Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Marriage as the Firmest Firm

Jennifer Roback Morse, in the same essay in The Meaning of Marriage that I wrote about yesterday, goes through the argument that marriage is a contract. She makes the point that contracts are most suitable for short-term and arms-length relations.

The sexual revolution, she says, has had some disastrous consequences for marriages because it changed the theory of sexual contracts. Under a marriage theory, sex is reserved for the most permanent, most intimate relations. Under the sexual revolution theory, by contrast, sex became a want best satisfied on the spot market.

The most intriguing point she makes, I think, is that for the most intimate and long term economic relations, the market finds that even long-term contracts are not enough. For permanent economic relations, the market invented the "firm."

Marriage is not a short-term contract for sex. It is not even a long-term contract for childrearing and companionship. A marriage is a firm, the most permanent, multi-faceted firm possible. In an ordinary firm or partnership, if they can no longer provide their distinctive good or service profitably, they dissolve. In a marriage, though, if the original product no longer works, they keep the firm and change what the firm produces.

Marriage is the firmest firm.


ken mcintyre said...

I'm a bit dubious of the notion that the market 'invented' the firm. If you mean by a firm, a (quasi-)permanent organization formed voluntarily in the pursuit of a particular substantive purpose, then the Romans were doing this a few years before the emergence of the modern market. They called it a universitas and it was recognized and chartered by the state.

Medieval Christendom appropriated this idea in order to create not only universities, but also religious orders, guilds, and other fraternal organizations like the Knights of Malta.

These enterprise associations were perpetual and could be dissolved only by the deaths of all of the members, the abuse of their privileges, the divergence from its purposes, or the desuetude of its purposes, but it was recognized that they were all the creations of the government (civil or ecclesiastical) under which they operated.

The modern business corporation is merely a further specification of this very old kind of association. In some ways, it serves as an appropriate analogy for the modern understanding of marriage (it is a purposive voluntary association), but in other ways it doesn't really work. Do we really want to accept the notion that marriage is the creation of the government, much less the market?

Gruntled said...

Fair enough -- Morse was making an analogy, not promoting a model. She was answering those market-oriented libertarians who want to reduce marriage to a contract. In response, she offered that even the market does not reduce all relations to contracts, especially long-term ones.

I think a marriage is a unique kind of organization that precedes both markets and states, and serves more often as a model for them than vice-versa.