Tenure and Marriages, and an intersection with proposition 8

So there are these two really smart guys, Gary Becker and Richard Posner who have written a bajillion articles on law and economics, and they have a blog. I unwittingly picked up a book that I thought was written by them, but just turned out to be a collection of their blog posts. I wouldn’t have checked out this book if I could have just looked online, but anyway, no big deal, library books are free.

The point is this: these guys are hilarious in how smart they are and yet how narrow their approach to life can be. I don’t mean this in a political way, and I don’t necessarily mean it as a criticism. What I mean is that they see the world in such interesting economic terms, but often miss the obvious other ways a situation could be viewed.

Here are two examples.

Posner talking about gay marriage (see here):

Why so much passion is expended over the word “marriage” baffles me. After all, even today, and even more so if civil unions were officially recognized, homosexual couples can call themselves “married” if they want to. And this brings to the fore the disadvantage of treating marriage as a legal status. Were it just a contract, government would have no role in deciding what word the parties could use to describe the relationship created by it.

This is in the context of an argument for getting rid of the special legal status of marriage so that marriage would be just like any other contract. You could negotiate a five year marriage, a till-death-till-us-part marriage, one with prenuptial conditions, one without, a polygamous marriage (yes he talks about polygamy later), etc. etc. The goal isn’t to inflame people’s passions about what marriage about, but rather to notice how hard it is for Posner to imagine that people might care about institutions for reasons unrelated to their contractual specifications.

For example, marriage has a legally recognized status because we think it has a special significance the way it is constructed. It’s not just for five years and it does come with special privileges and obligations, and this to recognize and hold out for praise a certain type of relationship, a type we often think is closely connected to love (though of course, marriage and love are not the same thing). The law is made to try and mirror the contours of that commitment and our society is organized to value it and recognize it for what it is.

And so I think its very unsurprising that gay people want the word marriage to be applied to them and that it would be discriminatory to do otherwise. Even if gay civil unions had all the perks of marriage, something would still be missing, which is the recognition that a certain relationship is valuable.

Take this example: pretend a gay person was wounded in the line of duty in the military and he was given all the benefits of a wounded veteran — pension, healthcare, etc. But this person was not given the legal STATUS of veteran. This seem to a snub of sorts I think, and probably rightly so. (I think someone made this exact point in the comment section for this post).

Maybe if marriage, at some point in the future, lost all its special connotations, then his puzzlement might make more sense, but in today’s world, I think it’s pretty clear that gays want the term marriage to be applied to them out of pride and out of a defense of their way of life. I think all the interest in the repeal of proposition 8 makes it clear that the “word” marriage has important social meaning.

Later there is a discussion about tenure and the basic argument is that there is no rationale for tenure in universities and that it should be abandoned. In short, the idea is that there are information problems for monitoring which professors are good (and should be retained year in and year out) and that insulation from firing for political reasons (the professor has an unpopular viewpoint) can be built into the contract.

I think there are many responses. First, how efficient would it be to negotiate such a contract. What counts as “political reasons.” The top brass at a university can find all sorts of reasons to menace a professor whose views they do not like and in the end, they can through him out for reasons that are “not” political even though the underlying motivation clearly is. It might be more efficient to give more comprehensive protection.

Also, tenure is designed precisely because academic value cannot be measured. Posner thinks that student evaluations (is he kidding?) and a publishing record in journals can tell which professors are good, but tenure is designed exactly so that academics can blaze new trails without being a slave to publishing or students anymore. I think intellectual breakthroughs happen best when the only thing guiding research is the desire to pursue an interesting line of thought (which would happen when the professor has tenure. He is free to pursue something SOLELY because it is interesting and may not entrance students or win attention from other scholars).

Lastly, there is a strictly economic rationale for tenure, which is that it allows teachers to train talented students without fear that they are training their replacements.


2 Responses to “Tenure and Marriages, and an intersection with proposition 8”

  1. 1 David Short
    August 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm


    Interesting (and long) “libertarian” perspective on gay marriage.

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