News and Noteworthy

The myth of ‘economic man’: How love holds society together

by Joseph Sunde ~ February 14, 2017 
This article was first posted at the Acton Blog on February 14, 2017.

Despite the predictable flurry of sugary clichés and hedonistic 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 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 what that looks like is interconnected with and interdependent on the love of God, which persistently yanks our typical economist sensibilities about “prosperity,” “happiness,” and “quality of life” into transcendent territory (never mind those convenient buckets of “self-interest” and “sacrifice”). 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, self-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 fall prey to such distortions.

In her book Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, Jennifer Roback Morse cautions against such tendencies, pointing us in the right direction and challenging us to reconsider our basic views about human needs and human potential.

Morse begins with a critique of homo economicus (economic man), the understanding 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 the human person, excusing away our thoughts and affections at the mercy of of a cold, limiting, earthbound order. As Rev. Robert Sirico puts it, “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 the common caricature, Morse points us to human infanthood, a uniquely universal human experience in 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,” she writes. “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 remind us, 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 (while also countering Rousseau’s view of the “state of nature”).

To demonstrate her case, she looks to extreme situations wherein the family has been entirely 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 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 far more powerful and grounded and transcendent 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,” she writes. “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 governmental Mother Brain and “better,” “morerational” individualistic mini-brains, we should pause and remember that without love properly defined and vigorously pursued, human holes will surely remain.

Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse Whatever form of magical super-rationalism we humans might be able to concoct, whether through governments or markets or otherwise, without the love of God and the corresponding building blocks of relationship and family and community, our stomachs will continue to growl and the social stew will continue to fester. Without transcendent obedience and a willingness to sacrifice our own convenience and temporal, transactional notions about prosperity, happiness, and human fulfillment, society at large will slowly yield to false caricatures about human needs and the corresponding solutions.

“Love is from God,” writes the Apostle 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 across the economic order.

This Valentine’s Day, let us remember that love is much more than the sentimentality and self-gratification that consumes our culture. Love is what holds society together, and that means fewer self-centered sonnets to faux self-empowerment, and more covenantal worship and service across society. Whether as spouses or parents, neighbors or strangers, we remain children of the King, created in the image of a God who so loved that he gave.


Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Ruth Institute and BYU Present a Conference on the Family

In association with the BYU Family Law Society, the Ruth Institute is pleased to announce the speakers for the BYU Conference on the Family

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D.

Founder and President of the Ruth Institute

A committed career woman before having children, Dr. Morse earned a doctorate in economics, and spent fifteen years teaching at Yale University and George Mason University. In 1991, she and her husband adopted a two year old Romanian boy, and gave birth to a baby girl. She left her full-time university teaching post in 1996 to move with her family to California. She was a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution,and at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. In the summer of 2008, Dr. Morse founded the Ruth Institute, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to bringing hope and encouragement for life-long married love.


William Duncan, J.D.*



Mr. Duncan is the director of the Marriage Law Foundation, a legal organization whose mission is providing legal resources in defense of marriage as the union of a husband and wife. He previously served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and a visiting professor at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. He teaches family law to undergraduates at BYU as an adjunct professor. He has authored dozens of scholarly articles, book chapters and popular commentary on family issues. He has drafted pro-family legislation , submitted numerous legal briefs on behalf of pro-family groups, and has testified in front of legislative committees in a variety of states. Mr. Duncan is married to Catherine Allred Duncan and they are the home schooling parents of seven children.

Dr. Douglas Allen

Dr. Allen completed his B.A.(hons) and M.A. in economics at SFU, and then completed his Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 1988. His first job was as an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Alas, the weather in Ottawa left the west coast family suffering, and when SFU offered him a job . . . his wife accepted. Dr. Allen has been witht eh department of Economics since 1990 and is now a Burnaby Mountain Professor of Economics. His research includes studying how exchange and production takes place in the context of “positive transaction costs.” This has led him to study the family, the farm, and history. Professor Allen is the author of two popular undergraduate microeconomic theory textbooks, and his work has generously been supported by SSHRCC and NSF over the years.


Dr. Donald Hilton

Dr. Hilton received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Lamar University (with highest honors) in 1983, and his medical degree at the University of Texas at Galveston (with honors) in 1988. He completed his training as a neurosurgeon at the University of Tennessee at Memphis in 1994, and was board certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery in 1997. He practices adult neurosurgery including cranial and spinal in San Antonio, Texas, is currently a clinical associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, and serves as director of neurosurgical training for the residency program at the Methodist Hospital rotation.


Lynn D. Wardle, J.D.*

Professor Wardle graduated from Brigham Young University (B.A., 1971) and Duke University School of Law (J.D., 1974). He clerked for U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica (DC, 1974-75, during Watergate cover-up trial), and practiced civil litigation (1975- 78) in Phoenix, Arizona. He has taught at Brigham Young University for 31 years. His major areas of teaching and scholarship are Family Law, Conflict of Laws, Biomedical Ethics & Law, and Origins of the U.S. Constitution. He has also taught as a visiting professor at Howard University School of Law (Washington, D.C.), at the University of Queensland Faculty of Law (Brisbane, Australia), at Sophia University Faculty of Law (Tokyo, Japan), been a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), and lectured in short-courses at universities in Beijing and Nanjing, China. Professor Wardle is the author or co-author of six books on the family, the editor or co-editor of seven books on the family and the author more than a hundred law review articles and chapters in scholarly and professional books.


* indicates a Ruth Institute Board Member