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Saturday, October 18, 2003

MARRY, MARRY, QUITE CONTRARY 

Loyal reader Bill has taken issue with my post yesterday concerning David Frum's case against same-sex marriage. We've gone back and forth several times via e-mail, and it occurs to me that if a sporadic blogger like myself is going to write this much about something, I might as well post it. So, herewith a recapitulation of the exchange.

Thrust No. 1: You are advocating the position that there should be no rules at all about entry into marriage.

Parry: No I'm not. I'm simply pointing out that if the goal is to create more stable marriages, then the focus should be on the rules for getting out of marriage (i.e., divorce), not the rules for getting into one. And that goal was the whole focus of Frum's argument. So I think his argument was lousy. Does this mean that I think it's impossible to argue against same-sex marriage? Of course not, and I said that. But a bad argument is a bad argument no matter what cause it's in service of.

Thrust No. 2: Frum was saying that if you "cheapen" the marriage contract, you necessarily cheapen marriage as an institution. There is a difference between marriage as a vocation and marriage as "let's see if this works for us."

Parry: And I'm saying that this makes no sense, if (and this is a big "if," but it's the one that Frum expressly adopted as the premise for his entire argument) the objective is stable marriages and the benefits that accrue to children therefrom. I just don't see how the entry conditions to marriage have anything to do with stable marriages in this sense. If we want to use the legal system to minimize the degree to which marriage becomes a "let's see if this works for us" arrangement, we should focus on the back end, not the front end.

One can still argue that the idea of marriage as an institution would be cheapened in the eyes of many or even most people by allowing same-sex unions, and that we shouldn't allow it for that reason. Fine, go ahead and argue that. I expressed no opinion on that--but neither did Frum.

Thrust No. 3: Our difference is between viewing divorce, whether easy or hard to obtain, as a symptom and viewing it as a cause.

Parry: I think it's both a symptom and a cause. The increase in the divorce rate over the past generation or two is due in part to a shift in attitudes about divorce--the taboo against divorce is (regrettably, I think) much weaker than it used to be, so there is a greater "taste" for it, as an economist would say. This shift reflects a more general shift toward permissiveness in social attitudes about sex and marriage, which is what I take it the reader means when he says that divorce is a symptom. I don't disagree with that.

But I think it's also true that the more difficult it is to get a divorce, the fewer divorces will occur, ceteris paribus. This effect will exist no matter how indulgent or condemnatory social views are about divorce: a society that frowns on divorce but makes them easy to get will have more divorces than a society that frowns on divorce and makes them hard to get, just as a society that's indifferent toward divorce will have more divorces if divorces are easy to get than if they are hard to get. The total number of divorces will undoubtedly be lower in the society that frowns on divorce than in the society that's indifferent, regardless of the cost of divorce, but that doesn't mean that changes in the cost of divorce will have no effect on the divorce rate, just that the cost of divorce is not the sole determinant of the divorce rate.

However, the cost of getting a divorce is the only determinant of the divorce rate that the legal system directly affects. So if we want to use the legal system to make marriages more stable, the most effective way would be to reform the divorce laws to make it harder to get a divorce. Note that this does not foreclose the possibility that the legal rules about marriage and divorce also indirectly affect social attitudes about marriage and divorce, and thus in turn indirectly affect the stability of marriage, though it seems much more plausible to me that the causation is a lot stronger the other way--that social attitudes about marriage and divorce have much more of an effect on what the legal rules are regarding marriage and divorce than the rules have an effect on the social attitudes.

But, regardless of which way this indirect causation runs (if at all), this was not what Frum was arguing. He was making a very specific (and peculiar, to my mind) argument that allowing same-sex marriage will decrease the stability of marriage by leading to a proliferation of marriage-like relationships that will so confuse people that they will no longer be able to tell what kind of relationship is the most stable. I thought this was a bad argument, and I still do. This doesn't mean that I necessarily support same-sex marriage; it just means that Frum's argument did not persuade me to oppose same-sex marriage.

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