Recently, in an NRO article carried at MarriageDebate.com, Senator Sam Brownback (Kansas) explained why the US constitution needs to be amended to prohibit Same Sex Marriage. Belittling the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that enacting Same Sex Marriage would save the tax payers nearly a billion dollars a year, Brownback regurgitates misleading information from articles by NRO columnist Stanley Kurtz. Brownback also seems to suggest that legalized same sex marriage in Scandinavia caused out of wedlock births to increase, marriage rates to fall, and may aggravate the collapse of the entire social welfare system in all of Europe.
Possibly I exaggerate (but I don’t think so). So, let us examine his argument. It seems to consist of:
- Marriage is good for society because “diminishes public expenditure on welfare, raises government revenues, and produces a more engaged, responsible citizenry.”
- Europeans think marriage is about love and affection, whereas Americans think it’s about procreation. Moreover, believing marriage is about procreation prevents explosive growth in out of wedlock births.
- In countries where same sex marriage and registered partnerships have been enacted, marriage has declined and family dissolution is endemic.
- Same Sex Marriage may aggravate the European birth dearth or at least it won’t improve it. This will cause irreparable harm to their social welfare system.
I will address these ideas and show that Senator Brownback is incorrect on all but point 1. However, if point 1 is true, then we should enact SSM and realize the cost savings and other societal benefits of extending marriage. Moreover, when points 2-4 are corrected to reflect the actual effects of same sex marriage on marriage and society, we will find, if our goal is to benefit heterosexual marriage, same sex marriage should be enacted.
Let me address each idea in turn.
To begin: point 1 appears to be true. Marriage does diminish public expenditures on welfare, government revenues and produces a more engaged responsible citizenry. These cost savings are precisely those reflected in the nearly $1 billion a year savings the Congressional Budget Office predicts will occur if we enact same sex marriage.
More over, Senator Brownback adds to the list of benefits of marriage, and he suggests these benefits are reasons the government encourages marriage:
These benefits are real, and represent reasons why we should enact same sex marriage. Clearly those involved in same sex marriages would also engage in child care, senior care, home carpentry, and food preparation. Heck, I suspect some might even engage in interior decoration and vegetable gardening leading to even greater benefits! If engaging in these activities benefits society when heterosexual couples marry, society would benefit even more if we extend marriage to same sex couples.
And wouldn’t permitting same sex couples to marry and becoming vastly healthier, happier safer, and wealthier, and live longer lives be a social good as well? Or is that a bad thing?
Looking ahead to Brownbacks points 2-4, we see that Senator Brownback must be suggesting that these benefits would come at the expense of harming heterosexuals. Many would disagree with the idea that the lives of homosexuals should be sacrificed for the sake of heterosexuals, but I will not address that idea. My reason? Debating it is irrelevant because the preliminary data show that legalized same sex marriage and civil unions do no harm to marriage and may benefit heterosexual marriage.
Now I will address Senator Brownback’s second idea. Before proceeding, note that the question underlying his second idea is this: Will same sex marriage lead to an explosion in the out of wedlock birth rate? We will see that the data suggest the answer is “No. More likely SSM will reduce the out of wedlock birth rate”.
Now to address the individual questions: Who thinks marriage is about procreation, Americans or Europeans? Senator Brownback thinks we Americans do. However, if we read a recent article published by The National Marriage Project we learn it is Europeans, not Americans, who think marriage is about procreation! Their report reflects results from a University of Chicago Study survey of 30 nations conducted in 1999. The result? Of people 30 nations, the US was the second least likely to believe marriage is “about having children”. Only 31.5% of Americans believed marriage is about procreation. The only country where people are less likely to think main reason to marry is to have children is New Zealand, which, last time I checked, was not in Europe. Respondents in every one of the 13 European nations surveyed were more likely to believe marriage is about procreation than are we Americans.
Or course, Senator Brownback’s mistaken impressoiion would be harmless except for the fact that he also tells us that believing marriage is about procreation reduces the illegitimacy rate. He provides no basis for this oft repeated theory, which is contradicted by the available data.
If we examine the list of countries surveyed in the University of Chicago study, we find Bulgarian respondents were most likely to believe marriage is about procreation. The fact that 85.7% of Bulgarian respondents believed marriage is primarily about procreation did not prevent explosive growth in the Bulgarian non-marital birth ratio, which rocketed from 15.6% to 42.8% between 1991 and 2002. This 27% rise is the by far largest increase in the out of wedlock birth ratio in the EU during that period.
Who else was likely to think marriage is about procreation? We find 63.8% of survey respondents in Slovenia believe it is, as do 73.2% and 84% of respondents in The Czech Republic and Hungary respectively. Click here to open a new window and see how the non-Marital birth ratios in Bulgaria, Slovenia, The Czech Republic and Hungary increased during the 1990s. (When examining the graph, bear in mind that The University of Chicago survey did not include Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. The results suggests that believing that marriage is about procreation is entirely consistent with exceptionally high growth in the out of wedlock birth ratio. )
To summarize point 2: Senator Brownback is incorrect to believe that Americans think marriage is primarily about having children; it is Europeans who believe that. He is also incorrect to claim that idea that marriage is about procreation protects against explosions the non-Marital birth rates. During the 90′s the out of wedlock birthrates skyrocketed in countries were people think marriage is primarily about having children.
The data suggest that the American idea that marriage is not about procreation may protect somewhat against explosions in out-of-wedlock births. Why shouldn’t thinking marriage is about love, devotion, commitment and companionship make people enthusiastic about marriage? Maybe, just as free market economies work efficiently as a result of individual selfishness, young couples are more eager to marry when they believe there is there is something in it for them. For all we know, convincing American’s that marriage is primarily about procreation could lead to the explosion in out-of-wedlock births we saw in Bulgaria.
Now for point 3, is marrital decline endemic to countries which have enacted same sex marriage or civil unions? Brownback wrote:
Other nations? Weakening? Scholar Stanley Kurtz showed that?
Having read “Going Dutch”, my understanding is Dr. Kurtz diagnoses marital decline primarily through increases in the non-marital birth ratio. Others, like Joshua Livestro, mention the marriage rate. By those two measures, marriage is declining in European countries that have not enacted same sex marriage or civil unions; it’s doing perfectly fine in countries that have enacted same sex marriage or civil unions.
Marriage rates are is declining all over Europe. As I discussed in my recent article “Yes, Stanley..”, the major portion of the the decline in the marriage ratecan be attributed to the aging population, which has reduced the fraction of young adults in Europe. That is to say, it the decline in the number of marriages per 1000 people is not primarily due to lessened enthusiasm for marriage, but due to there being fewer young people. This shift in population is due in large part to the “birth dearth” which Senator Brownback laments in his point 4 (which I will discuss later in this article). For now, I will simply point out the very real birth dearth was not caused by enacting same sex marriage or civil unions!
If we examine the graph in my article “Dutch Decline?”, ( click to see graph), we see that the marriage rate has declined in Europe. However, despite the reduction in young adults, we see marriage rates are increasing in Scandinavian countries, bucking the downward trend. Far from dying, marriage is re-emerging in precisely the countries that are permitting same sex marriage and civil unions.
If we turn to the out of wedlock birth ratio, which Dr. Kurtz uses as a proxy for the health of marriage, we find it has increased at a much lower rate in countries with SSM or civil unions than in other European countries. (Click for graph from my article “Tired”). The only European country whose illegitimacy rate actually declined during the 1990′s is Denmark, which legalized same sex unions in 1989. If we actually calculate a correlation coefficient, we see that, during the 90′s, increases in the non-Marital birth ratio in Europe are correlated with failure to enact SSM or same sex civil unions.
Possibly, Senator Brownback is not to blame for his mistaken impressions. Likely, Brownback read something like this which appeared in Kurtz’s article “No Explanation”:
Senator Brownback might have developed a different impression had he read this more accurate version of the final two sentences:
For those wondering, said scholar Kurtz claimed that the Dutch birth rate rose 2% each year 7 times in a row; this claim is based on his own article Going Dutch, which discusses the birth ratio, and not the birth rate. (There is a subtle difference, but one might expect a scholar to keep track of his own findings.) As it happens, neither value exceed 2% seven times in a row; the birth ratio achieved 2% only four times altogether between 1990 and 2003. No, these four times did not happen all in a row. (Kurtz did not provide a reference for his data; link to 2004 data point; I obtained data for other years from NewCronos. )
So, on point 3, we see that Senator Brownback is incorrect; he seems to have developed this incorrect impression by relying on Dr. Kurtz’s scholarship. Marriage is not declining in countries that have instituted same sex marriage or civil unions. Denmark, with de facto same sex marriage is the only country in the EU with a declining out of wedlock birth rate, and the marriage rate has increased in Scandinavia, despite the drop in available young couples.
Finally, to address point 4. Will same sex marriage aggravate the birth dearth, putting the entire European economic system in peril? Or at best not help? Brownback suggests:
First, it seems somewhat odd to suggest that we should ban same sex marriage because legalizing it won’t stop the decline in the birthrate that has been occurring in Europe since the mid 1800′s. After all, it seems implausible that maintaining the ban will result in a turn around in a 2 century long trend, which began and persisted while the ban was in place. So, I will assume that Brownback is somehow insinuating that legalizing SSM might actually cause the decline to accelerate. This idea is not supported by the data, which we can see if we examine the trend the European birth rate, beginning in the 1900′s.
Second, it also seems odd to attribute the decline in the birth rate to some recent decline in the institution of marriage. If you examine the chart below, you can see the European birth rate during the 1900′s (available at Dr. Guillaume Vandenbroucke’s site, pdf). The nearly constant decline in the birth rate persists throughout the century, but seems to stop in its tracks in the mid 90′s, just as Scandinavian countries were beginning to legalize Same Sex Marriage and Civil Unions.2 If there is a causal relation, the data would suggest that enacting SSM halts the century long decline, and might alleviate the birth dearth.
As Jacob Levy of The Volokh Conspiracy, already noted, the declining birth rate is not specific to Europe; it declines in all rich countries. The figure below shows the birth rate during the 20th century in selected English speaking countries. The birth rate declined dramatically in the Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. Our decline differed from that Europe only by the appearance of a dramatic post war baby boom, and “baby boom echo”, which occurred as the baby boomers began to have children of their own. After the booms and their echos, the trend reverts to the pattern manifested by the entire industrial world during the 1900′s.3 As in Europe, the decline birth rate appears to have leveled off just as the campaign for same sex marriage became active.
So, examining the data, we see that, the birth rate declines in Europe and in the English speaking world leveled off just as nations began to enact SSM and Civil Unions. Sure, maybe it’s just a coincidence that the same sex marriage movement in Scandinavia and the US coincides with a halt in the constant decline in the birth rate. To use Mr. Livestro’s words once again,
“Maybe– but it would be an awfully big coincidence.”
So, the existing data indicate that SSM will not aggravate the birth dearth and ultimately deprive European retirees of their pension benefits. In fact, the data suggest legalized SSM may help halt the decline and, presumably create young workers to support their elders during retirement.
So, we see that Senator Brownback was correct that marriage saves the government money; extending marriage to same sex couples will save nearly a billion dollars a year. In addition, extending marriage to include same sex couples and emphasizing the ideal of caring committed marriage between loving couples may encourage heterosexuals to embrace marriage. If so, we could anticipate a reduction in the out of wedlock birth rate, and a re-emergence of marriage should we enact same sex marriage.
It is ironic that some governments that stand to benefit from extending marriage to same sex couples seem determined to maintain the ban. Marriage has been showing signs of strengthening in precisely the countries where same sex marriage and civil unions are being enacted.
Why should we Americans deprive same sex couples the joys and benefits of marriage, when extending those benefits and rights seems to help heterosexuals, and their children?
End Notes ==========
1: I say “at least 11″, rather than providing the exact number of countries because I am relying on data from NewCronos, which provides data only for those countries in the EU and beginning in 1992 rather than 1990. Data for some EU countries are missing for portions of the decade. It is possible that the 2% rate of increase threshold was exceeded in more than 11 countries.
2: Birth rate data prior to 1993 are from OECD pdf; later data are from
3: Data are from the same source as for European data.