BENAZIR BHUTTO, the 34-year-old Pakistani opposition leader, recently announced her agreement to a marriage arranged by her mother. The Oxford- and Harvard-educated Ms. Bhutto was quoted as saying, ``I don't think anyone in the West could understand it.'' For Bhutto, an arranged marriage seemed an answer to the difficulties inherent in a woman leader with great visibility attempting to meet a marriageable man in a Muslim society lacking any socially countenanced means for single men and women to meet. Her fianc'e's father, Hakim Ali Zadari, was a supporter of her own father, the late President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Zadari family first suggested the marriage about a year ago.

I think Ms. Bhutto underestimates how close and how sympathetic to the institution of arranged marriages many in the West are. By custom, my own great-grandmother in Russia was originally betrothed while still a child. Her loving father quite atypically broke this engagement for her when she fell in love with a gymnasium classmate of her brother's.

Most parents of that era would have held to the original arrangements - but not because they were grasping for socially advantageous marriages.

Rather, parents expected that with their experience (and help of a matchmaker), they were better qualified than their child to find a suitable spouse. Parents who loved their child (as most parents do) looked for a match likely to make their child happy.

Jay Siegel, a former senior statistician of the United States Census Bureau and now a professor at Georgetown University's Population Center, once asked me, ``Do you really think our grandparents on average were less happy at the end of their lives than we with our love matches are?'' We both felt there was a lot of wisdom in the answer of the wife in ``Fiddler on the Roof'': ``If bearing your children and caring for you for 25 years is love, then I love you.''

The essence of arranged marriages persists everywhere in so-called modern society. Even today most people are understandable as a product of their family's culture and their own education. What they want and expect in a spouse and what they expect to offer is predictable and quite standardized within their milieu. If parents no longer locate a logical marriage candidate, other institutions take over. Even as the Japanese opt for ``love matches,'' they conveniently fall in love with the friends of their classmates or with their officemates.

How does this work in the United States? Well, while in graduate school at Cornell University, I shared an apartment with a middle-class college graduate from Manhattan. The next year I introduced her to an engineer from a middle-class family, Jewish, like my roommate's, on Long Island.

Two months later they were engaged. I asked her, ``Are you sure you're doing this because you are in love with him and not because he is so sociologically correct?'' Her wise answer I recall to this day:

``Did you ever stop to think that just because it's right, it's right?'' They recently celebrated their 18th anniversary.

With such agreement on the men's and women's roles, you get well-matched couples. The US in the 1970s experienced both the end of a consensus on marital roles and a phenomenal jump in intermarriage rates between different ethnic and racial groups. Some of these marriages have endured; many others have failed. Predictability in either matching mates or foreseeing future happiness declined sharply.

In a more traditional society there may be less individual freedom but more satisfaction from fulfilling a known role. So when Benazir Bhutto announced she will marry a man of similar education and of a family known to her own, the decision was understandable.

B. Meredith Burke is a demographer and economist.

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