I like the application of economics to ridiculous subjects as much as the next person (most likely, this next person is also an economist). So when I saw the inimitable Lindy West write on Jezebel “Sex Is Not an ‘Economy’ and You Are Not Merchandise,” I knew I’d be into it before reading it. BUT EVERYTHING IS AN ECONOMY! Surely there is a way for economists for project their self-designated expertise onto any subject.
West was reviewing a short article in the New York Post by Naomi Schieffer Riley arguing “The Price of Sex Has Gotten Too Cheap” and the accompanying cutesy little youtube video on “The Economics of Sex” going through the economic arguments reiterating old platitudes about women giving away the milk for free so no one will want to buy the cow. West does a good job bringing up all the ridiculousness in the contradictory and straight up patriarchal arguments presented in the video, but its worth it to also just point out, at a basic level, this is not how economics is done. Or at least now how good economics is done.
Economics relies on models as metaphors for how the world works. The world does not actually operate on straight lines with equilibriums at intersection points. Has anyone ever actually seen a real life supply curve? These models as metaphors rely on some simplification by making a few restrictions of what we’re looking at and abstraction from the complexity of the social world. This is an okay thing to do if it still helps us understand some overarching tendencies so we can make basic predictions about how things might work in the future and guide policies to incentivize some thing that is (or should be, in good policy) generally decided to be positive (home ownership, employee hiring, etc.).
However, describing the world through economics gets it a little backwards when instead of using economics to understand the world, we try to project backwards and force these oversimplifications required in economic modeling back onto the world. Another example I think of is the neoliberal free market policies imposed on Latin America in the 70s by the Washington Consensus. Because economic modeling relies on simplifying things, economists often develop models that are based on the premise of a free market. This is because removing the frictions that exist in the real world from our models make them much easier to mathematically handle. Straight lines are easier to calculate than discontinuous and chaotic curves with both known and unknown data points. But neoliberal economics lost sight of the underlying justification for the use of modeling in economics and got it backwards. The policies developed during this time attempted to force economies to behave like models, rather than developing accurate models to describe economies so we can understand how to make them stronger and make some predictions.
I think this fault is also at the core of how dumb the argument that sex is a commodity. Over-simplification can have a use in trying to understand complicated issues, maybe like sex (but probably not like sex), but this does not mean that we should try to project the simplicity of models back onto the real life phenomena that we are investigating. People do not and should not treat sex like an economic commodity. In introductory economics, we are taught a world in which there are only two commodities that can be traded for each other. This is a simple way to understand how different supplies and demands interact with each other through price. But this does not meant that there are actually only two commodities (like sex and marriage) or even any finite calculable number of commodities in the market. Maybe using some principles of economics can describe overarching tendencies, like “costs” associated with sex and marriage and how it influences how people engage in relationships with each other, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to concretely put forth the notion that we should treat sex and marriage like it exists in an abstract model of supply and demand curves where one gender has the supply of sex (women) and one gender has the supply of marriage (men). Let’s pull our heads out of our economics text books long enough to realize that not only are sex and marriage not commodities like this, but any commodity does not actually behave in a market like this.
Economists can have all the fun they want thinking they are experts in everything (because we are), but let’s keep in mind that just because models help explain the world doesn’t mean that the world is actually a model. In fact, Patron Saint of Neoliberal Economics, Milton Friedman, once quoted fellow Chicago Economist Ronald Coase in writing, “economics has been becoming more and more abstract, less and less related to what goes on in the real world. In fact, economists have devoted themselves to studying imaginary systems, and they don’t distinguish between the imaginary system and the real world.” And let’s not forget it.