Hayek on Gay Marriage

The Boston Globe , January 10, 2004

Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision on single-sex marriage in November, a debate broke out on the Reason Online and National Review Online weblogs: Would Friedrich Hayek endorse or condemn gay marriage?

The appeal to the authority of a dead Austrian economist was odd. But the debate pointed up the interesting tensions in Hayek's work. On the one hand, Hayek was in many ways a conservative, appreciative of the collective knowledge embodied in long-standing institutions. He vehemently opposed efforts to remake society to conform to grand plans for social improvement.

"Hayek wrote eloquently about the useful authority of culture and the dangers of a social-engineering state seeking to crush the organic arrangements of society," noted NRO's Jonah Goldberg. "It seems to me that the conservative argument against gay marriage is often the true Hayekian one."

But Hayek was also a classical liberal, appreciative of the importance, to both individuals and societies, of Millsian "experiments in living." He believed that social and economic institutions did and should evolve as human beings learned more about the world and each other. "While stressing that social institutions -- themselves the result of an evolutionary process -- cannot and should not be simply thrown out and redesigned at will, Hayek insisted that we run terrible risks when we seek to limit the choices people make," countered Reason's Nick Gillespie. "That's because the act of choosing is the very basis of a flourishing society."

The real Hayekian question is not "WWFD?" (What Would Friedrich Do?) but when and how social institutions should change, and when and how the law should reflect that evolution. In a 1996 article in Reason (I was editor of the magazine at the time), Gillespie pointed to employers' recognition of domestic partnership benefits as an example of Hayekian evolution. State and local policies, as well as competing religious standards, offer similar models of decentralized experimentation and discovery.

As a man of conservative European customs, Hayek might indeed find gay marriage a strange phenomenon. But he would not necessarily oppose it. "Perhaps given the economic circumstances of a poorer, agricultural world, and the state of social and scientific knowledge, the various prohibitions on homosexuality made sense to people at the time, and perhaps they made sense in reality," argued Steven Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University in an e-mail published on the National Review blog. "But in a different era, with different knowledge, Hayek would be the first to say that the institution can and should evolve."