Monday, April 04, 2005

Thinking About Unintended Consequences

Megan McArdle who writes as Jane Galt at Assymetrical Information has an extremely interesting and thoughtful post on the Gay Marriage issue titled "A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other" (hat tip: Instapundit).

She approaches the entire debate from a unique and non-hysterical perspective, taking a rather balanced look at the arguments from a legal and economic perspective.

However, I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."

They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.

Let me take three major legal innovations, one of them general, two specific to marriage.

The first, the general one, is well known to most hard-core libertarians, but let me reprise it anyway. When the income tax was initially being debated, there was a suggestion to put in a mandatory cap; I believe the level was 10 percent.

Don't be ridiculous, the Senator's colleagues told him. Americans would never allow an income tax rate as high as ten percent. They would revolt! It is an outrage to even suggest it!

Many actually fought the cap on the grounds that it would encourage taxes to grow too high, towards the cap. The American people, they asserted, could be well counted on to keep income taxes in the range of a few percentage points.


McArdle goes on to discuss two other changes in the law that proponents predicted would have minimal impact on marriage: welfare laws- which led to legitimizing illegimate births and providing an economic incentive for women to have children outside marriage and ended up "destroying" marriage in the inner city; and laws that made divorce easier--which led directly to a decreased perception of the value of marriage over time due to the slow, but inevitable erosion of the sense of committment to marriage vows.

It is important to state that while McArdle makes no judgement about the unintended and somewhat disastrous consequences she discusses, and merely notes them dispassionately; they constitute--at a minimum--a POWERFUL argument for both sides on the Gay Marriage debate to discuss rationally the implications laws legalizing Gay Marriage would have on our society; rather than make the routine and hysterical denunciations of the other side.

As a Libertarian, I found her essay to be a really good starting point for thinking about the issue. I don't particularly feel strongly either way on the subject of Gay Marriage. On the one hand, I don't believe the argument that "marriage is a fundamental RIGHT"; on the other, I don't particularly mind the idea.

But it seems to me that if marriage is the crucial social institution that both sides appear to believe it is, then it seems logical that we discuss as a society the possible reverberations of a significant alteration in our conceptualization of marriage. That did not happen in the examples McArdle uses and our society is the worse for it, trading one serious problem for another. Perhaps a rational discussion and reasonable planning can circumvent the most noxious unintended consequences--or maybe we can decide it is just not worth the bother.

Read the post and see what you think.

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