Love, Insanity, and Austrian Economics

Love has been called “divine madness” for good reason. From the outside, it can be hard to distinguish true love from true insanity. We’ve all met couples with love stories that blur the line between romantic and completely nuts. But as crazy as these stories might sound, we can explain them perfectly with the lens of Austrian Economics. We can turn the insane into the rational – without losing too much romance in the process.

Take a wonderful story of romantic insanity: my father. My Dad proposed, seriously, to my mother one week after they met. He was 19; she wisely declined. But after a few months, he proposed again. He said he “felt their spirits merged”. She again declined. A few months later, he proposed a third time – all within the first year of meeting. She said no.

But then, for some reason, my mother reconsidered and called up my Dad to accept his proposal. He quickly bought a ring and sent it to her in the mail – he was in the Navy at the time. They got married after one year of knowing each other, and after having spent less than three months physically together. Their poor parents.

History is filled with even more dramatic displays of romance: Mark Antony committed suicide after being told Cleopatra was dead; the Taj Mahal was built by an emperor grieving his wife; Peter Abelard wound up getting castrated for his forbidden relationship with Héloïse. Clearly, love is powerful, whether it’s due to insanity or not.

Before talking about Economics, I must clarify: I am not referring to “love” as it is popularly defined – where “I love you” means “I really, really like you”. I am talking about the deepest kind of love, which you can only understand by experiencing. The kind where you’d be willing to jump off a bridge if necessary to show your love. In the deepest of moments, if my wife asked me to dismember myself, I would. Does that make me crazy? Not at all.

We can understand this behavior using simple economic concepts, starting at the foundation: humans act in accordance with their preferences. We have various goals, and we value the different means used to achieve those goals; when we act, we demonstrate which goals we value most.

To illustrate, imagine you have a bottle of water. You have options: you could drink it, give it to your dog, wash your hands, throw it at somebody, or do something else. If you choose to drink it, for example, you’ve demonstrated that quenching your thirst is your highest-valued goal at that time. After all, if you valued washing your hands more than quenching your thirst, you would have acted differently. Your action has revealed your preference.

The same holds true when you’re in love. If you’re highest-valued goal is the expression of love, you act accordingly. If you can achieve your goal by cutting off an ear, you get a knife. If your love requires you to hike across the country barefoot, singing the theme song to Power Rangers, you start tonight – the consequences don’t matter. Of course, from the outside, people would think you’re crazy, but from the inside, you are acting rationally in accordance with your goals.

You can think of falling in love as simply re-ordering your preferences – as romantic as that sounds. And this re-ordering can be radical. You end up valuing another person more than yourself, which fully explains why lovers would jump in front of trains for each other. In Mark Antony’s case, his valuation of life itself was tied to love. Without love, there was no more reason to live. So ultimately, though I’m sure he was depressed and grieving, his suicide was a rational decision. He did not value life – at all – without love.

So when you hear some Romeo writing about how he’d “go to the ends of the earth” or “walk a million miles” for his Juliet, it isn’t rhetorical flourish; it’s true. In fact, it’s so true, it’s scary. When love is your highest-valued end, you are willing to do anything for it. It might sound nice to say:

“Darling, I would jump off a bridge for you!”

It sounds a bit less romantic to say:

“Darling, I would push people off a bridge for you!”

Just how far, in a bad way, would somebody go for true love? It’s disturbing to think about. And to be honest, those moments of extreme love are coupled with terror. For two reasons: I really feel like I would do anything, and it puts me at the mercy of my wife. She could crush me or make me a criminal, on demand. I suppose extreme love comes with extreme fragility.

And in the case of my parents, their re-ordered preferences and fragility with each other worked. They were married for almost 35 years.

By using the lens of Austrian Economics, we can turn apparent madness into sanity. So next time you see shameless, infatuated lovers, rest assured – they aren’t insane. Suck out all the romance and realize: they are simply acting in accordance with their preferences.