How Intimacy Works
How and why? It will take the rest of this book to answer that question adequately. But some preliminary answers deserve attention now. Over all of history, authorities have built their own templates of social relations and their boundaries into enforceable obligations and rights. Over most of history, however, valuation and compensation have occurred in nonmonetary forms, for example, by awarding title to land, services, symbols, or persons. That is still true in some branches of law, notably criminal law, where valuation, retribution, and compensation commonly concern life, honor, and freedom. In cases of disaster, accident, and lethal malfeasance, families reckon justice in terms of retribution, responsibility, and recognition of personal suffering as well as financial loss.
Nevertheless, with the expansion of monetized markets, Western legal systems did shift increasingly to monetary valuation, retribution, and compensation. Thus the legal arena frequently matches monetary transactions with social relations, employing standards of propriety that depend implicitly on templates derived largely from nonlegal social patterns, as translated into law by lawyers and judges. The two influence each other: participants in litigation draw on implicit catalogs of social relations that depend heavily on routine social interaction (and, at least in systems of case law and precedent, commonly lag behind current practice), but legal decisions (for example, conditions of eligibility for public welfare) also influence routine social relations and distinctions among them.
However confusedly, then, critics of commodification are pointing to some changes that actually occurred. Within the law, monetary standards of loss and gain have become increasingly prominent. As a consequence, such questions as whether an adult wage earner’s death deserves greater compensation than that of a dependent child or an aged person have weighed more heavily in legal disputes. More generally, across the Western world the range of goods and services available for money has expanded enormously during the last two centuries; widespread commodification really has happened. Commodification, moreover, means that differences in human welfare depend increasingly on market position.
Where people produce most goods and services outside of organized market economies, their variable monetary incomes and access to monetary capital do not necessarily determine whether they thrive or suffer. In extensively monetized economies, however, variation in human welfare depends heavily on differences between high wages, low wages, and no wages; between generous and stingy public benefits; between extensive, meager, and no inherited wealth. Furthermore, as wage, benefit, and wealth inequality increase, so do inequalities in human welfare. In this fundamental regard, commercialization of markets for labor, goods, services, and capital heightens the moral dilemmas faced by courts and citizens alike. Monetization does not in itself corrupt moral life. But it moves moral questions increasingly into the arena of cash and carry.
In all these regards, it helps to separate normative arguments from the statements of fact, possibility, and cause-effect relations that ordinarily accompany them in any program for change. We must recognize that hostile worlds disputes frequently involve questions of justice, inequality, power, and exploitation. Simply “letting the market do its work” rarely produces equity. Existing markets often generate inequitable outcomes. This happens for two main reasons. First, as a result of social experiences over which they have little or no control, people bring unequal resources into markets. Second, markets themselves regularly incorporate categorical inequalities, such as highly unequal rewards for similar work depending on whether the worker is male or female, employed in a big firm or toiling at home, providing services to the wealthy or the poor. Even if (as some economists proclaim) the overall operation of such markets produces efficiency in the sense of greater output per capita for equivalent inputs, whole categories of people walk away with lesser qualities of life. Reformers and radicals often respond to these circumstances with a hostile worlds conclusion: markets corrupt.
In order to arrive at clearer, more equitable, and more effective policies, however, we must get past the simple opposition of sustaining intimacy and corrupting markets. Any normative program such as wage equality for women involves not only a statement of preferences (it would be better if women received equal wages for equal work) but also statements of fact (where we stand now), statements of possibility (how equity would actually work), statements of cause and effect (what it would take to get from here to there). To understand fact, possibility, and cause-effect relations, we have no choice but to unpack existing relations between various forms of intimacy and economic transactions. Clearer descriptions and explanations will therefore facilitate the development of normatively superior programs. The idea of connected lives promotes clearer descriptions and explanations of what happens when intimacy and economic activity coincide.
The twenty-first century may well bring terrifying changes in social life, but they will not occur because commodification in itself generally destroys intimacy. This book challenges the widespread assumption that markets ipso facto undercut solidarity-sustaining personal relations. It offers an alternative to the conventional account of interplay between market transactions and personal relations. Its analysis of connected lives shows that across a wide range of intimate relations, in the provision of personal care, and in the complexities of household life, people manage the mingling of economic activity and intimacy by creating, enforcing, and renegotiating extensive differentiation among social ties, their boundaries, and their appropriate matching with commercial media and transactions of production, consumption, and distribution.