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Job Security Model of Relationships

I've got a great analogy to explain a common way people think about relationships that I think is really bad. This will make the most sense to the kind of people who are serious about capitalism, freedom and Objectivism. If you have a different perspective, try to understand even though you may disagree.

Some people really like the concept of at-will employment where anyone can be fired with no notice, for no reason given. You have to earn your job on a daily basis, and live up to it. There's no security or relaxation. You never keep a job when someone else wants it and has more merit.

Except this is mitigated by transaction costs – if you underperform by $5, but switching employees costs $500, then you can keep your job. Transaction costs keep things a little bit more stable, but really don't offer much security in most cases. Transaction costs are logical because if everyone was changing jobs every day it'd be chaotic and waste a lot of effort on retraining. They don't mess up the principle.

The principle involves interacting on a case-by-case basis, for mutual benefit each time. If the mutual benefit ever stops, the interaction stops. If someone can get a better deal elsewhere, they should do that (make sure to factor in the price of making a change, which includes researching alternative options, the risk the new one doesn't work as well as you predict, turning off any old recurring stuff, setting things up with the new guy, etc).

Other people less into freedom, capitalism, voluntary win/win interactions, economic literacy, reason, Objectivism, etc, have a different approach to employment. They want regulations to create job security. They want it to be hard to fire a person without giving a good reason. They want predictability and security, so people can relax once they get a job (they can't just do a terrible job, but they can relax and do a pretty good job and not worry about it). They want unemployment insurance/welfare and to make sure everyone has a stable job they can build a life around.

Some people prefer to be able to start and stop jobs easily, others prefer to just get a job and keep it. Both of those preferences are OK. What's not OK is regulations to make it hard to fire people and to protect their jobs even if the employer no longer considers it mutually beneficial to keep them. What's not OK is a ton of paperwork when you want to hire someone to increase the transaction costs of getting a new employee, to artificially reduce (via government policy, something built into the logic of reality) the frequency that people get replaced at a job.

If you want a stable longterm job, why not get a contract? Why not write in the contract that you're guaranteed to keep the job for 20 years as long as you meet some minimum conditions (specified in the contract), and if they want to fire you, they either have to have a good reason (specified in the contract, e.g. they went out of business) or else they have to pay you money to make up for it.

Of course such a contract would be very expensive. Who wants to commit to keep an employee long term and make it hard to replace them?

Categorize all scenarios into two groups. There are the scenarios where a person staying at a job has mutual benefit, and where it doesn't. For the first category, they are going to keep the job without any contract or regulations protecting them. But for the second category, they will only keep the job if there is a contract or regulations or something to protect their job security. The entire purpose of this sort of regulation that limits at-will employment is to keep people in jobs where there isn't mutual benefit. If you want a contract where the employer agrees that in some potential future scenarios, they will keep paying you money in a way they don't benefit from, then that's going to be very expensive. They would have to pay you a lot less, so they benefit so much most of the time to make up for the risk.

And what if, knowing it's hard to fire you, you don't do your best work? Why would anyone want to sign a contract setting it up for an employee to do that and get away with it? Well the government regulations work similarly. Those regulations lower wages, they encourage companies to have fewer employees and to be less willing to take a risk on someone they aren't really confident about (which especially hurts younger people without a long track record).

OK, now you've got a refresher on free employment – firing someone at any time without giving a reason – and regulated employment to create job security so people don't have to constantly strive to have the most merit.

Application To Relationships

Most long term relationships follow the job security model. (Most casual hookups follow the at-will employment model.) In particular, marriage tries to set up job security so you don't have to compete with everyone else your spouse might like better all the time.

The idea is you can relax and be secure in your marriage instead of constantly worrying about dog-eat-dog competition. You can have a stable situation to build a life around, at the cost of sometimes you have to sacrifice – do stuff that lacks mutual benefit, give up things you'd prefer instead. (Your spouse makes the equivalent sacrifice. You both sacrifice alternatives you regard as superior to the spouse. But also you lie that the spouse is the best, and you change your mindset to not look for alternatives and not think about whether alternatives are superior, to try to hide the sacrifice from yourself.)

Job security marriages are bad like job security regulations. Relationships should be merit and mutual benefit based, at all times, just like employment should be. If you want stability, figure out a rational contract that makes sense. If you can't do that, maybe it's because you're trying to make the future predictable in ways the future isn't predictable – so you have to sacrifice big things like the growth of knowledge to artificially create more predictability.

Marriage and job security encourage taking things for granted and coasting through life. And even if you're not married, having "the talk" and being officially "boyfriend and girlfriend" can also put things into that same mode where all the inertia is in favor of continuing on, and there's a lot of pressure to prevent changes. When you make relationship commitments that make change hard and artificially add extra cost to making a change, then that's irrationally propping up something that wouldn't work on merit alone.

Elliot Temple on June 15, 2015

Comments (4)


What about tenure? It gives professors academic freedom, without fear of being fired for disagreeing with current popular opinion.

Marriages give people freedom to engage in personal growth, which involves confronting your flaws, without fear that your spouse will leave you when they see those flaws.

Anonymous at 12:39 AM on July 25, 2015 | #2518
Tenure causes people to be fired for disagreeing – rather than giving tenure.

Tenure allows people to do a bad job.

Tenure does not allow you to say whatever you want. People can find ways around it if they're mad enough.

Have you looked at tenure in real life, or are you just thinking about the concept and how it's claimed to work?

And the same with marriage: have you seen how it works in real life? People can and do leave you over flaws, marriage or no marriage. It doesn't actually provide safety like that.

Elliot at 9:55 AM on July 25, 2015 | #2519
I am just thinking about the concept and how it's claimed to work.

I know it doesn't actually provide that. It isn't 100% safe. But it does increase the cost to leave, which gives you a little bit more security. You are assuming the reason people want this security is so that they can try less and coast through life.

But another reason people may want this is so that they can have the security to grow in a space that is safer than it would otherwise be. It is not entirely safe. Their spouse may still leave them. But they get a little bit more leeway than they would without the marriage commitment. They have more freedom to try new things & grow, without fear of losing their relationship.

Anonymous at 3:08 AM on July 26, 2015 | #2520
Being married is not safer like that.

You're comparing to having a like kinda serious girlfriend. If you compared to being single (including optionally some casual dating where people you date don't know what you do half the time), single gives you so much more space!

And if you're married, there is a lot larger downside of a breakup. So if you make a breakup 40% less likely, but 650% more expensive, now you may well have less leeway. That can easily be a more risky situation, not less.

Elliot at 6:12 AM on July 26, 2015 | #2521

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)