marriage and markets.

When Rowan Williams praises marriage, everyone assumes that this is because he is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it’s the Christian thing to do. Well, it is a Christian thing to do, but no one could claim that it was the only Christian tradition about sex: there is a great deal in praise of celibacy, and the OT is clear abut the benefits of polygamy. Even the statement that a bishop shall be the husband of one wife is ambiguous. Perhaps it comes instead from his socialist roots. Because marriage, it seems to me, is a profoundly socialist institution or a egalitarian one: what Sam Bowles would call a means of reproductive levelling.

What marriage — or institutionalised monogamy — does, compared to the doctrine that consenting adults may do whatever they consent to, and with whoever consents, is to interfere with the market. Under the “consenting adult” regime, everyone, in effect, is constantly present in a sexual marketplace, where they trade various forms of attractiveness. Like all markets, this tends to unequal results. As Jesus remarked, to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And if we are talking about she that hath not, even more is taken away.

Socially demanded monogamy is an egalitarian tax on this market. Like all taxes, it can be evaded or avoided, but only at a price. It ensures that almost everyone gets something from the market place, because no minority can monopolise the goods and then rig the rules in their own favour, as the winners in markets tend to do.

In favour of this idea is the fact that monogamy tends to be enforced (and regarded as desirable) in communities where there is a lot of feedback and social control while the wholly untrammelled market (and seen as the summit of human felicity) flourishes in cities where there is much less policing by reputation, since anyone can always “emigrate” to a new social circle.

It follows, that if the market is badly regulated, or rigged by the winners, there will always be more losers. So how does it persist? One answer, I think is that here, just as in the American economic system, far more people suppose themselves to be among the winners than actually are. But this supposition is obviously going to be corrected by reality. And perhaps it should be rephrased to say that almost everyone is afraid of finding themselves among the losers, since the penalties for that are so much higher under a system where attractiveness can be freely traded.

I might work some of this up for the Graun. Thoughts?

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9 Responses to marriage and markets.

  1. H. E. Baber says:

    I agree entirely. You might be interested in an article I had in Theology I think a couple of years ago along these lines at “Is Homosexuality Sexuality?”

    Here’s an anecdote and friendly amendment: promiscuity is inefficient because of the high costs of search. I think in the 1950s the (Episcopal) Bishop of New York blocked Bertrand Russell from getting a job at City College because of Russell’s views on “free love.” What Russell in fact held was that students should shack up–monogamously–for the course of their academic careers so that they wouldn’t have to spend time and effort looking to hook up and could concentrate on their studies.

  2. Robert Nowell says:

    Yes: I look forward to reading your lucubrations. I assume you’ve read the whole of what Rowan had to say – it’s on his website. I think my daughter would classify him as she classifies me, as an old-fashioned romantic. I wonder if he would share my strict Lutheran approach to marriage: that it’s a question of grace, not works.

  3. Ambridge Vicar says:

    It’s fascinating. What is missing, and what I would expect you to consider is the evolutionary advantage of one over the other. If marriage is an institution which means that more people’s genes get a future, then it may keep diversity in the species. Also marriage is more likely to produce young, given the ridiculously long period of maturation that homo sapiens needs to have, young are more likely to flourish in a stable domestic environment til they can hunt for their own food.

    pen market means the pretty people shag like billy-oh and can afford not to stick around when the going gets tough and are less likely to reproduce until they get to an age when they are not so marketable, settle down and reproduce when their bits are past their best.

    Some sort of nod in that direction is what I would have expected you to have come up with. But hey, I’ll read it when you write it.

  4. Saltation says:

    notice that when “the market” IS fully “deregulated”, the group pushing almost overwhelmingly for the control is female, whereas the remainder of the population is lampooned for its preference for avoiding such controls.

    be cautious of conflating the concepts of a gene group’s “evolution” and a culture’s “evolution”.
    and be careful of assuming that “evolution” is a Progress, rather than a Process. the Habsburg Lip was a triumph of evolution, but not progress in any normal sense of the word.

  5. quinn says:

    i think you are terribly terribly cynical.

    also, avoid the gender stereotypes on who wants monogamy. do it for … me 🙂

  6. Alan Dungey says:

    So, “the OT is clear abut the benefits of polygamy”. Care to provide a reference or two?

    The fact that the OT writes about people who committed polygamy, murder, adultery, etc. etc. doesn’t mean that any of these things were thought of as beneficial. Monogamy on the other hand is promoted in the very first chapters of the first book.

  7. acb says:

    Vicar: the evidence for the evolution of monogamy is bollocks — in particular the fact that mine, and even yours are smaller than those of our chimpanzee-like relatives. Testicle size is pretty clearly related to female promiscuity: the less competition a male has, the less he needs to invest in sperm production. So gorillas are harem-keeping animals with large males, small females, and small balls; chimps, sexually more equal, have large balls; male and female humans are more or less the same size and males have mid-sized testicles. So the evidence suggests increasing, if imperfect, monogamy as we have evolved.

    Saltation, Quinn: I think probably more women than men favour this kind of levelling off, though clearly not all do, and my limited observations of polyamory suggest that any reasonably stable menage is almost always driven by women. But this is handwaving. There are obviously, also, plenty of men who want one good woman to love them. If we take the current New York dating scene for 20- and 30-somethings as the purest possible example of a free market, it looks as if there are plenty of women eager not to be tied down. Better informed comment welcome on this point.

    Alan Dungey: I don’t think you can use Adam and Eve as an example (not just on the grounds that they didn’t exist) simply because they had no choice. As soon as choices appeared, the patriarchs took advantage of them. Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Solomon — who might be thought to have broken the injunction not to take many wives in Deuteronomy 17:17, but that is not an injunction to take only one. The fact that bishops were later exhorted to do this suggests that the alternative was open to them. See also the arguments made by a Kenyan bishop in favour of at least tolerating polygamy at Lambeth in 1988.

  8. I don't pay says:

    I like this argument, which I find bracing and honest. I’m in the mood for pushing back a bit against some of the disposition towards unfettered sex for everyone in our corner of the left, which in the US isn’t very far left unless measured against our neighbors. The market-driven and libertarian aspects of that disposition need to be mentioned more often.

  9. Ambridge Vicar says:

    OK, I wasn’t arguing that marriage is a product of evolution. What we both missed was contraception. Which, as far as I’m aware, is not available to our larger-bollocked cousins.
    In our culture where, if all goes to plan, the optimum place to conceive is in a monogamous relationship, then it is arguable that pretty people who shag a lot but don’t conceive, and then find they are no longer pretty and end up in Warren Beatty hell, (lonely and without progeny), are less likely to perpetuate their pretty genes, than the rest of us frumps who grab a mate, breed and see our heritage fly the nest.
    I wasn’t arguing for marriage as necessarily evolutionarily an advantage, I was just saying that unfettered and widespread congress, in an age of birth control, is less likely to get your characteristics into the next generation.
    I quite like marriage, it’s a lot less expensive than the other.
    When will all this bear fruit in the grauniad?

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