot more that can be written on this particular topic. As well as on how the pandemic has affected household economics. This essay is an interesting study in the author's own experience, though, that lends some depth to more general statistics, of course.

One detail that seems to often be forgotten in such discussions comes up here:
Financially speaking, too, our society tends to place a high value on financial independence. But the economic imperatives that have driven partnership for millennia could set many searching for traditional forms of cooperation as we enter an era of global financial hardship.
The detail is that the connection between the economic interdependence of sharing a household and either sex or romantic love is somewhat of an artificial social construct. It's getting to be a bit of an oldie now I suppose, but "Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing all families under the law" by Nancy Polikoff explores this more in a really interesting, thoughtful, and important way.
posted by eviemath at 6:51 AM on December 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

From the Illouz interview that 15L06 linked:
Money becomes a generalised medium of exchange with the emergence of capitalism. Prior to that, the labour market was restricted, the circulation of goods minimal and thus ownership the prerequisite for leading a pleasant life. There were only two ways to climb socially – and that was through inheritance or to marry wisely. Additionally, bondage was very widespread in the precapitalist world. But then, when the worker’s body became something that could be traded in a free market of labor, the worker could increase his wealth through intelligence and labour without having to surrender everything to an overlord, the standard of living suddenly ceased to be solely dependent on origins and marriage. Thus paradoxically the more monetized and capitalist an economy is, the more likely people are to marry for love – because marriage does not fulfil an economic vocation anymore.
This seems to focus on the upper classes and emerging middle classes, not the poor/working class? Where is the economic pressure in marriage when one's family background is such that one was never going to be eligible for a job that valued or rewarded intelligence, not just used up one's body in physical labor? Or when one's family background is such that one is never going to be able to marry out of the poor or working class? I can see where marrying someone who was exceptionally bad with household economy could make one's life worse, but when there's not enough money to meet basic needs or pay all of the bills in the first place, a somewhat different set of skills and economic pressures become relevant. Given how small a proportion of the population of the world living under capitalism (including colonial territories) the middle and upper classes of that era represented, it's a bit frustrating how much the stories we tell ourselves about human economic behavior seem to be specific to that non-representative milieu.
posted by eviemath at 7:21 AM on December 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

(Her book, which focuses on more contemporary analysis, seems interesting though!)
posted by eviemath at 7:23 AM on December 9, 2021

Linda Besner Takes a Look at the Marriages of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes.

I can't be the only one who did a double-take reading this sentence.
posted by star gentle uterus at 7:58 AM on December 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yes, eviemath, i agree. Illouz is indeed very much focused on European middle class/upper class. Nevertheless i find her writings very interesting (being European middle class myself). I cannot say i agree with everything she posits, but it is very thought stimulating.
posted by 15L06 at 8:35 AM on December 9, 2021

A marriage in which no labour potential is wasted—no opportunity for making each other happy missed—seems a worthy goal.

I liked this idea.
posted by blueberry monster at 10:22 AM on December 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm impressed at how happy this made me, given how angry it made me at Karl Marx on behalf of his family (who apparently mostly liked him(!)). I also liked the idea of wasting no labour potential in a marriage be a worthy goal.
posted by ldthomps at 8:03 PM on December 9, 2021

Really great writer, going to have to look for other writing by her.
posted by blue shadows at 9:10 PM on December 9, 2021

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