The social construction of matrimony

Will Baude disapproves of the advice, offered by Slate's Dear Prudence, to explicitly ask for cash as a wedding gift in an effort to avoid useless presents.

I'm somewhat surprised at Will's reaction, considering that he comes from a law and economics background, and yet his argument here strikes me as highly sociological. Perhaps Will has been spending a bit too much time around some Critical Legal Theorists lately? (Kidding, I hope)

I know Will is familiar with economist David Friedman, and he has most likely read either Price Theory or Hidden Order, both of which contain the following essay, "Gift vs. Money":

    Why do people ever give gifts in any form other than money? If, as we normally assume, each individual knows his own interest, surely he is better off getting money and buying what he wants instead of getting what the donor decides to buy for him.

There are two obvious reasons to give gifts instead of cash. The first is that the donor may believe the recipient's objectives are different from his own. I may give you a scholarship not because I like you but because I want there to be more educated people in the society or more smart high school students going to my alma mater.

Another example is the food stamp program. The idea is not merely to help poor people, but to get them to buy more food. This leads to another question: Why do we care what the poor people spend the money on? If they feel clothing or shelter is more important than food, why not let them make that choice? One answer to that question is that the program is largely supported by politicians from food-producing states.

A second reason for giving restricted gifts is paternalism. If you believe that you know better than the recipient what is good for him, you will naturally want to control how he spends your money. The obvious example is the case of parents dealing with children. A second reason to give food stamps instead of money may be the belief that some of the poor should spend money on food but, if given a choice, will spend it on whiskey instead.

It is not entirely obvious that paternalism is a sensible policy even applied to children. When I was quite small, my family traveled by train from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, to visit grandparents. The trip took three days and two nights. My father offered me and my sister the choice of either having sleeping berths or sitting up and being given the money that the berths would cost. We took the money.

This brings us back to the question of why we give gifts instead of cash--to our friends and even our parents on Christmas, birthdays, and the like. Even if paternalism is appropriate toward one's children, it hardly seems an appropriate attitude toward one's parents. A possible answer is that, in this particular small matter, we do think we know their interest better than they do--we are giving, say, a book we have read and are sure they will like. I doubt that this is a sufficient explanation; we frequently give people gifts we have no special reason to think they will like. I suspect that the correct answer is somehow connected with the hostility to money, especially in personal interactions, which seems typical of our society. Consider, for example, the number of men who would think it entirely proper to take a woman to an expensive restaurant in the hope of return benefits later in the evening, but would never dream of offering her money for the same objective.

Many readers find this particular example a disturbing one, in part because it seems to imply that conventional dating is simply a disguised form of prostitution. Much the same claim has occasionally been made about marriage. In both cases, the argument seems plausible and yet the conclusion does not. This raises a variety of interesting questions, starting with the question of why we have such strong negative feelings about prostitution--why, in a variety of societies, the sale of sex is regarded very differently from the sale of other services, and why our condemnation does not extend to situations in which sex is, at least implicitly, part of a much broader transaction. Students interested in exploring that question may find that the ideas of this chapter, the discussion of commitment strategies in Chapter 11, and the analysis of the evolution of behavior in books such as The Selfish Gene, provide at least a starting point for an economic explanation of such apparently uneconomic attitudes.

Such an explanation leads to a further problem--explaining why our society is hostile to the use of money, especially in personal relations. As an economist, I would like to find an economic explanation even for "anti-economic" behavior.

- Chapter 21, "The Economics of Love and Marriage"

There is something incredibly funny and endearing about Milton Friedman offering his children the choice between the luxury of a sleeping berth or its monetary cost.

Yet Friedman's analysis doesn't leave us with much of an economic theory for why people give gifts instead of money, and instead relies on the sociological explanation of cultural aversion to "commodification." We are back to where we started, more or less.

Steven Landsburg also discusses this issue in The Armchair Economist:

    I am not sure why people give each other store-bought gifts instead of cash, which is never the wrong size or color. Some say that we give gifts because it shows that we took the time to shop. But we could accomplish the same thing by giving the cash value of our shopping time, showing that we took the time to earn the money.

    My friend David Friedman suggests that we give gifts for exactly the opposite reason--because we want to announce that we did not take much time to shop. If I really care for you, I probably know enough about your tastes to have an easy time finding the right gift. If I care less about you, finding the right gift becomes a major chore. Because you know that my shopping time is limited, the fact that I was able to find something appropriate reveals that I care. I like this theory.

I don't. Although there is something to be said for an unexpected gift that the recipient did not know he wanted but ends up greatly enjoying, these kinds of gifts are few and far between. For every gift I have ever received that I actually needed or wanted, there have been at least 20 gifts as useful as tits on a keyboard. I would much rather people avoid the risk of giving me crap than take the crapshoot of actually finding something I might appreciate. It is difficult to get around the fact that no one knows my preferences better than I do.

Perhaps the least-bad thing to do -- as long as the stigma against giving cash remains -- is to convert that cash into gift certificates. I'm particularly partial to Amazon.com--hint, hint, potential gift-givers.

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