The Curious Case of the Incurious Economists

State-sanctioned same-sex marriage restructures the incentives for child-rearing arrangements, and much else. Few are thinking through how people will react.

I recently participated in a round-table discussion about marriage, freedom, and the state. Most of the participants were libertarians and economists. The default position of virtually everyone in the room was a presumption in favor of redefining marriage as the union of any two persons. Normally, economists and libertarians take pride in tracking the changes in incentives as far through society as possible. Yet on the subject of same-sex marriage, these economists seemed uncharacteristically incurious. They seem to think same sex-marriage will affect only the handful of people who 1) currently identify themselves as gay or lesbian, 2) are partnered, and 3) want to get married. My economist friends do not seem to see that redefining marriage will create changes in the social incentive structure for everyone. If I’m right, the behavior of many millions of people could be in play.

Permitting people to form same-sex unions will not be the last change to the legal landscape. The entire culture, including the coercive apparatus of the state, will be pressed into service to promote same-sex relationships as wholly unexceptional. The ultimate goal of these efforts will be to make the gender of one’s partner a matter of no particular significance, a mere coin toss. Society should not only permit same-sex unions, but it should also have no preference at all for opposite-sex unions. This is an undeniable — and I believe unavoidable — consequence of same-sex marriage. The provincial government of Quebec has already outlined its program for combating homophobia and heteronormativity.

This is significant because it will reduce or even eliminate the stigma attached to forming a same-sex union. Therefore, choosing a partner of the same sex will be a live option for everyone, not just for the 3% of the population that currently defines itself as gay or lesbian. We can safely predict that some women will decide that it is easier, all things considered, to team up with a girlfriend for parenting purposes. Think of it: You could have a child through artificial means and an anonymous donor. You can have the legal rights and benefits of a state-sanctioned relationship with a compatible friend. You can avoid the headaches involved with dealing with a pesky man, who, if actually the child’s father, might have his own opinions about the child’s upbringing. The baby can be entirely your project, with a little help from your friend and an accommodating legal and social environment.

A woman in this situation might very well continue to have sex with men. She could have a stable non-sexual relationship with her female partner and cycle through a series of male sex partners with whom she might or might not have kids. The stability of her non-sexual “marriage” with the girlfriend could allow her to have kids with multiple fathers. Instead of marriage being something that attaches mothers and fathers to their children and to each other, this new form of “marriage” will become the vehicle for “multi-partner fertility,” a family form that is fraught with difficulty and complications.

All the incentives for this behavior are being put into place. It is very curious that the economists are not curious about this.

Notice that I’m not saying that women will choose to become lesbians. I’m saying some women will choose to form same-sex unions, regardless of their sexual orientation. After all, we won’t insist that people prove they are gay. Anyone can choose a partner of either gender for any reason that seems good enough to him or her. In fact, a same-sex union need not be a sexual union at all.

In other words, we create the legal institution of same-sex marriage to protect the interests of gays and lesbians, believing their sexual orientation to be an immutable characteristic. But lots of people can change lots of different aspects of their behavior. Hence, what initially appears to be a small change in the definition of marriage to accommodate a few will become a legal innovation that changes incentives for everyone.

You might say, “So what? Women engage in multi-partner fertility right now. What does same-sex marriage have to do with it?” First, calling this twosome a marriage means that the two of them legally count as parents for the others’ children. The biological father is presumably off the hook for any form of child support. A certain type of man will love this, but the rest of us shouldn’t be so cavalier about it.

Again, you might say, “So what?” Why should the government care about these private decisions? Women and children in this situation might get along just fine, and think of all the conflict we could avoid if we could just get the men out of the family. But please realize what this position entails. Parenthood will be completely individualized, with the mother as sole proprietor and the state as a silent partner. Two women doing parallel parenting will be considered the equivalent of two biological parents working together as a team for the benefit of their common offspring. Society would be tacitly claiming that children need nothing from their fathers, a claim which flies in the face of hundreds of studies about the negative impact of father absence. You can hardly claim that this is “no big deal,” or even a position of state neutrality.

You might also say, “Women aren’t going to do that. They are romantics at heart and still want to get married to a man.” If you take this position, you are probably the kind of person who thought no-fault divorce would only lower the cost of divorce for the handful of people who would get divorced at all. Maybe you thought that legalizing abortion would only change the behavior of the handful of cases of rape and incest.

In other words, the economist in me is saying, “Don’t be na├»ve.” Incentives matter.

Same-sex marriage will put into motion a whole series of forces. We have no basis for assuming that every link in that sequence of causes and effects is going to be completely benign.

Hence, my puzzlement continues: Isn’t it curious that my economist friends are so incurious? And when, if ever, are we going to have a national conversation about whether we want the kind of society that redefining marriage will bring about?

[This article was first published in The American Thinker January 17, 2010 and is used by permission of the author.]

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  • Cooky642

    As to WHEN to have that conversation, it seems to me preferable to have it BEFORE those “changes” take place rather than after. What did we learn as children? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”!

  • Kathryn

    I rather doubt the conversation will happen any time soon. Probably not until we are in the middle of the swamp, or much much futher into the quick sand.

    Suggesting that there are there are economic ramifications to people’s marriage and/or procreative decsions–even in a philosophical way–can bring on a firestorm of criticism. It is way too emotional an area to touch. I am not at all surprised that economists–who are often unemotional analytical types–would prefer not to have that conversation.

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  • goral

    Economists look at the landscape through a money lens. While traditional families make for a stable and moral society, they do not form the type of populace that looks to the gov’t for support nor do they concern themselves with the economy when making their family budgets.
    The “love makes a family” types do look to the gov’t to give them legal and financial benefits. This stimulates the gov’t toward more control and stimulates business by their looser type of spending habits. They both win in the short run.
    I want mine now is all that matters in this type of a model.

  • cayush

    This is very interesting. Maybe someone could research more into the effect of same-sex marriage in immigration processes. In my point of view, if marriage is redefined, it will be easy for anyone to find a USA citizen “partner” to legalize their migratory situation. And there would be absolutely no question that could be asked to find out if the “couple” is for real or not. Just throwing this out if anyone specialized in the subject might want to explain it in a better way and say if I have a point or not.

  • Kathryn


    Not true (about the money lens thing). Or at least not true of a good economist (Thomas Sowell is probably near the top of the modern day list).

    “Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses…[It] is not about the financial fate of individuals [but} about the material well-being of society as a whole…Money doesn’t even have to be involved to make a decision be economic. When a military medical team arrives on a battlefield where soldiers have a variety of wounds, they are confronted with the classic economic problem of allocating scarce resources which have alternative uses.”

    I will say that a lot of libertarains don’t want to hear that perhaps contraception, IVF, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, marriage/divorce and all those thorny issues are, well, thorny issues. I don’t think it has to do with money, so much as resisting what they perceive to be control from the outside (Big Gov’t, Big Religion, that kind of thing.)

    That view probably colors the judgement of many otherwise good economists, although I do think both Sowell and his friend Walter Williams are pro-life (meaning here anti-abortion). I suspect that if you get them thinking deeply, they might be willing to admit that contraception and the like are not good things, but they might also deeply resist saying it was sinful, because, of course they have to pass judgement on themselves, family, friends, etc. That is very tough to do. Even for people who are deeply committed to the Catholic view of things.

  • Kathryn

    Oh, the quotes above come from the first chapter of Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell.

  • goral

    You’re right, Kathryn if we’re referring to the two names you mention and others in their league. The late Milton Friedman would be another.
    I’m thinking of Volker and Pelosi, yes Pelosi the expert of the hour. She did say that abortion is good for the economy.
    I said, through the money lens, because we pretty much put a dollar value on all our economic resources.
    Thanks for your additional qualifying comments.

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