Friday, February 20, 2004

Is Gay Marriage a Pareto Improvement?

The Pareto condition is a nifty acid test to see if a policy change is indeed efficient. Essentially it goes something like this: an allocation of goods and services is Pareto efficient if there is no other allocation in which some other individual is better off and no individual is worse off.

So, my question is, can we observe a Pareto improvement by extending the right to marry to committed gay and lesbian couples?

This is the debate that has been gearing up at both the federal and state levels since Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont who passed a law creating Civil Unions for gay and lesbian couples, tossed his hat into the contest for the Democratic nomination. Since that time everyone's underwear has gotten all bunged up over the issue, essentially falling on one side or the other of this Pareto condition.

The Pro-Gay-Marriage argument wonders how extending the right to marry to committed gay and lesbian couples and all of the rights and privileges associated therein would do anything but improve the welfare (material and otherwise) of gay and lesbian couples. This describes a Pareto improvement: some people are made better off by the policy while others go unharmed.

This argument is largely based on the notions of equity and fairness. What got the ball rolling was last summer's Supreme Court ruling which struck down state sodomy laws as violating the Constitution's liberty guarantee. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy portrayed constitutional history as a forward march in which "persons in every generation can invoke" the Constitution "in their own search for greater freedom."

Mayor Newsom of San Francisco recently justified his decision to defy state law by allowing same-sex couples to marry by asserting that guarantees of equality in the state's Constitution took precedence.

The Anti-Gay Marriage argument claims that extending the right to marriage to homosexuals will erode the sanctity of marriage. They argue that marriage between a man and a woman is already a Pareto efficient outcome. Extending such rights to homosexuals, while good for the homosexuals, would make some worse off. In response to President Bush's resolution to "codify" this definition of marriage, Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition said: "The president has taken a courageous stand in favor of traditional marriage at a moment in American history when the courts are conspiring with anti-family extremists to undermine our nation's most vital institution."

So it basically boils down to a cost-benefit analysis. Who wins and who loses? Depends on your point of view.

There are, in fact, material costs and benefits to such a policy shift, indicating that some would lose. A study requested when Congress was considering the Defense of Marriage Act (further evidence of Clinton's closet republicanism. See previous Blog by Taggert) found that over 1,000 benefits, protections, rights and privileges were denied to committed gay and lesbian couples who could not legally marry. These include the right to file a joint income tax return for federal and state income tax purposes, the right to joint custody of children, the right to have a regular division of property upon divorce, health benefits, leave benefits, and retirement benefits to name a few.

M.V. Lee Badgett, Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and founder of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, estimated the cost to employers of extending benefits to domestic partners. In her paper "Calculating Costs with Credibility: Health Care Benefits for Domestic Partners," she finds that the "experience of employers who offer domestic partner coverage suggests that employers covering partners are most likely to see an enrollment increase of 1%, even when both same-sex and opposite-sex partners are covered. A smaller number of employers might see a 2% increase."

The non-material costs and benefits are a bit less empirical. On a recent Minnesota Public Radio story on the topic, one rural-Minnesota woman wondered that if we extended marriage to gay couples, "where would it end?" (I'm not sure what she was implying; letting--gasp--priests marry? Or what, bestiality?). Pat Buchanan on the Today Show claimed that marriage between two men was "absurd!" O.K. so maybe some people should be made worse off.

But these arguments and emotions have no rational base--especially with a backdrop of divorce rates approaching the fifty-percent mark, an indication of the precariousness of the institution in its current state. Some commentators have compared this discussion to the way in which society reacted to interracial marriage. Ellen Goodman said of Britney Spears' recent betrothment "Britney's little leap is a reminder that a marriage doesn't have to be sacred to be legal. The law is no holier than a $40 trip at the Tunnel of Vows Drive Through in the Little White Wedding Chapel."

Further evidence of the ever sanctimoniousness of the institution of marriage as we know it is the marriage of marriage itself and consumerism: you can now get married at the Mall of America! Now that, my friend, is absurd.

In a hilarious Slate article, Dahlia Lithwick identifies things that are really destrying the sanctity of marriage. Here's one example: "Phone messages like the ones we'd get at my old divorce firm in Reno, Nev., left on Saturday and picked up on Monday: 'Beeep. Hi? My name is Misty and I think I maybe got married last night. Could someone call me back and tell me if I could get an annulment? I'm at Circus Circus? Room--honey what room is this?--oh yeah. Room 407. Thank you. Beeep.'
It just doesn't get much more sacred than that."

Keywords: Gay Marriage, Pareto Optimality

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