Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Marriage: Contract or Firm?

New Englanders are more likely to think of marriage as a contract than folks in other regions of the country, I have written, which may explain regional differences of opinion on gay marriage. Booker Rising cites William Weston on a related way of looking at marriage:


Jennifer Roback Morse, in the same essay in The Meaning of Marriage that I wrote about yesterday, goes through the argument that marriage is a contract. She makes the point that contracts are most suitable for short-term and arms-length relations. The sexual revolution, she says, has had some disastrous consequences for marriages because it changed the theory of sexual contracts. Under a marriage theory, sex is reserved for the most permanent, most intimate relations. Under the sexual revolution theory, by contrast, sex became a want best satisfied on the spot market. The most intriguing point she makes, I think, is that for the most intimate and long term economic relations, the market finds that even long-term contracts are not enough. For permanent economic relations, the market invented the 'firm.' Marriage is not a short-term contract for sex. It is not even a long-term contract for childrearing and companionship. A marriage is a firm, the most permanent, multi-faceted firm possible. In an ordinary firm or partnership, if they can no longer provide their distinctive good or service profitably, they dissolve. In a marriage, though, if the original product no longer works, they keep the firm and change what the firm produces. Marriage is the firmest firm."


If marriage is better described as a long-term firm than a short-term contract, that does not establish the more traditional idea of marriage as an 'institution,' but does meet that view halfway by granting that each individual marriage partakes in a common set of rules and expectations, just as business firms do.

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