The pride and the prejudice of the average economist is the almighty beloved market, a sign, a symbol, a perfect calculating machine, an emergent phenomenon that perfectly allocates and understands. It’s such a perfect human artifact that it can be applied to every aspect of human existence, certainly including marriage, as we learn from Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. This is from a book chapter he wrote, published in 1974
Two simple principles form the heart of the analysis. The first is that, since marriage is practically always voluntary, either by the persons marrying or their parents, the theory of preferences can be readily applied, and persons marrying (or their parents) can be assumed to expect to raise their utility level above what it would be were they to remain single. The second is that, since many men and women compete as they seek mates, a market in marriages can be presumed to exist. Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to the restrictions imposed by market conditions.
If you were looking for evidence for one or both of these propositions, you’d be disappointed. There isn’t any. And in fact, as far as I can tell, neither is particularly likely to be true in any specific case. To the extent the utility principle is met in any specific case, it’s unreasonable to think that the notion of utility is the same. As to the second, there is no competition. In fact, I have no idea what that even means in the context of romantic relationships. Two or more people might put themselves forward as possible mates for a third person, but no one thinks the matter will be settled based on scores and the judge’s decisions.
What better way to see this than to look at the seminal work on the subject, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. In recent times, it has become necessary to refer to the story as one about the marriage market, as here, and here. But there is no discussion of the nature of this market. In what sense is the woman the merchandise, as claimed in the first link? What is the man buying? The second article claims that in Sense and Sensibility, Austen uses satire and irony to point out the problems inherent in the idea of marriage as a commercial market. It is the people who treat it as such who are the objects of satire and irony, and who suffer the consequences of bad marriages.
There are a number of examples of marriages in Pride and Prejudice. The elder Bennets, the parents of Jane, Elizabeth and their three sisters have been married over 20 years. The marriage is loveless. From Chapter 42:
Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.
Then we have Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. Collins is a dolt; Charlotte, Elizabeth’s best friend, is sensible, plain, and edging towards spinsterhood. For Charlotte, the goal was to be married so as to have her own home, her own place in the world, and means of support besides her family. She explains her decision to Elizabeth:
I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Then there is the marriage of Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s mother’s brother. Mr. Gardiner is a “sensible, gentlemanlike man”, and his wife, a few years younger than Mrs. Bennet, is “amiable, intelligent, elegant woman”. You can see their relationship in actions, not in the narrator’s statements. It is one of equals, of partners, of people who respect and admire each other.
Eventually Jane marries Charles Bingley, a man of a sizeable fortune. Mr. Bennet forecasts their future:
“You are a good girl;” he replied, “and I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.”
I’ll skip the marriage of Lydia Bennet and George Wichham, except to say that it is the poor person’s version of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Finally we have the marriage of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy. This is how Elizabeth sees it:
She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.
In each of these cases we see a different kind of utility, a different kind of courtship, different demands placed on the relationship, different financial outcomes and different kinds of satisfaction. The idea that something is added to the novel by interpolating the economist’s term “utility” is simply astonishing.
As to competition, it’s true that several people might like to marry Elizabeth, and do their best to make her like them. But it’s more instructive to watch Caroline Bingley (Charles’ sister) try to make herself attractive to Fitzwilliam, and fail miserably. I can imagine Becker arguing that there is a competition between Caroline and Elizabeth for the attentions of Fitzwilliam, but that is such an impoverished view of what is actually happening that I hope he wouldn’t.
Becker sums up this way:
In Part I above I have offered a simplified model of marriage that relies on two basic assumptions: (1) each person tries to find a mate who maximizes his or her well-being, with well-being measured by the consumption of household-produced commodities; and (2) the “marriage market” is assumed to be in equilibrium, in the sense that no person could change mates and become better off.
Mr. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, George Wickham, and Charlotte Lucas could all have found more satisfactory mates. The Gardiners, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, Jane and Charles, all marry for reasons that have nothing to do with household consumption; their relationships turn on aspects of their characters that may have good production and consumption outcomes, but those were not the motivating factors, far from it. The marriage market is an utter failure in each of these cases. But economists do not recognize the possibility of market failure. From this I conclude that Pride and Prejudice is a failure as a work of art. It should be rewritten so that all of the characters conform to Becker’s idea of competitors in the marriage market.