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.