Jennifer Roback Morse: Defending Marriage, Misrepresenting Smith?
It is a plausible claim, but the author never makes it clear what she thinks should be done in order to maintain the more desirable pattern of behavior. She repeatedly refers to laws and norms without much attempt to distinguish between them. Is she merely arguing that we, as individuals, ought to treat married parents with more respect than unmarried ones and encourage other individuals to do the same? That we should advise our children to look for long-term mates? Does she want the law to treat conventional marriage as an enforceable contract—hard to get out of, with civil or criminal penalties attached to adultery? Does she want tax law and other interactions with government to favor people who have entered into such a contract? In this essay, at least, she does not say, although I could probably get some answers by reading other things she has written.
My most serious criticism of the piece, as it happens, has nothing to do with the author's views on marriage. She writes:
Adam Smith recognized in the tenth chapter of The Wealth of Nations that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Smith understood that the “natural” tendency to cheat the public must be checked by legal and social norms. The law must prohibit some economic behavior.
The actual passage she is quoting from reads:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary. A regulation which obliges all those of the same trade in a particular town to enter their names and places of abode in a public register, facilitates such assemblies. It connects individuals who might never otherwise be known to one another, and gives every man of the trade a direction where to find every other man of it. ...
Smith is not arguing, as Morse claims, that "The law must prohibit some economic behavior." On the contrary, he explicitly says that no law prohibiting the behavior described "would be consistent with liberty and justice." He is arguing not for laws against conspiracies in restraint of trade but against laws that help to create them—the 18th century equivalents of modern regulatory cum cartelizing agencies such as the ICC and CAB.
Morse has not merely misrepresented the point of the passage, she has very nearly reversed it. Either she does not know the passage she is quoting—from the most famous book in her (and my) field—or she is deliberately misleading her readers.
One final point. My usual response to reading something, especially by someone I know, and disagreeing with parts of it is to email the author. I wrote this post instead because I was unable to find an email address for her anywhere online—not in her blog profile, not on "her" (actually her organization's) web page. The nearest I managed was an online form for people who wanted to contact the organization she runs—and sign up for their newsletter. It contained no field for comments. This pattern seems to have become increasingly common online—the assumption seems to be that communication is a one-way process, with the important person talking to an audience and not interested in having the audience talk back.
I did eventually find an email address for Jennifer Morse in my old email—someone some time back had sent a message to lots of people, including both her and me. I sent her the blog post. That was several days ago. Having received no reply, I am now posting it.