WE’VE all witnessed recently how quickly, in the hands of politicians, the great moral challenges of our time reduce into simple sums about jobs and dollars. Where moral arguments fail to excite politicians, economic arguments are never far from mind.
Advocates of gay marriage commonly use moral arguments about equal rights to support their case. And polls show three out of four Australians tend to agree, thinking it “inevitable” marriage between same-sex couples will be legalised.
“Don’t worry,” gay and lesbian couples are told, “you’ll get your wedding day. Some day. Inevitably.”
But laws don’t change all by themselves. People change laws. Even worse, politicians change laws. When moral arguments about equal rights have failed to convince political leaders the time is right for gay marriage, perhaps economics could convince them of the need for change.
From a simple Keynesian point of view, legalising gay marriage would create a stimulus package for the wedding industry as sales of confetti and bonbonierre soar. A flippant observation, admittedly, but one that hints at the heart of the economic argument for gay marriage.
Economists like nothing better than individuals being free to make decisions that maximise their happiness. Economic agents (that’s you and me) are born with innate preferences that, once satisfied, make us happier. The role of government is simply to ensure the rule of law to make sure one person’s pursuit of happiness does not impose a cost on the rest of society.
When a government rule holds people back from doing what they want to do, it imposes a cost on society. Rather, the rule should be – if what you’re doing doesn’t hurt anyone else, you should be able to get on with it.
Opponents of gay marriage say it would damage the institution of marriage. But we heathens got there first. Two thirds of marriages in Australia are performed by civil celebrants rather than religious ministers. Marriage is not what it was.
Indeed, with marriage rates on the decline, the institution needs all the recruits it can get. In the mid-1980s, 60 per cent of the population aged 15 and over were married. By the early noughties, this had fallen to 55 per cent. The proportion of the population who will never marry increased from 29 per cent to 32 per cent.
Meanwhile, the probability of marriages ending in divorce has risen. The Bureau of Statistics estimates about 28 per cent of marriages entered into in the mid-1980s could be expected to end in divorce. By the early noughties, this had risen to 33 per cent. The institution of marriage is on shaky ground.
Opponents of gay marriage also argue it hurts children by leading to single-sex parent structures, robbing children of a mother and a father. But this draws a false distinction between the abilities of mothers and fathers, painting mothers as primary carers and fathers as afterthoughts. Equality must work for everyone when it comes to children.
When gay and lesbian people feel uncomfortable expressing their affection publicly and are forced to hide their sexuality, society’s total stock of happiness is diminished.
THE IRVINE INDEX
62% Of Australians think same-sex couples should be able to marry, according to the latest Galaxy poll taken last year.
57% Of Australians supported gay marriage in 2007.
80% Of Australians aged 18 to 24 think same-sex couples should be able to marry.
72% Of parents with children under 18 living in their household agree same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
75% Of Australians say it is inevitable the law will change to allow same-sex marriage.
$31,100 Winning bid by the activist group GetUp! for a dinner with Julia Gillard which it will give to a gay couple to discuss gay marriage.
90% Of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people say they have at some point hidden their sexuality or avoided expressing affection in public.
67% Say fear of prejudice or discrimination causes them to modify their daily activities in some situations.
33% Marriages entered into between 2000 and 2002 that the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates will end in divorce, up from 28 per cent of marriages entered into between 1985 and 1987.
Sources: Galaxy Research; australianmarriageequality.com; Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society 2006 survey “Private Lives”; getup.org.au; Australian Bureau of Statistics “Lifetime marriage and divorce trends” in Australian Social Trends, 2007.