July 18, 2005
The Economics of Symbolism
Posted by Will Baude

In this week's blog post, Professors Becker and Posner confront the economics of gay marriage, in an effort to make utilitarian sense of the current battles. Both of them conclude that apart from the symbolic power of the word "marriage" there is little difference between gender-neutral civil unions and full-fledged same-sex marriage. They also conclude that we might be better off privatizing the status of marriage altogether. Finally, they wonder why there is so much hooplah in fighting over a mere word. The trouble is, as valliantly as one tries, one can't really analyze this without figuring out "(w)hy so much passion is expended over the word 'marriage'," a question that both of them disclaim.

For starters, I tend to agree with Becker, Posner, and Ribstein that it would be good if we moved "marriage" out of the bureaucratic realm and made it a religious, social, or cultural status that people could attain according to whatever religious, social, or cultural practice they shared. We would then handle what is currently government-run marriage by allowing people to create form- and custom- contractual arrangements to deal with joint assets, children, powers of attorney, testimonial privileges, inheritance, and so on. But because this marriage-privatization argument sounds so simple, it is worth emphasizing two major flaws. 1, given the vast number of ways that state, local, and federal laws, cases, and regulations touch on marriage, cleaning all of them up would be a Herculean task. 2, despite my, Posner's, and Becker's inclinations, a great many people do seem to care that their sacred union be recognized by the state. This can change and be changed, but in the mean time, it is unfair to give this feeling short shrift.

Which brings us to the marriage/civil-union debate. Becker finds "incomprehensible" and Posner finds "baffl(ing)" the amount of passion that is expended on a mere word. Is it really so baffling? First of all, insisting on sharing not just a set of government benefits but also a title ("marriage") can entrench today's political gains. I suspect that when things retain different names it is politically easier to treat them differently (compare regulations of D.C. and the states, or of limousines and taxicabs). Second, insisting on the name "marriage" allows SSM advocates to tap into the store of federal and state constitutional case law that refers to the institution of marriage, protecting it against various forms of governmental infringement &c.. But third and most important, people care about a word because they care about symbols in and of themselves.

Symbolism may be hard for an economist to formalize, but it should hardly be surprising or baffling. People die to raise American flags. They expend serious sums of money and time to erect Christmas trees, wrap gifts, bury the dead, erect and engrave monuments, and buy wedding dresses they will never wear or use again. The uneconomic symbolism surrounding wedding and engagement rings is well-known.

It is embarrassing for an economist to have to say "we care just because we care" but sometimes that is the right answer. People care about being married for all sorts of incredibly important, ritualistic, personal, emotive reasons; societies have cared about some form of marriage or another for as long as we have had the word. And many people care about being "really" married, not just having civil-unions that are colloquially known as marriage (as Posner suggests) because marriage is about formalities and people like to get their forms right, as the vast number of formal wedding books can attest.

I tend to agree with Posner and Becker that it might be wise for those who believe in same-sex marriages (as I do) to fight for substance now and symbols later, but I might have it backwards. Perhaps the power of fighting for a symbol is what gives people enough energy and cohesion to win the substantive battles. One does not found a nation-wide grass-roots movement about creating a broader power of attorney or wrongful-death tort.

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