When the Modern Library polled more than 200,000 readers in 1998 to compile its 100 Best Novels list, voters in the poll selected writer Ayn Rand, an objectivist novelist, as the clear winner. Books by Rand took the top two spots and a total of four places in the top 10.

Rand’s popularity on college campuses and elsewhere has stemmed largely from the appeal and controversy of her views on topics like rationality and capitalism, but she also had a very interesting perspective on relationships, which could be described as laissez-faire meets sexuality. Her view that relationships should be an exchange of value, in many ways parallel to an economic transaction, is both useful for thinking about modern relationships and increasingly reflective of a reality in which it’s okay (and, in many cases, ideal) to shop around.

When many of our parents were young, “going steady” and dating were the customary practices surrounding relationships. Our great-grandparents might have been more familiar with “calling.” On college campuses today, traditional dating has been largely supplanted with the ultimately more liberalizing hookup culture. Keeping things casual has increasingly become the norm, and it has become both common and socially acceptable for young people to engage in “hookups” — a conveniently ambiguous term that refers to anything from kissing to bumping uglies outside the context of a committed and monogamous relationship.

In her book “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus,” researcher Kathleen Bogle indicates that as much as 78 percent of college students at large public universities engage in hookups. And friends-with-benefits relationships — which involve intimacy and passion with low commitment — are now common as well. A recent study by Bisson and Levine called “Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship” suggested that 60 percent of college students have engaged in such relationships. A lot of young adults today are deferring committed relationships to later in life, a fact that’s evidenced in the ages at which people are marrying: on average at roughly 27 for men and 25 for women. All in all, it seems most college students and recent graduates are opting in favor of keeping their options open.

In market economies, consumers benefit from the freedom to shop around, compare products and select the ones that provide the value they’re looking for at the lowest cost. Modern behavior toward relationships is in many ways similar — students can interact with a wide variety of people in a variety of ways while having the freedom to attempt relationships with those who provide the greatest value for the cost.

But pairing up looks a lot different in an ideal economic market. For one thing, there’s the big complication that every person is unique. It’s relatively easy to assess a watchamacallit in a store, but hard to really know the traits of another person. Markets have ways of dealing with problems like this, but a lot of them don’t work for relationships. If I buy a hoodie and decide I don’t like it, I can simply return it — this reduces my concern that I don’t know about the quality and value of the product I’m buying. Romantic partners are a lot harder to simply return, which is one reason why it’s often advantageous for people to get more information — to get to know each other in casual settings and compare one another to other people they’ve previously known — before they buy the goods.

Aside from Match.com and its ilk, the “market” for human partners is also pretty fragmented, making it hard for many people to locate what they’re looking for. If someone is looking for a partner with a rare personality type and particular traits, it can be pretty difficult to find one. So sometimes, the most rational strategy is a shopping approach — to meet, flirt, try out and do various other things with a lot of people to increase your chances of encountering one you’re willing to hold onto. One benefit of modern sexual culture is that it allows people to practice this to a greater extent.

Probably the biggest problem in forming relationships is that many people simply don’t know what they want. Rational people have preferences about what they want from most products when they buy them. But while intelligent adults consider factors like whether or not their car is kid-friendly before they purchase it, they often fail to give an honest assessment of whether a person they have feelings for can really provide the sort of intimacy, interaction and experiences they want. Just as consumers can make a bad decision when they lack a good understanding of what they want, people tend to make bad decisions when they enter relationships without knowing their preferences in relationships, intimacy and partners.

In relationships, as in economics, people suffer negative consequences when they don’t inject rationality into their decision-making. It’s my view, and I think Ayn Rand’s, that an ideal relationship occurs not as the result of mere chance or uncontrollable feelings, but when two people recognize the value in being with one another and make an informed decision to do so.

Brian Flaherty is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at bfla@umich.edu.

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