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The utilitarian conservative case against gay marriage

By Andrew Norton - posted Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Earlier this month, The Australian published an article advocating more equal treatment of gay Australians. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, as many such articles have been published over the years. This one attracted attention, however, because it was written by Tim Wilson, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

This has put the IPA in the unusual position of receiving praise from the left and criticism from the right, in the form of an op-ed in today’s Australian by my friend John Heard. He’s taking a more conciliatory line towards the IPA on his blog today, but in the article he wonders why a “conservative” think-tank is promoting gay marriage.

As I have pointed out before, there is some confusion in the IPA between liberalism and conservatism, but I think like much of the right we could say that they are economically liberal but have more diverse views on social issues, ranging from libertarianism to conservatism. I don’t think the liberal tradition provides any intellectual resources for discrimination against gay people, but clearly the conservative tradition does, and that’s what John is appealing to in his article - though on the gay marriage issue, not on superannuation laws and other “minor injustices”, as he calls them.


As John’s blog post clarifies but the op-ed does not, Wilson did not actually support gay marriage in his article. But John’s arguments against are still worth considering. His most general statement of principle is:

A “homo-con” like me would likely look at how many people are being affected by the apparent injustice and which wider goals are served by the same.

If the net result is a gain for the common good, then the discrimination is, far from an injustice, rather a boon for families and an exercise in good government.

The argument from there is that there aren’t really that many homosexual couples (true enough, but I’m not sure why he is doubting the ABS report that at the 2001 census about 40,000 people stated they were in a same-sex de facto relationship - I can think of incentives to conceal this, but not to pretend to be a gay couple) and:

a real conservative - indeed any person schooled in the need to distribute finite resources equitably among various worthy but competing potential beneficiaries - must ask then what impact the interests of those 6,666 couples might have on a population of 20 million.

This seems to be a conservative utilitarian argument - that concedes that harm is caused to some gay people but maintains that it is acceptable to make some people worse if a larger number will be better off. If we grant this, the argument stands or falls on whether the larger number would indeed be better off, in this case by maintaining the status quo.

It’s at this point that I find the case against gay marriage unconvincing:


… gay marriage creates a perverse incentive for heterosexual couples to either reject marriage outright or dissolve a marriage already contracted.

What incentive to get married would government policy provide if Joseph and John down the road get all the benefits and have none of the setbacks (school fees, increased shopping costs and so on) that marriage often brings?

Looked at in terms of total income and expenditure, marriage has only a few financial advantages that can’t also be had simply by setting up house together. What it does mainly is change risk. By making it less likely that the couple will split, because the social and legal sanctions for doing so are greater than if couples are unmarried, it makes it more likely that the couple will pool resources and develop a division of labour. To the extent financial calculations influence decisions to marry, these incentives would be unchanged by gay marriage, so this factor should be neutral from a conservative point of view.

The biggest challenge to marriage over the last few decades has been casual sex and cohabitation, since their legitimisation took away one of the strongest reasons to walk down the aisle at a relatively young age. As Jon Rauch has pointed out, opposing gay marriage actually strengthens this challenge to marriage, since unless conservatives also support enforced celibacy they are conceding that casual sex and cohabitation are acceptable.

Yet despite all this, most people still do marry eventually, as an expression of their love, as I was told twice in my double dose of Catholic weddings over the weekend. And that’s why the gay people who do want to get married want the same rights as heterosexuals.

Marriage is a social institution that has evolved considerably over time, as some of its historic rationales weakened, but for that reason has proven to be durable. It’s hard to see the causal mechanism by which gay marriage could do it any harm, which I think swings the utilitarian calculation back in favour of gay marriage.

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First published in Andrew Nortonís blog on March 19, 2007.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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