The customs of confectionery, flowers, and candlelit dinners are not the only way to celebrate the holiday. Valentine’s Day is also the perfect moment to defer to the wise romance novelist, Jane Austen, who insightfully explains love, human interaction, and even the occasional unromantic market interference.
Austen beautifully paints a picture of marriage markets in the 19th century. Eligible ladies and suitors gather together at balls and vie for the best marriage match. While women demand rank, title, and money as important attributes in a husband, men similarly desire beauty, talent, charm, and, of course, large dowries.
However, Austen aficionados can tell you that the blooming relationships are sometimes hindered by third party interveners. Austen’s arguably most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, depicts the rich and pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh interfering in the marriage match between her rich and titled nephew Mr. Darcy and heroine Elizabeth Bennet. She insists that Elizabeth cannot marry Mr. Darcy because Darcy and her daughter have been betrothed since infancy to protect the sanctity of her bloodline and merge their tremendous wealth.
Lady Catherine declares that Elizabeth should not marry Mr. Darcy:
Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.
At the end of their unpleasant clash, Elizabeth arrives at a final and crucial judgement:
I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.
Fear is the main driver of Lady Catherine’s threats; she attempts to intimidate Elizabeth into fearing how society will treat her and away from her agency to choose from the marriage market. Luckily, Elizabeth resists this interference to pursue optimal happiness.
While fear becomes a tool for Lady Catherine to control the structure of society, this tool is commonly employed by other third party interveners – such as the government – in the market.
As Adam Smith himself noted:
Fear is in almost all cases a wretched instrument of government, and ought in particular never to be employed against any order of men who have the smallest pretensions to independency.
Throughout history, government continues to show how it uses fear as a common tactic for controlling society, whether it be the Red Scare, The Manhattan Project, The Cold War, or the Covid-19 lockdowns, to name a few.
While third parties – whether they are Lady Catherine or governments – may seem to care about the outcomes of society, their actions prove to be self-interested. Lady Catherine is mainly concerned with preserving her bloodline and family wealth. Likewise, politicians tend to care about getting reelected, receiving favors from special-interest groups, or gaining potentially lucrative seats on company boards.
One recent example is when former President Trump instated a 50 percent tariff on washing machines in response to Michigan manufacturer Whirlpool’s complaints that domestic producers were being endangered by foreign competitors. Because of pressure from Whirlpool and the focus on protecting US producers, government intervened, breaking up the market romance between consumers and foreign producers of washing machines.
Unlike the bountiful selection from a box of chocolates, choices for washing machines are more scant as prices rise due to tariffs. Foreign companies experience tighter profit margins and could be pushed out of the US market entirely. Governments’ detrimental intrusions in the market altogether call into question the motives of a third party: politicians are elected to serve the people, yet the majority of people (consumers) are being deprived by their interference.
Fortunately, Austen’s heroine is set on acting independently and astutely illuminates the overarching issue: that Lady Catherine is “so wholly unconnected to [her].” Why should people trust the judgements of others who do not know them? Why defer to others – strangers who have no connection to you – to make decisions for you, whether they are about marriage or policy?
This all is not to say that Austen is offering commentary on government. Her prose is useful in commenting on human behavior and interaction, factors of decision-making, marriage matches, negative social influences, and so on. The beauty of literature is that it can serve as models of economic behavior.
What is similar about love and business connections? Both are relationships, resulting from voluntary interactions between people and the reliance on one another to promote human flourishing. Thus, involving another party could ruin the mutual benefit of a burgeoning relationship.
As we see from Austen’s archetypes and the track record of governments, these interfering third parties have the potential to ruin the romance between two individual actors in the market. Relationships between a business and customer or two lovers can last a lifetime and engender terrific prosperity without requiring the involvement of outside participants.