On the Economic Argument Against Gay Marriage (pt. 1)

Le Fou du Roi responds to my post on Randall Smith, Dostoevsky, and the Modern Family: “Some Thoughts on the Notion of Family and the Goods of Marriage

I hope to answer Le Fou du Roi’s points soon (I’ve got a lot going on this week), but to lay some groundwork, I want to start by analyzing a paper he cites in his post, Douglas Allen’s “An Economic Assessment of Same-Sex Marriage Laws,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy in 2006. For more background on Allen’s thinking, I also recommend this interview with MercatorNet, which amplifies some of the ideas from his paper.

I hadn’t read this argument before, so I’m thankful to Le Fou du Roi for pointing it out. I did know Douglas Allen’s name. He’s an economist listed as one of the NOM-affiliated Ruth Institute’s “Circle of Experts”. Recently, he testified for the state in Michigan’s same-sex marriage trial. After hearing his testimony, Republican-appointed judge Bernard Friedman said his view of  the social science on gay marriage clearly represents “a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of [his] colleagues across a wide variety of social science fields.” So there’s that.

No need to appeal to authority, though; Le Fou du Roi linked Allen’s article, so we can go through it together.

Allen argues that legalizing same-sex marriage* is a “bad idea for both heterosexual and homosexual couples” because marriage has evolved “to efficiently regulate incompatible incentives between husbands and wives that mostly arise over differences in biology.” By “incentives,” Allen means biological/evolutionary tendencies that could harm children: he gives the examples of fathers abandoning their wives and children and wives committing infidelity with men more prestigious than their husbands. Marriage is supposed to prevent those sorts of things and thereby protect children and women (the second-most vulnerable party in a sexual relationship).

Without those biological incentives, he argues, marriage doesn’t make sense. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Even if we grant all that, it’s still not an argument against gay marriage. Why not just legalize it anyway? How do gay marriages harm straight ones?”

Allen’s answer has to do with his concept of efficiency, the idea that since marriage is designed to “fit” specifically heterosexual, procreative unions, it won’t fit other ones as well. And, as fundamentally non-procreative couples enter the institution of marriage, they’ll change it to better suit their own needs, challenging the institutional limits that don’t seem to work for them and thus changing the institution for everybody. Basically, Allen says marriage is like a sweater, and gays want to borrow it, but we shouldn’t let them because they’ll stretch the neck hole all out.

[Allen wouldn’t trust gays with a V-neck.]

Allen points out, for example, that gay couples that raise children are more likely to have a third parent (a biological mother, for instance, in the case of a gay male couple) involved in their relationship and thus petition courts to recognize a “parent” outside of the marriage itself. He cites as an example Canada’s recent move to recognize “legal” parents on a par with biological ones.

If you don’t find that convincing (and I don’t—more in part 2), Allen points out that society failed to foresee the dire consequences of another revolution in marriage laws, this one 40 years ago: the move to no-fault divorce.

Advocates of no-fault divorce laws, Allen claims, pushed the same theory of marriage—marriage is based on love—that gay marriage advocates use today. And the results, he says, were catastrophic. No-fault divorce led to increasing divorce rates, which led to all kinds of secondary effects, like changing the average age at marriage, increasing the proportion of women in the workforce (and women in poverty), and more complicated child support calculations.** The intent of his article, he writes, “is to point out that first, the same love-based view of marriage was used in the earlier debate; second no, harmful or surprising outcomes were expected; and third, the eventual reality was exactly the opposite” (954).

I wasn’t around for the debate about no-fault divorce laws, so I’ll have to take Allen’s word that nobody predicted making divorce easier would increase the number of divorces. However, I do have to push back on his characterization of the effects of those laws.

Justin Wolfers, writing just after Allen, specifically addressed the question of the effects of no-fault divorce in his article “Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates?” (American Economic Review, 2006). His findings:

“I find that the divorce rate rose sharply after the adoption of unilateral divorce laws, but that this rise was reversed within about a decade. There is no evidence that this rise in divorce is persistent. Indeed, some of my results suggest—somewhat puzzingly—that fifteen years after the reform the divorce rate is lower as a result of unilateral divorce, although it is hard to draw any strong conclusions about long-run effects.” (1802)

Basically, Wolfers argues that at the advent of the no-fault era divorce numbers spiked as a result of a policy shock. The no-fault divorce advocates Allen pooh-poohs were right: there was a pent-up demand for divorce (bad marriages do exist), and after that demand was relieved things went back to normal. “Normal” in the middle decades of the 20th Century was rising divorce rates, but that was true in states with and without no-fault divorce, and it was true before no-fault divorce came along. And then divorce rates either leveled off or declined, depending on whose data interpretations you believe. Wolfers, by the way, is full of good news regarding divorce and marriage: in another study, he and Betsey Stevenson find that no-fault divorce laws decreased domestic violence and female suicide rates. Which seems like a big deal. You may also remember that just last week I mentioned that Shaunti Feldhahn’ssanguine new book about the health of the marriage matches something he and Stevensonsaid in 2008:

The number of divorces per thousand marriages has now fallen by 27 percent since the peak in 1979. The latest data suggest that the divorce rate for 2007 will be even lower still. And our own analysis of the stability of marriages suggests that those married in the 1990′s appear to be less likely to divorce than those married in the 1980′s, who in turn are less likely to divorce than those married in the 1970′s. As such, the divorce rate seems likely to continue to decline for some time yet.***

So when Allen calls the results of no-fault divorce catastrophic, and uses that as his chief evidence in his argument against gay marriage, it’s important to remember that he’s standing on contested ground.

Still, I will say that the idea behind his argument, that we should be careful when messing with an essential institution, is one of the more convincing that the anti-gay marriage side puts out. I don’t know, maybe it just appeals to some conservative streak deep within me. The problem for Allen is that the argument gets weaker every year.

Allen presented this paper in 2005, the year after Massachusetts first allowed gay marriage. It was published in 2006, when Massachusetts was still the only state in the nation with legalized gay marriage.

Now it’s 2014. Wolfers says the negative effects of no-fault divorce laws had reversed themselves within ten years. Guess what? We’ve got 10 years of marriage equality under our belts in Massachusetts; 6 in Connecticut; 5 in Iowa and Vermont. So where do we stand? Ronald Bailey writes at the Wall Street Journal:

“Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. In 2003, the divorce rate in Massachusetts was 2.5 per 1,000 residents, and it fell to 1.9 by 2009. The Massachusetts marriage rate jumped 15% in 2004, as many same-sex couples chose to get married, but since has remained stable. Interestingly, the states that permit same-sex marriage tend to have lower divorce rates than those that ban same-sex marriage.”****

If it’s reasonable to say Let’s wait and see, it’s also reasonable to ask how long we have to wait before we can say we’ve seen. Absent any scary data, there has to come a point when even Allen and Le Fou du Roi will have to acknowledge that gay marriage is nothing to worry about.


*I generally use the terms “marriage equality,” “same-sex marriage,” and “gay marriage” interchangeably. Le Fou du Roi objected to my use of “marriage equality,” though, so I’ll use the other two terms throughout these posts.

**Note that it’s debatable whether all of Allen’s secondary effects of no-fault divorce are necessarily bad. Allen makes a good argument, for example, that the increasing age of marriage is a bad thing, but it seems to me it’s also possible to argue the opposite—that waiting to marry leads to “higher quality offspring,” to borrow one of Allen’s particularly economist-y phrases.

*** A brand-new study (April 2014) challenges some of this optimism. Sheela Kennedy and Stephen Ruggles, who claim to have a better method for estimating the national divorce rate (which is apparently very hard to calculate), find that, whereas vital statistics show a decline in the refined divorce rate of 23.2% between 1980 and 2008, with estimates using different methods that decline drops to 2.2%. What’s more, they estimate that if we control for the aging population the rate actually increases, and significantly, since (counter-intuitively) old people are divorcing at a higher rate than young ones. Their study doesn’t seem (to my inexpert eyes) specifically relevant to this Allen’s argument, since they focus on post-1990 data, and the linearly rising divorce rates characterize the entire 20th Century. And Kennedy and Ruggles never tie the recent part of that rise to no-fault divorce laws. Still, although readers know I hate to give grist to the moral decline alarmists, there it is. It’s important to note, though, that Feldhahn and Stevenson question their findings. Also, like Wolfers, Kennedy and Ruggles find that young people have better records (so far) at marriage than their parents, and predict a possible decline in divorce rates in future decades.

****Other countries, including those where gay marriage (or something like it) has been around even longer, are similarly free of dreadful consequences. Here’s Bailey again, writing about Sweden: “Sweden legalized same-sex civil unions in 1995 and gay marriage in 2009. A 2011 demographic study from researchers at the University of Stockholm reports that since 1999, after decades of falling, both the marriage rate and the fertility rate have trended upward and the divorce rate is down.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s