Here's a great article that lays out in regular English (i.e. non Econ-speak) the notion of Pareto optimality and gay marriage. The question is, can we make some people better off by extending the right to marriage to committed gay couples without making other people worse off? If we can, then by changing the policy to allow same-sex marriage, we will be making a Pareto efficient move. In this New York Times article (29 FEB 04) Nathaniel Frank does a great job laying out the argument.
February 29, 2004, Sunday
Joining the Debate But Missing the Point
By Nathaniel Frank ( Op-Ed ) 760 words
"By declaring his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, President Bush has taken sides in an energetic national debate. Unfortunately, thus far the debate has often obscured more than it has illuminated.
Supporters and opponents of gay marriage are talking past each other. Social conservatives argue from the premise that marriage is important to society -- the president called it ''the most fundamental institution of civilization'' -- and must be protected. Letting gays wed will undermine marriage, they say, but they are seldom able to explain how.
Proponents of same-sex marriage, meanwhile, make a rights-based argument, insisting that gays deserve the freedom to marry -- but they don't address the possible impact of gay marriage on society. As a result, they are open to the valid retort that if marriage is an individual right (instead of a social good), why not polygamous, incestuous or child marriages?
For a productive dialogue, we should be asking the question this way: is giving gays the right to marry good for society? And to answer that, we must ask what larger social purpose marriage serves.
The main reason marriage is considered good for society is that committed relationships help settle individuals into stable homes and families. Marriage does this by establishing collective rules of conduct that strengthen obligations to a spouse and often to children.
This is why the word itself is so important. The power of ''marriage'' lies in its symbolic authority to reinforce monogamy and stability when temptation calls. The hope is that, having taken vows before family and friends, people will think twice before breaking them. It is this shared meaning of marriage that is central to the success of so many individual unions.
Yet it is precisely this shared definition that causes many Americans to worry that legalizing gay marriages would undermine straight ones. By sharing the institution with couples whose union they don't trust or respect, they fear, the sanctity of their own bonds could be compromised.
The argument is not so much that individual straight couples are threatened by gay marriage, but that the collective rules that define marriage are being undermined. Instead of feeling part of a greater social project that demands respect, people will feel that breaking their vows offends only their spouse, not the whole community. Knowing that their friends and neighbors no longer hold marriage sacred can make it easier for people to wander.
Thus it is inadequate to argue that marriage is a basic civil right because it cannot be extended to all unions -- to the brother who wants to marry his sister, to the man who wants two wives, to the 10-year-old who wants to marry her teacher. Marriage could indeed lose some of its current meaning and power if society legalized unions between relatives, groups or children.
What about gays? While marriage may not be a universal civil right, it is a social institution that gays deserve to join. The best argument for gay marriage is that it serves the same social function as all other marriages.
It is silly to argue that broadening the definition of marriage will have no impact on the institution; it will. But no generalization about the nature and durability of same-sex unions can justify banning them. After all, society does not deny marriage rights to divorced, infertile or impotent people -- so long as they are straight. We offer that right because society generally tries to encourage as many people as possible to live stable and productive lives. Marriage -- gay or straight -- helps society achieve that goal.
After identifying the social function that marriage serves, it is easy to allay the fears of those worried about a slippery slope to an ''anything goes'' definition of marriage. Marriages between brother and sister? Incestuous marriages strike at the core of the bonds of trust and the functions of care that a family requires. Polygamy? One husband and numerous wives invites increased jealousy, deception and subjugation, and mocks the importance of ''forsaking all others,'' essential components of the stabilizing function of marriage.
The traditionalists may well be right that a monogamous relationship between two unrelated, consenting adults makes a strong foundation for a stable family, and thus for a vigorous social order. They're just wrong that those two people have to be of different genders."