Another Argument for Legalizing Same-Sex Marriages

The voters of Maine disappointed me last week, voting to overturn a state law that allowed same-sex marriages.

Many public policy issues involve difficult tradeoffs. Health care, for example, is a hard issue. So is climate change. But same-sex marriage? That’s always struck me as a lay-up. It would benefit those who want to get married, while harming, as best as I can tell, no one. (In econo-speak, that’s called a Pareto improvement, and the first rule of economics is to take every Pareto improvement that life offers you.)

One sometimes hears the argument that allowing same-sex unions would weaken the institution of marriage. But I’ve never seen a plausible explanation of how that could happen. At best, the argument seems like a non-sequitur. And at worst, it may be exactly backwards.

As Theresa Vargas describes in today’s Washington Post, one group of people–the former spouses of homosexuals who tried to live as heterosexuals–believe that legalizing same-sex marriages would strengthen the institution of marriage: 

As the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage in the District grows louder and more polarized, there are people whose support for the proposal is personal but not often talked about. They are federal workers and professionals, men and women who share little except that their former spouses tried to live as heterosexuals but at some point realized they could not.

Many of these former spouses — from those who still feel raw resentment toward their exes to those who have reached a mutual understanding — see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward protecting not only homosexuals but also heterosexuals. If homosexuality was more accepted, they say, they might have been spared doomed marriages followed by years of self-doubt.

In short, the Pareto improvement from allowing same-sex marriages may be even bigger than I thought.


11 thoughts on “Another Argument for Legalizing Same-Sex Marriages”

  1. Indeed, on the occasions when I have sought rational discuss/debate with opponents of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples* I have invariably found that their arguments do not hold up under even a modest amount of rational scrutiny (nor are they generally able to even present much in the way of rational and sensible arguments). But I guess that is likely to happen when one is offering as rationale(s) something that is completely different from one’s actual rationale, which in this case is usually their desire to have governmental institutions promote/enforce their religious doctrine and/or discourage/prohibit deviation from it (and in some cases it’s simply bigotry). Knowing that we have a separation of church and state and that most people like it that way, those folks usually don’t want to admit their true rationale — that they believe their scripture prohibits homosexuality and that they want to use government to get more people to adhere more closely to their scripture — so they come up with and express all this ridiculous ostensible rationales.

    Lewis Black has a pretty good take on the whole nonsense (clip from 2006 performance)

    I also liked Jon Stewart’s line: “I used to be opposed to gay marriage, until I found out it wasn’t mandatory.”

    * Although I sometimes use the accepted shorthand “SSM” in long exchanges/comments, I generally don’t like to even use that term because it gives the vibe that the institution in question is (or would be) some new and distinct institution, “same-sex marriage”, rather than just giving equal access to the existing institution, “marriage”, without the government first requiring that the couple pass a genitalia test).

    1. I should add that, at least in some cases, their motivation is not as much any practical pursuit of the objective of getting more people to believe and behave in line (or more in line) with their religious doctrine, but simply the gratification — the sense of identity, community and moral superiority — they derive from all their self-righteousness.

      And of course, if their real objective were to “defend/protect traditional marriage”, they’d be devoting at least most of their time to banning divorce or at least making divorce much, much more difficult. Check out the “Protecting Marriage” and “Opposing “Special Rights” [for homosexuals]” entries in my Official 2007-2008 Political Glossary

    1. The subtitle of the blog is “Musings on Economics, Finance, and Life.” I’m quite sure that life is a broad enough term to encompass whatever Mr. Marron cares to write about.

      1. In fairness to Dick, I think it shows up on Dick’s computer screen as ““Musings on Economics, Finance, and Life unless I disagree with Dick

  2. I would tend to agree with Duke. It might be useful to look into the budget effects of marriage and possible gay marriage. Society is often giving up tax revenue to encourage marriage, presumably in part because of the children it encourages. Expanding marriage to gay couples would presumably result in a revenue loss. It therefore cannot be strictly pareto optimal, although you might come to the conclusion that the revenue losses are minor enough to be inconsequential

    1. Bob,

      Your presumption is that married same-sex couples would raise far fewer children, on average, than would married mixed-sex couples. I don’t know whether or not that premise is valid. And of course, it would be affected by any other policies that make it more difficult, policies related to adoption and other means (in vitro fertilization for a lesbian couple or surrogate motherhood for a gay male couple), and there’s also the debate over whether or not a child is better off with mixed-gender parents (just as some argue, erroneously in my view, that interracial couples, other things equal, provide an inferior environment for children than do same-“race” couples, so much so that it should be a major consideration in adoption policy — or in the case of transparent bigots, using that argument as cover for opposing legality of interracial marriage).

      And the government doesn’t require mixed-gender couples who want a marriage license to swear that they plan on having children or are at least open that possibility, nor does the government require proof of fertility or even require the couple to swear that they have no knowledge to the contrary, nor (I presume) does the government deny the marriage license if the woman is at a clearly post-menopausal age.

      Of course, none of the above really has anything to do with the true rationales of opponents of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. In some of my interactions with opponents who were focusing their objection on this point, I’ve asked if they would withdraw their objection to these marriage rights if same-sex couples were to get no tax advantages from marriage, and quite predictably it didn’t diminish their opposition one iota. And the same is true for every one of them with whom I’ve approached this issue rationally: Even if presented with a hypothetical that removes all their ostensible concerns and objections, they are still just as opposed. Because all they have is a bunch of grasping-at-straws, smokescreen arguments they present in lieu of just stating their real reason: religion, and their desire for the state to maintain an implicit affirmation of the rightness and importance of that aspect of their religious doctrine and to prevent conflicting behavior (and thought).

      1. I meant to say:
        “nor does the government deny the marriage license if the woman is at a clearly post-menopausal age, nor (I presume) does it deny related tax advantages.”

  3. Brooks, the fact that in your limited experience opponents of same sex marriage don’t base there opposition to same sex marriage solely on one argument or even that they are opposed to it regardless of argument doesn’t diminish the value (or lack thereof) of an argument. “Opponents of same sex marriage” have been a majority in nearly electoral test so far, often by overwhelming majority and even in very liberal states. You should be more careful about painting more than half the population with a single brush.

  4. Mr. Marron,

    Would you say that a similar Pareto improvement exists for polygamy and consensual adult incestuous marriages where one partner is sterile? Once you accept the rationale for gay marriage it seems difficult to me not to do likewise for these arrangments.

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