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March 18, 2012


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I find this an incredibly naïve presentation of the issue. The objections to gay marriage (or perhaps more accurately in the case of the government proposal, ‘gender neutral marriage’ for everyone) tend to arise from three concerns: 1. public meaning; 2. the common good and the goods of particular parties vested in marriage; 3. divine command.

The first concern is one of truth. ‘Marriage’ names a difference, something unique about the lifelong commitment between a man and a woman consummated in coitus, a rule to which same sex unions are exceptions, exceptions that must be treated in a sui generis fashion. This definition of marriage maintains it as an expression of the unique social significance of unions that bring together the two sexes in lifelong bonds of love, cooperation, and mutual dependence. It maintains the importance of marriage as something that relates to some of the deepest pre-political and aneconomic roots of our human nature – sexual difference, procreation, the bonds between biological parents and their offspring, the bonds of blood, etc. – things that cannot merely be positioned by a simplistic public-private dichotomy, as the private sexual union between a man and a woman has the intrinsic capacity to render itself public through procreation. To tolerate same sex marriage as equal would be to tolerate the reorganization of society around the lie that the exception can deny, negate, or claim the same status as the rule.

The second concern is one of justice. Although our society increasingly thinks of marriage in subjective terms, in terms of the rights of individual lifestyle consumers, as an institution marriage exists to serve far greater ends than those of the couple. This is why marriage comes with social norms such as lifelong fidelity and sexual exclusivity, and with the presumption of openness to child-bearing and rearing. Marriage represents one of the few common goods that hasn’t yet been completely sacrificed to the maw of liberal capitalist individualism. Marriage upholds the normativity of the interdependence or ‘marriage’ of the sexes in society more generally. It maintains the normativity of the binding together of biological (genetic and gestational), social, and legal parenthood, and discourages deviations from this norm. It maintains the rights of children to non-complex origins, a lineage, and a parent of both sexes. It maintains the norm and ideal of the child whose origins are not mediated by law, politics, medical technology, or economics. The sexual union of pledged bodies between the male and the female in marriage is the spring from which a new society will arise, and the couple represent society in nuce (male and female in cooperation) to their offspring. To tolerate same sex marriage would be to jeopardize the goods of society more generally, and of children in particular for the sake of particular individuals. It would be to increase the power of the liberal state and the capitalist order by denying the significance of certain horizons of our being and allowing the economic and legal order to mediate them even more.

The third concern is one of religious duty and morality. To justify a departure from the God-given definition of marriage as framed by sexual difference, and naturally ordered towards procreation would be to reject the authority of divine truth and command.

The notion that those opposing same sex marriage would be prepared to trade on the matter is unwittingly strong testimony to the fact that this really is a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, as you put it in your post. The notion that same sex marriage resistance rests primarily upon some sense of irrational and instinctive ‘discomfort’ with the notion, the sort of discomfort that might be palliated by financial compensation, detached from concerns of truth, justice, morality, and duty, is one that most of us who oppose same sex marriage would find highly objectionable.

In fact, many of us would rather not have to oppose same sex marriage at all. The position doesn’t win us many friends, and we are constantly attacked as homophobic bigots by persons who consistently avoid engaging with the issues that we raise. We oppose it because we feel compelled to on the grounds of integrity, moral and religious duty, or on the basis of our responsibility to uphold the common good and the rights of the most vulnerable in our society. These are the sorts of things that cannot be bought off. I don’t have the right to sell the rights of children or the common good of society for private gain, nor could I sacrifice my integrity by pretending that a lie established as public meaning is really the truth. As for religious duty, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?


I reckon that if you are against gay marriage the best idea is not to marry someone of the same sex.

Account Deleted


As far as the law is concerned, marriage is a property contract. It bestows rights and entails obligations in respect of financial assets and children. The law does not presume a religious dimension, even if it does currently presume heterosexualiy. I respect your right to believe in divine sanction, but it's irrelevant.

Marriage is concerned with sex only insofar as women have traditionally been treated as property (e.g. the historic legality of marital rape), and insofar as it provides a legal framework to manage inheritance and bastardy.

It is no coincidence that same-sex marriage has become acceptable (even to many Tories) as marriage has increasingly been divested of its privileged hold on certain property rights. In legal terms, there is little left to defend.

You say "Marriage represents one of the few common goods that hasn’t yet been completely sacrificed to the maw of liberal capitalist individualism". I'm afraid not. Marriage everywhere and always reflects the prevailing norms of society, in particular with reference to the conservation and accumulation of property, which is the basis of liberal capitalism. The fact that marriage is not inimical to capitalism is not just a happy coincidence.

Chris's tongue-in-cheek idea treats marriage as a tradeable right, and thus as a species of property. This is provocative because it implies there are no inalienable rights, just commodities: "The reason why I have a right to life is that I would pay more for that right than others would pay to kill me". This thought experiment leads to a dark place if some of us are literally penniless and the bored rich fancy cheap entertainment.

The irony of marriage, in the context of competing rights, is that it is an example of a right that does not restrict the rights of others (assuming marriage is consensual and neither party is made inferior), so we should be allowed to marry who we like. That's the utilitarian argument. (Of course, this also implies that there are no legal benefits to being married - i.e. the unmarried are not discriminated against).

However, so long as there are residual rights that make one party inferior (e.g. wives needing hubby's permission on paperwork), then we should oppose marriage as it conflicts with other rights, e.g. sexual equality.

Same-sex marriage is worth supporting because it should lead to the abolition of these remaining vestiges of sexism. The real irony is that once this happy state is achieved, marriage will be closer to the ideal of a free and loving union of equals, untainted by squalid considerations of money.

Tim Almond

"I suspect that many of the participants on either side of the argument about gay marriage or abortion have something in common. Many liberal lefties and religious believers are sceptical about free markets, believing that they encourage an individualism that erodes social cohesion."

Absolutely agree.

The problem is that both are coming from a perspective of the past, and both fail to take account of how technology changed how dependent and connected we were on those in a close geographical area.

When people didn't have cars, they had to live close to where they worked, so a mining village would have streets full of people that knew each other well. When shops closed on a Wednesday afternoon and you didn't have a car, you'd have to see your neighbour to borrow some eggs if you ran out. Going to church was part of this - it was where people in rural areas often met (churchgoing was more social than religious).


@ Alastair - you say these things "cannot be bought off". Why not? None of the arguments you give demonstrates the incommensurability of the good of marriage.
If you're asking people to desist from a behaviour, it can only be because such behaviour imposes a cost. That cost should be quantified. To claim otherwise is bigotry.
@ Fromarse. I'm not saying the right to life as it exists should be tradeable (though note that many societies have something like "blood money"). My point is that you can think of rights as arising from a trade in an "original position" in which people bargain as equals.

Account Deleted

@Chris. Careful, I might start a collection.


I disagree with Chris and Alastair.

Alastair is in fact a homophobic bigot; he may not feel that he is but this follows from his theory about the unique god given status of pre modern marriage. A person who adheres to a strong racist theory of society IS a racist even if he does not murder black people or break the Laws in another way. Your theory defines who you are if you hold it sincerely; and your theory defines Gay sex and Gay people as inferior to yourself.

I think it is relevant to remind our selves that actually in a Liberal society unions between people do not have to produce children or be aimed at that goal. Opposition to same sex unions is based on the idea that Laws should follow from a religious theory and is unacceptable in a Modern Liberal society which rests on a separation of church from state. And personal and civil Liberty. Increasing one persons Liberty or one groups Liberty does not diminish any other groups Liberty. Same sex marriage has no negative effect on the older version in fact it does so only in the mind of people like Alistair.

The Laws governing marriage have been massively altered to increase the rights of women and illigitimate children and rightly so. The Democratic legislature is correct to revise the Laws to promote human happiness and Liberty despite the opposition of religious mad people wanting to carry on medieval ideas.

Chris is wrong as people cannot trade away their fundamental Liberties. Can I sell myself into Slavery on your theory? Sell my right to vote? That is a direction that leads to Libertarian theories putting private bargains before public good. It would be a mistake to carry on down that road. Which is why it is illegal to bribe a Judge when he administers public Justice.


"The point is that economics can help find ways of solving problems that otherwise seem intractable"

No, the point is that economics can launder and instrumentalise injustice.

And seem rather biblical while doing so.

Richard Batty

This might be of interest: Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict by Ginges et al (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1863499/)

Abstract: "We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values. We show that the use of material incentives to promote the peaceful resolution of political and cultural conflicts may backfire when adversaries treat contested issues as sacred values."

This suggests that if you offer material incentives for religious people or gay rights people to compromise all you'll achieve is making them more angry and entrenched in their positions.


all these philosophical parsings, the bottom line is that gays have never been found lacking in any sector of society compared to heterosexuals. they are not less a father, friend, doctor, spouse,lawyer,soldier,pastor,counselor,brother, neighbor,etc. in essence being homosexual is absolutely equal to being heterosexual, and consequently deserves all the privileges and rights accorded heterosexuals.


I'm sorry, this is insane. I'm almost not sure this is serious.

What if one can't afford to protect one's rights, or change the law? Is there no question of trying to persuade people what is right or just through reason?

"Let’s say the discomfort of those 20 people has a monetary value to them of £100." - the point is that this, or the right to gay marriage, can't be expressed monetarily. This is why the left criticises the markets, because their logic has run into areas where it should not, or cannot, be applied.

If others would pay more to kill you than you could pay to save yourself, would your death then be just?


I'm sorry, it appears I've misjudged the tone of this post and took it seriously.

Egg. On. Face.


To be clear, I'm nit saying that rights should be tradeable. I'm just saying that in thinking about what should be a right, it helps to think how people would trade in a (hypothetical) position of a free, fair and informed market.
It doesn't follow from this thought experiment that the rights we have now should be so traded.


"If you're asking people to desist from a behaviour, it can only be because such behaviour imposes a cost. That cost should be quantified. To claim otherwise is bigotry."


Not sure this argument really follows. Let's say that I believe that certain acts are sinful. It follows that I would exhort people to desist from such acts for the good of their souls. It also follows that I would not wish to stand by and allow my brother to delude himself into believing that his acts were acceptable, and so be complicit in his separation from God.

The wages of sin are death. There's your cost. That price has been pre-paid, for anyone who wishes to take advantage of the offer. I don't think I can make this fit your economic model.

Or perhaps a different case. Suppose I'm walking down the street and see a small child running into the traffic to retrieve a ball. I want her to desist from such behaviour. Following your argument, either I'm a bigot, or I should be able to quantify the cost that the little girl being hit by a car would inflict on me, and be prepared to spend up to that amount to persuade her to remain on the footpath.

Gavin Kennedy

I think the problem lies in applying the Coase Theorem which is a static, once only, trade. Consider the case in Robert Franks example:
A nearby factory pollutes a neighbouring resident. The resident values its removal at price x and the factory values retaining it at price y. It can be shown that it doesn't matter which side pays to remove/retain the pollution, for Pareto optimality.

However, if the factory pays the resident to tolerate the pollution and then in time moves, and another new resident moves in, the same issues arise again, and again. If the resident pays to remove the pollution and then, later, moves, a new resident benefits at no cost. Similarly with Coase's original example of the grazing cattle owner and the open-fields corn farmer. Adding annual costs can alter the cost comparisons.

Allow any two people of either or same sex to marry. The issue is not susceptible to cost comparisons - speaking as a moderate libertarian.


I really adore your blog, I think it's fascinating. But I question whether your approach reveals a better way of understanding rights issues, in this case Gay Marriage.

You say -

"...it helps to think how people would trade in a (hypothetical) position of a free, fair and informed market."

This is firstly quite hard to imagine. The assumption of this kind of economic idea is that it is even possible that people can come to the table with equal power. In this sense I think it is kind of abstract and mathematical. The extent to which mathematics is abstract is basically an epistemological thing which I suspect we'd disagree on. I don't think the rational market hypothesis and utility maximisation and equilbrium are completely infallible as ideas in the real world, I'd guess most peopel on here don't either.

And hopefully we could agree that history is important. And that's why I think coming to an agreement based on a broader type of reason, broader than classical economics, is necessary. The legal right for gay people to even be allowed to practise their sexuality was not achieved until relatively recently in our history (I'm from the UK), without the threat of imprisonment. It largely derived from an idea of liberalism and of equality and was brought into being by the express use of democratic political power (despite considerable objection from other power groups).

To the extent that poltics and law is about negotiation and trade and compromise then I agree economics has something to say. But the moment you try and economise rights in a kind of subjective value theory, where everything is a free choice, I think it fails to recognise the complexity. I understand the temptation to try and abstract the issue to get clarity, but I think the truth is that the truth is muddy, and separating economics from history and psychology and sociology and culture and norms doesn't strengthen but somehow dessicates any analysis.

For the record I think the base position is elementary morality - what applies to one applies to another. No one is questioning the right to marry. So then the justification for prohibiting gay marriage has to be made, rather than the right defended, and the onus is on the 'limiter'. I personally think it would be quite hard to sustain an argument against it, even if you were a religious fundamentalist. If God is to be able to judge then it follows people must be free and this freedom sustained. Actually in the sense that freedoms in reality are exchanges, then perhaps looking at it economically does have validity. Which makes everything I've written rubbish.

There you go.

Leigh Caldwell

I see a problem with this otherwise practical and realistic proposal. The availability of a payment incentivises the 74 non-aligned citizens to also (claim to) object to the marriage. Essentially any of the 94 people who aren't getting married can become a holdup for the 6 who are.

Even if we can somehow apply lie detection technology to determine (and value?) people's real preferences, preferences are malleable and the offer of actual cash to become a bigoted so-and-so is certain to work on some.

Does the holdup problem invalidate Coase? Not really, but I suspect it does mean there can be meaningful differences in outcomes, even without transaction costs, depending on the initial allocation of property rights. Different rights create different incentives to reveal one's true preferences.

Counseling Jacksonville

The Regulations guiding marriage have been extremely changed to increase the rights of women and illigitimate children and appropriately so. The Democratic legislature is correct to change the Regulations to advertise human pleasure and Freedom despite the weight of spiritual mad people wanting to carry on ancient ideas.

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