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The Economic and Social Case for Homosexual Marriage

Sean Safford

Adam Kolasinski offers what appears on the surface to be a dispassionate argument against gay marriage based on the legal principle that the protection of a given minority group must further a compelling state interest [“The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage,” Feb. 17]. In short, his claim is that the state recognizes the marriage of a man and a woman because doing so encourages procreation and that the state has a compelling interest in ensuring that people reproduce. The relationships of gay men and women fall short of marriage according to this logic.

First, it’s not at all clear that it is in state’s interest to encourage more children. In our own country, 120,000 children are adopted each year. Worldwide, there are far more children in search of a home than there are adults willing and able to raise them. To be coldly analytical about it, increases in both life expectancy and productivity rates mean that far fewer people are needed to make society run smoothly, not more.

But even if it was in the state’s interest to encourage procreation, what does marriage have to do with whether or not people decide to have children? Most of us are capable of procreating just fine without the government’s help, thank you very much.

Kolasinski recognizes that the state’s deeper interest is in providing children with a stable, loving environment. Prefacing his remarks with the insightful comment that “the differences between men and women go beyond anatomy,” he argues that “it is essential for a child to be nurtured by parents of both sexes if a child is to learn to function in a society made up of both sexes.”

But his comments on the subject conflate the relatively limited evidence on gay parenting with the copious research which shows that having two parents is better than one. A review of the research published in the American Sociological Review indicates clearly that gay parents raise children who are every bit as capable on a wide range of measures as children brought up by straight parents. Indeed, because for most gay parents having a child requires overcoming numerous obstacles, there is evidence to suggest that gay parents are better caregivers.

On the other hand, it is certainly the case that, on average, children with two parents do better in life than children that grow up in single-parent households. Children of single parents, for instance, are 1.7 times more likely to drop out of high school. But the reason has nothing to do with whether those children are adequately prepared to live in a society made of men and women. The “empirically verified common wisdom,” to borrow a phrase from Kolasinski, is that it has everything to do with growing up in loving and financially stable homes regardless of whether those homes are headed by straight or gay parents.

The fact on the ground is that gay men and women are raising children -- according to research supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, estimates are between six and 14 million children have at least one gay parent. So Kolasinski’s arguments regarding the relationship between marriage and childrearing are backwards. It is very much in the state’s interest to ensure that the children of gay and lesbian parents are raised in families that are as equal as possible to those with straight parents. The far more serious danger is that, in not recognizing gay marriages, the state will enact into legislation that gay families are second-class in status.

That is not only a civil rights argument; it is an economic one, too. Like all economic institutions, marriage can be seen simply as a means of reducing transaction costs. Marriage would save gay and lesbian families -- and therefore society -- the cost of hiring a lawyer to draw up 50 separate contracts covering everything from whether they are automatically granted power of attorney in the event a loved one is hospitalized to the right to securing domestic partnership benefits at work.

How efficient -- economically speaking -- is it to have to run home, open the safe, and run back to the hospital to present “evidence” of one’s “contractual rights” when life and death decisions about one’s child need to be made? Whose interest does that serve (other than attorneys’)? From a pure efficiency standpoint, it is much more efficient simply to include gay and lesbian couples within the broader institution of marriage.

But casting the argument in terms of pure efficiency misses the point of the debate happening across the river. Kolasinski would have us believe that people get married because the government wants us to do so. The truth is quite the opposite: people of all sexualities have been hitching up for time immemorial. What has changed is the fact that more and more gay men and lesbians are doing it openly and with the blessing of their friends, families, and neighbors. The danger is that the state will lose touch with the society it is supposed to reflect. In doing so, it risks losing the legitimacy on which its claims to regulate society are based, and that is in no one’s interest.

Sean Safford is a doctoral candidate in the Sloan School of Management.