Love and Economics: From Contract to Cooperation
Religion & Liberty Online

Love and Economics: From Contract to Cooperation

The subject of contracts is not particularly romantic, which is part of the reason I’d like to talk about contracts—and how we might reach beyond them.

In some ways, we’ve come to overly ignore, downplay, or disregard contracts. Across the world, we see grandmaster politicians and planners trying to impose various “solutions” with the flicks of their wands, paying little attention to core features like trust and respect for property rights. Here in America, our government is increasingly bent on diluting or subverting our most fundamental agreements, whether between husband and wife or foreclosed Billy and his bank.

In other ways, however, we are excessively contract-minded, particularly when it enables us to slack off or lead predictable, controllable lives. We want guarantees to ensure the maximum reward for the minimum amount of work. We want legislation that protects our jobs and locks in our wages and retirement. We want to put in our 40, return to our couches, grab one from the cooler, and say, “that’s that.” We want to give our effort insofar as we receive our due, insulating ourselves from risk, sacrifice, and discomfort wherever possible. 

But while contracts themselves do play an important role in ordering our affairs, we mustn’t forget that they only take us so far. Surely we need to establish some minimums in our commitment-making, but that needn’t mean that minimum-mindedness should overwhelm our actions and imaginations.

As for how we might reach beyond these attitudes, the answer is quite simply love, a solution that may sound flimsy and unrealistic, but which, in it’s purest form has a remarkable tendency to break down line-item legalisms and self-centeredness. As economist Jennifer Roback Morse argues throughout her book, Love & Economics, love “holds society together,” and does so precisely by pushing us beyond our pseudo-rationalistic calculus — on toward deeper and healthier human relationships and a more flourishing society, in turn.

Although love plays a key role across all areas — business, art, education, politics — Morse takes her basic lesson from the family, which by its very nature fights against a contractual mindset. “Familial relationships are not coercive in the usual sense, nor are they voluntary in the usual sense,” argues Morse. Marriage, for instance, may be “contractual” in certain ways, but it is much better described as a “partnership” — one filled with what Morse calls “radical uncertainty.” “Will we both remain healthy?” she asks. “Will we both continue to be employed at our current level of income and status? Will our needs change in ways we cannot fully predict?”

At the most superficial level, a marriage is the sharing of a household by two adults and usually involves exclusive sexual rights. But at a deeper level marriage involves something much more. A successful marriage requires the complete gift of the self to the other person. It is not reasonable to give of the self at the same level unless there is a complete commitment. These are the elements of marriage: commitment and self-giving to another person.

Once children are woven into that mix, this reality becomes all the more clear, with obligation, responsibility, and new levels of love almost irresistibly pressed upon us, from the day these little people enter the world through those blood-curdling cries at the most inopportune hours of the night. For most parents, putting in the “minimum” is neither desirable nor realistic. Most understand some basic level of duty and obligation (feed them, shelter them, protect them), but we also understand that this “contract” represents the beginning, not the end. Thus, we learn to love, and love more abundantly.

Taken together, marriage and children aptly illuminate this model:

Partnerships feature ongoing, joint decision making during the life of the relationship. In purely contractual relationships by contrast, the parties negotiate most, if not all, of the significant decisions prior to entering into the contract. In a partnership, the partners share responsibilities, decision-making, and risks…

…In a partnership, both partners have enough at stake in the relationship that they have an incentive to do all the unstated but necessary things that can be known on the spot and in the moment. The contract is neither the end of the relationship nor the method for how the parties relate to one another.

Showing how this applies elsewhere, and (hopefully) prodding us to set our sights on our own respective spheres, Morse examines partnership dynamic in business:

The employer-employee relationship is more productive when people can move beyond a purely contractual arrangement. The combination of collective bargaining, large bureaucratic workplaces, and federal legislation has created the need for ever more detailed job descriptions. These detailed specifications of labor contracts in many cases disrupt the vitality of the workplace. “It is not in my job description” is an excuse to do the minimum necessary. In this context, the attitude engendered by a contractual mentality is one of minimal compliance rather than maximal cooperation. The attempt to specify every detail of a person’s responsibilities destroys the spontaneity and the sense of partnership and teamwork.

When relationships are formed, trust is cultivated, service is poured out, and ideas are shared openly and freely, God has additional room to guide these “little platoons” and associations in cultivating communities and society. Once we partner with others not for our own benefit, but out of deep and authentic love for neighbor and God, we open ourselves to risk, but also to new communities, new ideas and innovations, and the type of whole-scale prosperity that’s found through exchange and collaboration with our fellow co-creators.

In all of our relationships and engagements, whether in serving our spouses, children, neighbors, friends, bosses, employees, clients, customers, churches, etc., let’s stop simply “putting in our 40” and start striving for more than the minimum.

Reach beyond the contract. Or, as Morse writes elsewhere: “Live with abandon, not obligation.”

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.