Capitalism and love

Yesterday’s talk at the IEA was presented by Steven Horwitz. He argued that capitalism freed and empowered women to marry according to their own economic choices and, later, purely for love.

This is an amazingly important observation and was well argued by Steven. He did not deny that feminist ideas, literacy and formal education played their parts (though he did dispute that the 60s wave of feminist popularity had significant effects), but instead of decrying capitalism as a component of the old order and an instrument of oppression, he showed how the free-market, private ownership of capital, and the distributed means of production actually removed key barriers to marital happiness:

  • The necessity of a joint family enterprise with congruent economic interests (e.g. families of literal millers, carpenters, fletchers and smiths) centred within the household.
  • The necessity, for survival, of specialisation between gender roles, that is, to learn skills for use within the household and within the market place.
  • The incentives to breed, even to breed continuously, to ensure an adequate supply of child labour, to overcome infant mortality, and to some extent to ensure old-age care.
  • And finally, the massive time savings afforded by electrical washing machines, dryers, dishwashers etc – the inventions of entrepreneurs.

Of these the first three, at least, paved the way for the happy outcome where women are now able to marry for love and children can be afforded a childhood in which they are sheltered from adult concerns.

Sometimes fools choose to disagree that happiness is actually what we all aim for, but for those that want it, these are universally held to be profoundly happy outcomes. Others, and we all hear it, bleat that revolutionary “progress”, an endless march away from tradition and toward authoritarian revolutionary policies is the only way to get happy. But on Steven’s view, marriage for love and a decent childhood are not ancient traditions but revolutionary consequences of agricultural, and industrial development and the spread of the free-market. This not just a strategic strength for pro-liberty activists but a warning to authoritarian environmentalists and economic planners: your path is not a happy one.

The fourth argument is more obvious, but I wondered if the invention of the washing machine and dishwasher was repeatable. I attended Steven’s talk with my fiance, as we had argued about the relative importance of education vs the division of labour and we wondered whether the fourth force would continue to have an effect now. What else will continue to reduce the time requirements of domestic chores?

© Ian Muttoo

Then I remembered how my spell commuting to Watford was made tolerable by outsourcing my ironing to the local laundry, a phenomenon Steven had explained by giving restaurants as an example. (Steven, shirt services are a better example). Traditionally the burden of ironing shirts ready for the early morning commute would have fallen onto wives, but the free-market and the division of labour brought about the wonders of the “shirt service”, an invention my fiance is most grateful for. Then, in some kind of pre-ordained twist, we found a pack of boned and skinned chicken thighs (much tastier than chicken breasts) in Sainsbury’s on the way home. 50p bought us a saving of 10 minutes skinning and boning, important after 9pm, and 20g more meat. What made us laugh at this was that actually the division of labour by gender had existed in our household until that moment: if I try to skin and bone chicken it can take 30 minutes. We decided the division of labour and entrepreneurial invention are both hard at work making the domestic scene happier, even today.

Before all that, Steven went on to argue that the household is no longer a unit of production (of baking, tailoring, thatching etc) but a unit of consumption (books, TV, holidays, spirituality). I wondered at this point whether Steven would agree that inflation is therefore an enemy of a happy marriage because the accumulation of a surplus to invest in capital goods (houses, cars) particularly for retirement is undermined by inflation at a steady percentage rate. He didn’t agree, feeling that his argument about consumption far outweighs any such effect, that is, that marriage is now so much about love that the economics matter little and that actually the fact of having a dual income is much more important than what retirement together might look like. I’m not so sure, in a world without inflation big houses and flash cars might become more strongly associated with married couples. I guess we will have to wait to find out.

Meanwhile, the future of marriage looks rosy. Because child labour is not an economic necessity and marriage is about love, same-sex marriages are now possible. The Q&A brought up the issue of longevity as well: is a 70 year marriage something most of us really want? What about 140 years? Marriage is now open for gay participation, which should strengthen it, but will medicine and life extension technologies make it paradoxically more transient and not more permanent as we would expect?

Who knows what will happen. For now living in a somewhat capitalist economy and knowing how unpleasant marriage used to be, I have one more reason to remember how lucky I am.



One Comment

  1. One important point to remember here is the breaking of the COMPULSORY guild system.

    There is nothing wrong with guids (or “professional associations” or whatever they are called) if they are voluntary – but the guilds of Europe by the “early modern” period were not voluntary (for example Henry IV of France had made guilds compulsory in those towns that were still holding out against this).

    Women were not normally allowed to be members of guilds.

    So what did they do?

    Basically – wives, servants or whores (and a servant who was seduced by her employer and then thrown out by his wife, tended to become a whore). Not because they were not capable of all sorts of other occupations – but because (due to the complusory guild system) they were not ALLOWED into these occupations.

    Remember that when someone says how wonderful the “pre capitalist” world was.



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