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Love Is Love: Workplace Edition

I'm Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and New York Times Bestselling author.

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“Love is love.” It sounds like mere tautology, but the Urban Dictionary says otherwise: “A phrase meaning that the love expressed by an individual or couple is valid regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of their lover or partner.” Over the last twenty years, this idea has gotten very far. It’s tempting to look back on earlier times as a puritanical era, when social mores cruelly forced people to hide their true feelings. Happily, hardly anything like that goes on today, right?

Wrong. For most people in search of love, modern conditions are more repressive than ever. In the United States alone, there are probably millions who hide strong affections because revealing them could swiftly destroy their livelihood.

Who are these people? Anyone who has a crush – or more – on a co-worker. While these people rarely publicize their existence, there can be little doubt that they number in the millions.

How do I know? Well…

Remember human nature? People don’t fall in love with an abstract ideal person. Instead, they usually fall in love with whoever they personally know who is closest to their ideal. If you have a job, the people you personally know best tend to be co-workers. You see them every day, you talk to them, you accomplish things together. It would be amazing if people weren’t falling in love with their co-workers all the time.

Why not just declare your feelings? Fear of rejection has always stood in the way of true love, but nowadays, love-struck workers face further terrors. The informal stigma against dating co-workers is severe: “You can’t ask her out; you work with her!” Formal employer hostility is probably even more intense. Lurking in the background – and pulling the strings – is the ominous threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Even the world’s biggest fan of romantic comedies doesn’t want to end up in court.

Do I exaggerate? I think not. I’m confident that when my co-workers read this post, they’ll be thinking, “Bryan, you shouldn’t even be talking about this issue. It’s bad for all of us.” But I’ve got tenure, and I’m taking a stand for freedom, happiness, economic efficiency, and true love.

While you could insist, “Sexual harassment law only punishes unwanted advances, so what’s the problem?,” this objection is truly obtuse. The reason why people fear rejection is that they don’t yet know if their advance is wanted! The upside of asking a co-worker out on a date remains the same as ever: Maybe, just maybe, they’ll agree. The downside, though, is bizarrely high. Besides the pain of rejection, you now face the stigma of your colleagues, the displeasure of your boss, and the shadow of the law.

Can’t you avoid the social blowback by asking ever-so-deftly? Perhaps, but as romantic comedies teach us, it’s easy to accidentally put your foot in your mouth. No matter how good your intentions and no matter how hard you try, misunderstandings often arise. Misunderstandings that can get your employer sued and you fired.

True, the probability that one meek request for a date leads to career apocalypse is low. But remember the old adage, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.” If you make a habit of trying to date co-workers, the worst will probably happen sooner or later. And from an employer’s point of view, the problem is even worse: You face the risk that one request for a date goes badly, but he faces the risk that any request for a date throughout his entire workforce goes badly.

To be clear, sexual harassment law has been around for decades. How then can a constant law explain rising puritanism? Simple: The law doesn’t enforce itself. You need plaintiffs to feel aggrieved, and jurors to sympathize with their plight. Since hypersensitivity keeps rising, so does the legal danger of office romance. And so do the broader social sanctions.

Can we really go back to a world where “Love is love” – even on the job? Yes, but only by abandoning central tenets of our secular religion.

1. Our secular religion reveres discrimination law. The reality is that these laws sound great, but work terribly. Why? Because they turn subjective personality conflicts into court cases. Between consenting adults, the argument of last resort should be, “If you don’t like it, quit,” not “If you don’t like it, sue.” Before discrimination law, of course, employers could and did try to prevent romance from disrupting business. Their response, though, was flexibly pragmatic rather than rigidly legalistic. As it should be.

2. Our secular religion ignores harsh trade-offs. The reality, though, is that the only way to prevent all unwanted attention is to ban all wanted attention as well. Statisticians often discuss the trade-off between Type 1 and Type 2 error: When you make it easy to punish the guilty with a low standard of proof, you automatically make it easy to punish the innocent as well. Which in turn leads to obsessive avoidance of anything that anyone might interpret as wrong-doing. Look around your workplace; that’s the scary situation we’re in.

When the U.S. first adopted discrimination laws, I doubt anyone declared, “We’re going to end ugly office romance by ending all office romance.” It took years for the logic of the law to play out. Now that we’re here, though, it’s time to admit that we’ve painted ourselves into a Kafkaesque corner. A society where you have to quit your job to declare your love is pathetic. “Love is love.” As long as current law endures, the inspiring slogan shall remain a hollow lie.


The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies - New Edition, – Illustrated (2008)

The greatest obstacle to sound economic policy is not entrenched special interests or rampant lobbying, but the popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases held by ordinary voters. This is economist Bryan Caplan's sobering assessment in this provocative and eye-opening book. Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their biases or else pretend to, resulting in bad policies winning again and again by popular demand.

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Bryan Caplan

Published 4 hours ago