Photo illustration by John Lyman



How Markets Created Modern Marriage

In colonial America, early marriages often disregarded the importance of “love” altogether. It was not uncommon for men and women to marry without ever meeting each other. For example, between 1620 and 1622, approximately 150 “pure and spotless” women arrived in Virginia and were auctioned off for about 80 pounds of tobacco to their future husbands. The auction served as their first encounter.

The idea that marriage should be based on love is a relatively recent development and does not align with traditional practices. Instead, it emerged as a result of the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, and the economic forces of modern capitalism.

So, if you are fortunate enough to marry the one you love, you can thank capitalism for that.

Allow me to elaborate.

As entrepreneurs established new businesses and hired workers, the need for extended family support diminished. Workers could sustain themselves through their own labor, and people began migrating from rural areas to cities in search of better opportunities. Consequently, the nuclear family replaced the extended family as the primary family structure.

With increased prosperity, the demand for child labor decreased, and children started receiving an education. Simultaneously, romantic love gained prominence as the foundation of family formation.

Under the pre-industrial system, marriages and families were centered around survival, with love playing a minor role. Individuals entered into marriages based on financial considerations. Among the aristocracy, marriages were driven by power and politics, rather than love. For romantic fulfillment, they often sought affairs outside of marriage.

The extended family’s economic significance declined with the rise of capitalism, rather than being initiated by it. In pre-capitalist societies, the family’s main function was survival and labor production. Before industrialization, having children was primarily a means to contribute labor for running farms and ensuring food production for survival.

The Industrial Revolution led to a significant shift by liberating individuals from the previous family/land system. In the past, survival without the farm and the large families working on it was impossible. However, the new economic reality reduced the necessity of marriage. As the need for survival marriages declined, voluntary unions replaced mandatory ones.

Sociologist Barry Adams explains, “Capitalism laid the groundwork for voluntary relationships based on personal preference, the precondition for ‘romantic love.’ Capitalism did not cause romantic love, it allowed it to flourish.”

Marriage became less about economic survival and more about romantic companionship and individual happiness. In the book Intimate Matters, John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman elaborate on this transformation. They write, “Sons and daughters not only chose mates with less attention to property and family considerations, but some young people even disregarded parental opinion altogether. Operating within a political climate that decried tyranny and exulted the rights of the individual, some children married over parental objections while others failed to inform their parents at all.”

This economic revolution brought about profound changes. The average standard of living increased, and the mortality rate significantly declined, while the birth rate remained steady. Historian T.S. Ashton estimates that the English death rate was 35.8 per thousand for the decade ending in 1740, which dropped to 21.1 by 1821. Death rates decreased faster than birth rates, leading to population growth. By 1831, the population of England and Wales reached 16.5 million, despite substantial emigration, compared to 5.5 million in 1700. Prior to this period, population growth was minimal due to high mortality rates.

As productivity rose, child labor decreased, and education levels increased, even among the working class. This, in turn, further boosted productivity and individual prosperity. With survival becoming easier for many, people began seeking out aspects of life that brought them happiness, including choosing whom to marry. This shift occurred regardless of sexual orientation.

The traditional family evolved because capitalism allowed it the freedom to do so. This transformation was particularly evident as Western liberalism replaced the static world of aristocratic, conservative rule.

Marxists misinterpreted the implications of family and markets. While they wrongly associated capitalism with the exploitation of labor for production, conservatives also erred in their perception. In the past, conservatives viewed capitalism as a threat to “traditional family values” because it facilitated the replacement of the extended family with the nuclear family. However, even conservatives gradually evolved and began arguing that capitalism and “family values” were intertwined, now referring to the nuclear family.

The conservative perspective shared a similar fallacy with the Marxist viewpoint. In reality, capitalism enabled the freedom to form romantic relationships and build families based on happiness. Children were no longer seen solely as economic necessities but were either conceived accidentally or intentionally for the parents’ happiness. This shift resulted in improved treatment of children and declining infant mortality rates.

Capitalism transformed the family’s function from one of desperate survival to individual happiness. Once happiness and emotional security took precedence over reproduction, the “necessity” of exclusively allowing heterosexual marriage diminished, and the family further evolved toward prioritizing individualistic happiness.

Love, rather than survival, became the primary motivation for marriage. This holds true wherever market liberalism flourishes.