The Economist’s Concubine

LONDON – In recent decades, economics has been colonizing the study of human activities hitherto considered exempt from formal calculus. What critics call “economics imperialism” has given rise to an economics of love, of art, of music, of language, of literature, and of much else.

The unifying idea underlying this extension of economics is that whatever people do, whether it is making love or making widgets, they aim to achieve the best results at the least cost. These benefits and costs can be reduced to money. So people are always looking for the best financial return on their transactions.

This is contrary to the popular separation of activities in which it is right (and rational) to count the cost, and those in which people do not (and should not) count the cost. To say that affairs of the heart are subject to cold calculation is, say the critics, to miss the point. But cold-hearted calculation, reply the economists, is exactly the point.

The pioneer of the economic approach to love was the Nobel laureate Gary Becker, who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago (where else?). In his seminal paper, “A Theory of Marriage,” published in 1973, Becker argued that selecting a partner is its own kind of market, and marriages occur only when both partners gain. It’s a very sophisticated theory, relying on the complementary nature of male and female work, but which tends to treat love as a cost-reducing mechanism.