Are sociologists today the best economic scientists? On the evidence of Viviana Zelizer's striking book on the mix of the sacred and profane in our lives, it seems so. Zelizer is a sociologist at Princeton University. Her colleagues in economics there, with whom she seems to have had little to do, will not face up to what the sociologists call the "embeddedness" of economic life. The Princeton economists go on elaborating the blackboard adventures of a monster of the profane called Max U. The economists pretend to "test" their "hypotheses" about Max, misusing a technique known as statistical "significance". Zelizer instead explores how Max U contrasts with Suzy Self-Sacrifice, using cases on marriage law from US courts, supplemented by new feminist social science. Not a fixed-point theorem or a t-statistic in sight. Yet Zelizer is the scientist here.
Her theme is that all our relationships, from intimate to impersonal, from marriage to buying a newspaper, involve love and money. Marriage is surely in part, as the economists aver, an exchange - of, for example, housekeeping services for auto-maintenance services. But the economists commit a fallacy, which Bishop Butler complained about in 1725: "The strange affection of many people of explaining away all particular affections and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise of self-love." "It is (a) great fallacy," Adam Smith wrote in 1749, "to represent every passion as wholly vicious, which is so in any degree and any direction."
Economists have recently asserted that marriage is merely about money because it is partly about money. This is the prudence-only view, "Samuelsonian" economics, the pure theory of Max U. Zelizer does not ignore prudence and the profane. But "people manage to integrate monetary transfers into larger webs of mutual obligation without destroying the social ties involved. Money cohabits regularly with intimacy, and even sustains it." Of course.
The Max U theory has a sentimental side, and it is no accident that Jeremy Bentham initiated the extreme form of Max U during the Sentimental Revolution among the English bourgeoisie. Men who wish to put women on pedestals, as they used to say, view their own breadwinning as purely economic. The home is sacred, paid work is profane. Zelizer is impatient with such a separation of spheres. "There has never been," she writes, summarising results from feminist history and comparative sociology, "the sort of time that separate-spheres enthusiasts dream about, where intimacy's purity thrived uncontaminated by economic concerns." She objects to the very notion of "contamination", at any rate in the automatic, money-is-dirt version that has dominated Western thought since aristocratic Plato first articulated it. Love and money, the sacred and the profane, are not automatically, as she put it, "hostile worlds". The human dance of sacred and profane is how we live. It would be simpler to declare that marriage, again as Bishop Butler and Zelizer put it, is "nothing but" economic rationality, or cultural practice, or political expression - and then go home. Old-line economists and old-line Marxists say so, and are happy with the time off from thinking that such formulas provide.
Zelizer suggests instead that we consider a "connected lives alternative", in which intimate relations and economic transactions cross and recross.
"Social ties and economic transactions mingle." The wonder is that anyone ever believed otherwise. When you buy a newspaper, you do not treat the seller like a vending machine, at least not if your mother raised you properly. And when you love a child, you do not throw out all considerations of prudence and sign over your bank account to him or her.
Zelizer finds the theory of hostile worlds and separation of spheres still lively in judges who lag behind social reality. The old men and women sitting in robes want things to be the way they imagine olden times to be, when men were men and women cooked. She quotes the feminist social scientists Nancy Folbre and Paula England: "The (sentimental) principle that money cannot buy love may have the unintended and perverse consequence of perpetuating low pay for face-to-face service work." If ward sisters are ordered to care, as a book on the uneasy history of professional nursing once put it, their work is devalued as "naturally" feminine.
The book is jammed with evidence, "ethnography", as Zelizer calls it, on compensations for victims of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the shifting power of women and children on immigration to the US, the connection of consumption to loving relationships, the payment methods among sex workers, and the evolving customs of engagements to marry.
Zelizer has turned over a lot of books to write her own. But not every relevant book. Her argument is too rich to be narrowed down to a simple literature. For someone who wants to write about money, her reading of economics has been a bit light. Gary Becker and his school of Max U-ers appear nowhere. Judge Richard Posner stands in for all the economising tribe. But the economists claim that passions are vicious, one continued exercise of self-love, so perhaps her neglect is justified.
On the other side, so to speak, Zelizer is making an argument familiar to the new "virtue ethicists". We should think about people, the virtue ethicists say, as negotiating among conflicting virtues, not as monsters of prudence only or of love alone. Virtue ethics dates from Aristotle and Aquinas, but it was last seen in the West in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments - until it was revived after 1958 by female philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Martha Nussbaum, Susan Wolf, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, Annette Baier and Rosalind Hursthouse, ably assisted by men such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Michael Slote and John McDowell. Only Held and Nussbaum, the latter on sexual services, figure in Zelizer's thinking. But that is the virtue of a good book, to put one in mind of connections. Can intimacy be purchased? Do the profane and sacred dance? In a manner of speaking, the way we do speak, of course they do.
Deirdre McCloskey teaches economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, US.
The Purchase of Intimacy
Author - Viviana A. Zelizer
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 356
ISBN - 0 691 12408 6