Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jennifer Roback Morse: Defending Marriage, Misrepresenting Smith?

A correspondent called my attention to an interesting essay by Jennifer Roback Morse, an economist I used to know a very long time ago. Since then, she seems to have become an articulate and prolific author in support of conventional marriage—and an energetic opponent of same-sex marriage. Her essay is aimed mainly at libertarians; its central argument is that a society where sex and child-rearing occur primarily within conventional marriage is, from their standpoint, more desirable than what she thinks we are moving towards, a society of casual hook-ups, single mothers, and court-enforced rules on child support, visitation rights, and the like.

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.


At 1:00 AM, June 22, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

Unfortunately, sensible people are now very wary of publishing their e-mail addresses, because to do so (especially in clear text on the Web) will surely attract junk e-mail.

Junk e-mail is an epidemic to which some cure is needed, but apparently those who could implement a cure haven't decided amongst themselves how to go about it.

At 1:22 AM, June 22, 2010, Anonymous Kid said...

If by "junk e-mail" you mean comments from the audience, then attracting it is precisely the point of publishing your email address.

I have a question for David. Why is it, in the quest for truth, so important who said something or what somebody said? Should not all propositions be judged on their own merit, rather than by their author?

At 7:10 AM, June 22, 2010, Blogger August said...

I don't know if they are still available, but she did some talks for the Action Institute a few years ago. She does make really good arguments, but seems to be more conservative than libertarian- at least in the sense that, ultimately, she wants to use the force of the state to solve the problem.

I think she, and many people like her, would become more libertarian if they understood that through a combination of property rights and the freedom of association they could set up a private jurisdiction. This would lead to differentiation among neighborhoods and the value of what Morse is suggesting would become more obvious.

At 7:11 AM, June 22, 2010, Blogger August said...

Sorry, that's Acton, not action.

At 8:06 AM, June 22, 2010, Blogger chris said...

It's consistently disappointing to see libertarians --real or imagined-- argue against equal and expanded civil rights in defense of their own narrow view of what is "better" for everyone else. Opposition to recognition of same sex unions is contrary to libertarian principles and the inclusion of social conservatives and the religious right into the libertarian fold make me lean the other way.

At 8:51 AM, June 22, 2010, Blogger jimbino said...

Marriage already confers more than 1000 distinct benefits not available to single folks. The clear libertarian position would be to eliminate those privileges rather than increase their number.

I think Kid's question about the value of citing a famous person in support of one's argument is interesting. I have long noted that physicists and mathematicians, among others, do not waste their time citing other authorities as evidence of the truth or value of their discovery or proof. Nor do they seek the acclaim of colleagues or the public.

On the other hand, professors, lawyers, philosophers and theologians seem to be so insecure in their knowledge that the depend on authorities for evidence and on their colleagues for acclaim. I imagine the reason for that is that there is no truth value to what they have to offer that self-evidently proves the value of their offering. What is more important to them is that, like Willy Loman, they are respected up and down the coast.

Religion and law are special cases, since there is no objective truth involved in any of it. But even Greg Mankiw wastes a lot of time worrying about how frequently he is cited by his peers.

At 12:09 PM, June 22, 2010, Anonymous Alex said...

"Kid" is basically asking about the appeal to authority:

Speaking strictly in terms of logical and factual correctness, it is a fallacy. But in the realm of rhetoric and persuasion, it is so powerful that appeals even to irrelevant authorities, e.g. movie stars, carry a great deal of weight, which is one of the great tragedies of human culture IMO.

At 2:59 PM, June 22, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

Kid, I have no idea why you thought that 'junk e-mail' would mean comments from the audience.

It means, of course, dodgy commercial propositions e-mailed to millions of people whose addresses have been harvested from the Web by programs designed to do that job.

At 3:44 PM, June 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took a graduate 'Competition Policy' course where the Prof used the same (half) quote to argue for the legitemacy of anti-trust laws. When I pointed out the next sentence from Smith, he said he had never heard of it.


At 6:57 PM, June 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous Kid said...
> I have a question for David. Why is it, in the quest for truth, so important who said something or what somebody said? Should not all propositions be judged on their own merit, rather than by their author?

Let me offer an answer. You are correct, all propositions could be judged on their own merit, but who has the time to judge all propositions? Reputation provides a shortcut to separate the propositions that are likely to be valuable, from the ones which are less likely to be valuable. This has both merits and demerits, but, for me, if Adam Smith said it, it is worth listening too, if Alex Smith, the crazy homeless guy said it, well not so much.

Of course, who knows what I might be missing.

At 10:17 PM, June 22, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

To answer Kid:

None of us has the time or expertise to form independent opinions on all things we care about. Frequently the best we can do is to find someone whose judgment and knowledge we trust and rely on his opinion. To take a trivial example, I am confident that antarctica and Siberia exist, although I have never directly observed either.

The need to get some information indirectly is relevant in two ways to this particular post. On the one hand, if Smith really had come out in favor of antitrust laws, that would be a reason for people who share Smith's general views and have a high opinion of his ability to revise upward their estimate that such laws are a good thing.

On the other hand, if Jennifer Morse badly misrepresents facts she ought to be familiar with—in this case by an out of context quote that stops just before the sentence that shows that the claim she is making about Smith is false–that is a reason to discount what she says on other subjects. It isn't a reason to ignore good arguments if she makes them, but it should make you less inclined to think that if she holds a view there are probably good arguments for it.

At 10:39 AM, June 24, 2010, Blogger William Newman said...

Besides ddfr's point, it can be significant that an idea or argument was already well-known at a particular date.

E.g., showing that some public-choice-ish consideration showed up in the Federalist Papers doesn't necessarily mean that we should honor the distinguished authors by agreeing with them. But it does mean that a scholar or community of scholars who pointedly ignored such considerations at some later date can reasonably be suspected of doing it on purpose.

At 12:05 AM, June 25, 2010, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

It is sadly rare that people who complain about flaws in society have solutions which address the basic problems of collective action. For example, giving negative social feedback to people who don't treat marriage with respect seems like a classic tragedy of the commons to me - you get all the concentrated negative effects of pissing people off, while the positive societal effects are dispersed.

Economists really need to learn public choice theory. Few seem to know it, and it's just sad.

At 8:54 PM, June 26, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> 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.

Uh, yeah, why would we want to have for example a registry of physicians? Any consumer could examine the nameplates on all graveyards in vicinity and figure out which physicians were responsible for more deaths - and than discover statistics for different medical occupations and correct for those. David, you are not even wrong - you are just spouting gibberish.

At 10:48 PM, June 26, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous writes:

"David, you are not even wrong - you are just spouting gibberish."

Shouldn't you be addressing that to Adam Smith, not to me?

At 5:57 PM, July 01, 2010, Anonymous albatross said...

Ah, there's *another* reason for properly attributing ideas....


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