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« Social Scientist Who Needs An Economists | Main | They Just Can't Say No »



I was just wondering if you could explain a bit more, what benifits you're talking about why believe "unbundling" them would be an alternative?

Dave Tufte

Sure thing - sometimes I just think that readers will fill in the blanks, but I'm sure I was just being unclear and lazy.

In almost all societies, marriage has (historically) been a contract that bundles together a lot of goods, bads, and services: sex, childbearing, childraising, property and inheritence rights, household production, spousal abuse, child abuse, and so on. It's a pretty serious bundle, which on net across society, seems to have worked out OK.

Then we come along in the 20th century and bundle (say) social security along with marriage. This is a good one to draw contrasts, because on the one side you have no property right to your expected social security payments, but your spouse might. (What's up with that?) That's probably something that on net encourages marriage. The bean counters have done the same thing by offering preferential insurance rates to married couples, even though marriage is almost certainly a proxy for something else.

So, we have an old institution that has some inheritence features (and many many indirect costs) to which we append some new benefits. Within a few generations a whole class of people appears out of thin air arguing that an institution that never applied to them and to which they had shown no previous interest should be extended in their direction.

Then people argue about it as if the moral implications are both primary and causal. They may very well be primary to a lot of people, but I don't think they're causal for anything like a substantial minority. I just don't think there are too many gay couples out there contemplating marriage as a way to thumb their noses at married heterosexuals as a group.

So, here's a suggestion. Rather than argue about the morality of gay marriage, why don't we decouple all the new property rights assigned to marriage from marriage. Everyone with an existing marriage gets a "civil union" certificate that covers things like health and retirement benefits. Anyone newly applying can ask for one or the other or both. My bet is that a lot of the clamor for gay marriage will evaporate (since most of the other net benefits of marriage can be duplicated with other contractual arrangements already).


So are you arguing that the recent clamor for gay marriage is a product of bundling the traditional benifits of marriage with new things like retirement benifits? And if we unbundle these benifits, then we would see less gay couples wanting to get married?

I'm not so sure I would agree. I'm sure that adding these new benifits makes getting married a sweeter deal, but I would imagine that gay couples benifit from the traditional benifits of marriage as a long term contract aswell--in particular mitigating the "hold-out" problem.

I'd also imagine that the reason gays have only recently been clamoring to get married is more a matter of politics and sociological reasons than any change in the institution of marriage (after all, social security has been bundled with marriage for several decades before the gay rights movement took off).

Dave Tufte

I wouldn't go quite that far.

What I would like to quantify is how much of the clamor for gay marriage is about bundled benefits. I don't think we have any objective idea if that is a small part of this movement or a large part. I recommend finding this out before proceeding any further.

I tend to agree with the second paragraph. But I wonder if marriage is just a one-stop-shopping version of whole bunch of contractual obligations that could be made in other ways. Again, the only way to quantify that is to offer a viable alternative.

I think there is some validity in the third argument as well. But, the bundling of (at least some) benefits is prima facie to the "political and sociological reasons". What if the bundling is causing those too?

I keep coming back in my mind to the facts that: 1) most of the traditional marriage features (e.g., inheritance) can be contracted for in other ways, and 2) we've bundled new features onto traditional marriage that can't be contracted for in other ways (e.g., health benefits).

Suppose that we went to one member of a gay couple who had health benefits and told them that they could extend them to their partner if they footed the bill. Common understanding in our society is that this offer would generally be refused, in favor of a claim that this ought to be paid out of the compensation account of the employer (because that is what they do for other couples). What's key here is that the parenthetical note is irrelevent (although clearly not nice). The key point in fact is that the claim that this should come from the employer rather than the employee is a backhanded way of getting a raise. I'm not against that, but I recognize it for what it is.

john top

My thoughts:

1) I caught the end of Law and Order episode where a gay couple were claiming marriage so that one wouldn't have to testify against the other. This is a right that couldn't granted outside a marriage / civil union type of deal. It's not a contractural issue, however, so it's a different kind of benefit.

2) For me, the gay marriage issue strikes directly at the equal protection clause of the constitution. We can't prevent two people from entering a marriage like contract simply because they're not the right sex. Some civil rights leaders don't like the analogy, but it's as clear to me as prohibitions against interracial marriage from back in the day.

3)Some of the more socially conservative states not only have banned gay marriage, but also gay civil unions. I think this shows their hostility towards gay and lesbians rather than their desire to "protect tradtional marriage" (whatever that vacuous term means).

Dave Tufte

Here are replies to the numbered paragraphs.

1) This is a good one. I wonder if it based in fact. I think that it won't be granted outside of marriage rather than couldn't be. However, it is certainly something that you could come close to with a performance (or lack-of-performance) bond.

2)I don't view the equal protection clause quite the same way. But if we run with your suggestion a bit, what is to prevent 3 people from getting married? And if firms and governments have legal standing, what is to prevent me from marrying Brooklyn (not that it would have me)?

3) Agreed. I am trying to make a positive suggestion though - if we unbundled marriage a bit, would some of this go away. Or ... would the voting coalitions that support it no longer be in the majority.

I'm a bit worried by your overall tone, John. I think this falls too close to claiming that what wasn't protected isn't protected - and that's a slippery slope that we ought to find a way to avoid.

john top

I'm not quite sure that there is a good reason to ban polygamy, as long as the contract is entered into by consenting adults. I'd have to suppose that are contracts that are valid only between humans but not between humans and legal entities, thus preventing anyone from marrying a borough (or even a burro). I tried to get some input from and came up with this muddled piece which argues for privating marriage, and removing any government sanction:

I'm not sure what you mean by "what wasn't protected isn't protected". Could you explain a bit more please? Is this saying that since same sex unions have not been afforded protection, then aren't entitled to protection? Or that we shouldn't extend the protection because they were never intended to be? Does the slippery slope mean that you're worried about extending marriage to other primates, supposing a union between Koko and Mr. Teeny?

Dave Tufte

I'm not sure this is a great reason to ban polygamy either. But, do people recognize that gay marriage may lead to that - I'm not sure.

By "what wasn't protected isn't protected" I did mean to imply that I feel there is an element in your arguments that marriage is not grandfathered because of the equal protection clause. The slippery slope is the potential dismissal of grandfathering as a reasonable possibility.

john top

Not grandfathered into what? I'm still not sure if I get it your point. I think state prohibitions on same sex marriage will be declared unconstitutional by a future Supreme Court and the unanimous opinion will cite the equal protection clause as the overriding factor. We're not yet there because our society changes at a glacial pace so this wasn't on the radar screen until 30 or 40 years ago.

I don't know that there's a lot of pent up demand for polygamy. You don't see a lot open or three way relationships in this country (though someone told me that it's pretty common in Scandanavia), which might be an indication of such demand. But this is something the anti-same sex union people will point to. Reminds me of the sham "pot as a gateway drug" discussions.

Dave Tufte

Marriage, in the traditional form, existed before the equal protection clause. Therefore, I think that arguments that traditional marriage violates the equal protection clause stand on shaky ground.

Arguing that there may not be a big pent up demand for polygamy is average rather than marginal thinking. There are people for which relaxation of the marriage laws will change their marginal decision.

BTW: John ... be real ... marijuana is a gateway drug. I'm pretty neutral about drugs - other than wanting everyone to have a safe and good time - but I don't have any illusions that marijuana serves the same purpose for (currently) illegal drugs that is served by beer wrt alcohol.

Dave Tufte

Seperate comment to get at a seperate point.

John: I think the fundamental difference in our arguments is that I'm arguing for unbundling marriage a bit, and you're arguing for additional bundling to make it work better.

john top

1) I'm not saying that traditional marriage doesn't violate the equal protection clause. Banning same sex marriages does, however. And this would have been a violation from ratification, though it's not something our founders were thinking of when they considered the equal protection clause.

2) I see your point about unbundling marriage, though as a society we're not inclined to take benefits away from anyone. Is this an unbundling example: the relatiohship between womans' higher workforce and higher education participation and lower marriage rates. The security that women used to only get from marriage can now be had without it. Would I have had more dates in the before 1965?

3) If by gateway you mean a cause and effect relationship between pot and harder drugs, then that's not really been proven (a 2002 Rand study casts doubt on the Gateway idea I started with beer and eventually worked my way to vodka, gin, or bourbon on the rocks but this was probably due more to my predisposition to substance dependence. I never tried cocaine or other harder drugs, despite using pot regularly at one time. I think the progression to harder drugs has to do more with self selection issues than cause and effect.

Dave Tufte

1) I agree with this point. But it brings me full circle to bundling. If something is appended to an existing institution (like benefits to marriage) that the married partners may benefit from, but might not have chosen to approve if given the opportunity, is society then required to extend that bundled package to unfavored groups under the guise of the original less-bundled institution?
2) I'm not sure I get your examples. In any event, I think there is a distinction between potential and actual effects of bundling. A woman doesn't have the right to higher labor force participation but she does have the right to her spouse's benefits.
3)There are some important semantics here. To me, "gateway" says a lot less than cause and effect, and I'll still stand by marijuana as a gateway drug.

john top

About 3) I guessed you didn't attribute much cause and effect. But that was what was promulagted by our Office of National Drug Contol Policy for years.

I'm done with thread if you are as well, as interesting and informative as it's been.

Dave Tufte

Well ... we all know how successful Washington has been with that stategy.



"well, in that case I'm quite sure I will never get married then" as in [you've got to do it yoresulf to get it done correctly kind a gir] not really true but that's what I felt reading it. I dunno, maybe we're just too progressive and don't understand that everyone else want the world to stay the same as the last hundred/thousand years /bitter woman without a ring who still thinks we can change the world, maybe if we have a lot of money and wack out all those mindless tv reality shows with "winner gets a RING and a husband to take care of you"

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