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Kosta Calfas

The variety of alarmism that attends most pop-statistics about sexual behaviour from a variety of interest groups of various stripes should not be taken as evidence for the institutionalization of casual sex. The fact remains that sex is mere liesure only amongst those that have the time for such liesure in lieu of any other activity. Further, lacivious behaviour has never been encouraged or unproblematic in any society, even those fun-loving ancient greeks.

Paradoxically, and sadly, those in the worst position to raise well-adjusted offspring are most likely to have children in significant numbers despite the availability of contraception. Sexual knowledge, like any variety requires of the participants some understanding of the mechanics and stakes involved. The same people who would lack the education or attention span to pick up a book are less likely to follow doctor's directions about the proper use of birth control, or "coincidentally" end up being the 1 in 500 who suffer "condom malfunction."

The goal of any social policy should be to maintain balance between our animalistic urges, and our capacity for higher reason. Neglecting the former leads to what Nietzsche disparagingly referred to as "decandence" not unlike religious zealots preaching complete abstinence as the sole message of sexual education, and neglecting the latter leads to social decay and barbarism.

When you're young and have little to no life beyond the basic fulfillment of your bodily urges, you tend to spend the preponderance of your time on those urges which has the unfortunate side-effect of producing more human beings. Sadly, our popular culture is full of the kind of nihilism and skepticism that implies that immediate material gratification is all there is.

A possible, although troubling, solution is some variety of government-sponsored birth control programs where one can target communities where teen-pregnancy rates are high. This has the rather unsettling odour of eugenicism, but as Holmes put it in one of his more eugenically sympathetic moments, and as a visit to any bar or liquor store would support:

"public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
-Oliver Wendell Holmes [Buck v. Bell (1927)]


Where is Becker's reply to Posner's poses? I just got this and am curious.

M. Webb

There is an extremely interesting possibility that niether Judge Posner nor Prof Becker, nor anyone posting comments has addressed regarding religion. Namely, certain religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church may have an economic motivation to become more distinct from the mainstream, rather than follow (witha lag) mainstream culture. To see this imagine that people choose their religious affiliation based based on standard U=u(...). Now think about what might go in the function (i.e. fill in the (...). Obviously, a number of variables would not have an impact on the non-mainstreamness of the reglion (e.g. people choosing a relgiion to foster social connection.) However, a critical variable is going to be the desire for some eternal reward and the somewhat related concept that adhering to special rules (which of course may be a way to further one's eternal reward). Both of these elements, seperately and in tandem, are obviously major factors in many relgiions: think the special dietary laws of orthodox jews, the special dress of the Amish, the special dress and dietary restrictions of conservative muslims. If a religion such as the Catholic Church adopts adopts certain restrictions that run counter to the rest of society they may attract adherents who get particular utility from special practices. Of course they will lose adherents who do not want to follow special practices or who find these special practices offensive. However, tis MAY not be a bad thing from an economic perspective since these people may have been less comitted in the first place and been more "price conscious" (i.e. more willing to go to another church). In other words, a stricter theology, may alienate some adherents but gain other adhenerents with more inelastic demand. On balance this may be in the interest of the church.

Now coming out of theory world I am not sure whether this would explain the conservatism within the Catholic church. At least in Europe and North America the vast majority of catholics do not follow the church's teaching on contraception. On the other hand this is not where the church is gaining adherents. in addition dramatic growth has occured in mroe conservative strains of a number of relgiions (Wahabism in Islam for example). This could also be explained by people's desire to follow special rules and/or through this adherence to spcial rules gain some type of eternal reward. In short, I am not sure that Posner and Becker are correct in their implicit assumption that relgions such as the Catholic Church will become less strict as societal mores change. A plausible economic arguemnt exists that they may become mroe strict.


Sex can never be equated with eating. We know in our hearts that sex is different than eating. Just think of our obsession with sex. Do people spend hours on the internet looking at pictures of steaks and apple pie? Sex is biological, but it is much more than that.


Fascinating discussion - I have one wee point.

Paul Barnes stated: "For the most part, I can agree with JP II when he says that contraceptives lead to a utilitarian view of the partner. In the end, I do think there is a causual relationship in contraceptive use and the objectivization of women, from a man's perspective."

With all due respect to the Pontiff, I don't think it is the condom that leads to the utilitarian view of one's partner because men have been using women for sex with or without condoms, whether for pleasure and/or reproduction, inside and outside of marriage, well since time began, though usually men of "higher station" if I may use that archaic term, and women have always paid the higher price historically for having let themselves be so used, regardless of their station.

Because historically marriage has been more about economics and reproduction than love and sex, via the arranged marriage, I suspect many husbands and indeed wives have viewed their spouses in purely "utilitarian" perspectives. [As a modern example, think Chuck and Di - she was just there to provide the heir and the spare except someone forget to tell Di, she thought she was entering a "companionate" marriage]


M. Webb makes some very interesting points.

Will the Catholic Church get more strict or loosen the rules regarding contraception?

The problem I have with the Catholic Church's position on contraception is what about the economics of uncontrolled or unsustainable population growth.

Ironically the Church's largest growing constituencies are in those areas where populations are already having a problem with sustainability.

Let's look at China - you may hate the one child per family policy [it is going to create its own problems admittedly since I hear the current generation has a disportionate ratio of males to females, I'd read the ratio is 3 males to 1 female, because of the unfortunate preference of a male over female child, but then again it means there will be far fewer females to reproduce the next generation which is a good thing if you are trying to limit population growth] but the general consensus is that if the Chinese had not implemented the one child per family policy when they did, the results would have been catastrophic. China has since been able to push itself forward economically and is reportedly loosening up the policy a bit.

Even if you could get most people to "behave", does there come a time when the economics of uncontrolled or "unsustainable" population growth, even if decades, centuries away yet, comes into a direct clash with religious doctrines?

Practical realities vs principle?

Paul Deignan

Unsustainable population? In what sort of an economy?

Family sizes vary by society based on degrees of mechanization. So the size of a sustainable family is larger in poorly mechanized societies than in those such as Western Europe which has to import labor from abroad (also the US).

China has the problem it has because of draconian central planning and dictatorial control. The society is far less stable than that of the US because of these policies. Chinese authorities fail as a matter of policy to mechanize agricultural production so as to concentrate manufacturing capabilities so as to leverage its clout in international affairs. Meanwhile, they have a policy of isolation of rural peoples to prevent political upheavals.

This is not "unfortunate"; it is a human rights travesty.

scott cunningham

One reason for the need for legal marriage, as opposed to cohabitation, is how marriage benefits the female. Without a legal contract, the female may be caught in the midst of a type of hold-up problem in which, after she's made some kind of relationship-specific investment with this man, he opts to leave her after impregnating her. So, in exchange for intercourse, the female has a guarantee that she will be supported while she leaves the labor market to have children.

Don't ask me if I believe what I just wrote. I'm just saying that that may be one economic explanation for why marriage would persist and is preferred over cohabitation. Also, Posner is clearly drawing upon Becker's 70s, 80s and 90s articles and books on marriage and the family. You should check those out, if you haven't (not meaning that to sound condescending at all; simply saying that if you want to criticize the model that Posner is working out of, you should familiarize yourself with Becker's work on the subject).

scott cunningham

Judith - the usuallly respond to comments towards the end of the week. This one will probably merit a lengthy response from both, given the activity in the forum.

scott cunningham

Paul - Becker's models, FWIW, never prescribe a single motivation for marriage. He also, at least in the original JPE pt. I paper from what I remember, focused just on marriage. But in it, I think he began simply with the assumption that the joint utility from marriage had to exceed the single state. So whatever reason people marry for is not important to his models - they do so because the match leaves them with a higher personal level of utility than otherwise was possible. The consumption of the public goods in marriage are, I believe, the reason for the match. And if some of those public goods are positively related to marriage over cohabitation, that is the place to begin. I do think that the hold-up problem I mentioend could have some justification to the institution of marriage, although I am not going to tell my wife that just yet.


"public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
-Oliver Wendell Holmes [Buck v. Bell (1927)]

You know, if you are going to quote that case, you should disclose that Holmes was actually approving of the forced sterilization of a mentally disabled mother who had been raped while under the care of an institution. Some 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized in the years following. Later, an evil Nazi doctor quoted the case in his defense at the Nuremburg Trials. It has never been explicitly overruled. Just some fun facts.

"... you tend to spend the preponderance of your time on those urges which has the unfortunate side-effect of producing more human beings."

Did No-Kidding have a recruitment drive on college campuses or something? Its easy to be cynical. Wisdom does not lie on that path.

This week's discussion makes me want to tell a good economist joke. How many economists does it take to... you can fill in the rest.

I can't think of a topic less suited to dispassionate economic analysis than intimacy and procreation. When relationships are the primary focus of an activity, a science which treats each person as an individual, self-interested market actor is bound to produce stupid results. There is a deep and interesting legal scholarship explaning why.


Judgo Posner makes an interesting point that the "sexual revolution" is related to the changing economony and, specifically, the changing role of women. But I think Judge Posner avoids -- perhaps consciously -- discussing the sexual revolution as a political movement spurred by the political awakening of 52% of the population. I think it should be obvious to any student of history that the expanded economic opportunities for women were a product of this political revolution, and once women gained a more or less equal position in society, they demanded sexual freedom (which men had previously, through prostitutes and mistresses). That sexual freedom necessitated the right to use birth control and the right to have abortions.

As to Judge Posner's comments on homosexuality, I think he ignores the fact that it has always been present, just not out in the open. This too is a political revolution that is just starting to happen. The backlash among social conservatives is not unexpected, but it will probably be short-lived. 50 years ago, there was the same sort of opposition to inter-racial dating and marriage.


David, I think the current majority opposition to homosexual marriage runs a bit deeper than interracial dating issues. Homosexuality, the choices involved, and the psychology of it have been the subject of cultural discussion across continents and history. I don't think that, 50 years from now, we will look at discussions of the normative aspects of homosexual activity as being kind of silly in the way that we look at miscegeny questions.


Riding the righteousness of the civil rights movement will only get gay marriage so far. I love how Andrew Sullivan and others decry the scaremongering of the polygamy question. But what would have civil rights leaders said about gay marriage flowering from the elimination of miscegenation statutes? I think, quite rightly, they would have insisted that was nonsense and scaremongering. But here we are today, where perfectly reasonable people think that gay marriage is the natural extension of Loving v. Virginia but can't fathom the possibility that Goodridge could be a basis for legalizing polygamy or polyamory. That logic never fails to astound me. Loving was different because that was addressing racial classifications which hold a special and established place in our history and legal traditions. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, there is no such basis for court-mandated gay marriage. Finding a "right" to civil marriage based on sexual orientation does, indeed, open up a can of worm which Loving, by virtue of the classification it addressed, did not.


"That sexual freedom necessitated the right to use birth control and the right to have abortions."

At least today, I don't think women are any more likely to favor abortion rights than men. In fact, I think they may be slightly less likely. Let me fill you in on a little secret, the legalization of abortion in this country wasn't the result of democratic processes. Roe overturned abortion laws in every state in the union. Some populist revolution.

Paul Deignan


I'm just referring to Posner's model presented in the post.

I have not read any material outside this, do not infer it, and do not presume that anyone else has either.

Paul Deignan

So here is Posner's model:

1. Sex is a good to be maximized. We are currently maximizing sex through advances in technology.

2. Institutions that stand astride of this dynamic will diminish since these constraints are artificial.

3. The stability point for sexual gratification is satiation.

Criticisms of this model:

1. Sex is a controlled variable that has an inherent cost in terms of energy. It produces nothing of lasting value outside of a committed relationship.

2. Sex produces something of value within committed relationships.

In short, "recreational" sex is a symptom and not a cause of the fundamental dynamic which has not changed significantly despite the cost adjustments brought on by widely available contraceptives. There is an intrinsic limit, also, to the ability to satisfy the recreational sex demand in an economic maximization problem due to the necessity for the development of energy preserving social micro-structures.

So, my fundamental criticism of Posner's analysis is that it is "half-baked". Again, I attribute this effect to technology (as advertised in the commercial media and spam) and admit that this technological effect produces a stable energy dissipating cycle that is peripheral to the fundamental dynamic (so we have this essay and an otherwise inexplicable demographic for red Corvette/Porshe demand).


Why men marry:

Men want sex from the highest quality women they can get but prefer not to be in committed relationships. Women want a committed relationship (with sex) from the highest quality man they can get. If a man chooses a woman that is below his qualtiy level, he gets sex without a relationship. However if a man chooses a woman who is above his quality level, he has to give her a committed relationship to get sex. While it is true that the couple has sex before marriage and the man can leave when he is tired of having sex with her, he implicitly promised marriage when having premarital sex. The same as we do not explicitly have to give a tip after a good meal but we all do it anyway.

Paul Deignan

I should add that I do not buy the opportunity cost argument for increasing the presentages of women in the workplace due to light industry.

However, if there is a thorough economic analysis that can back up this assertion (one that includes the value of domestic work adjusted for the relative worth of vertical structures (families) v. horizontal structures (social insurance) I might be persuaded otherwise.

It appears for now that the workplace disparity of the past was an adaptation to maximize total economic good through specialization that continues today in many industries despite the alleiviation of the aforementioned costs, i.e. the degree of specialization relies on intrinsic factors not a part of this model. I think this was recently discussed by Summers.

Paul Deignan


Then explain Prince Charles. Yikes!


Good point.

Paul Gowder

Palooka: what's wrong with legalizing polygamy? (Apart from the logistical problems that it would create with inheritance and tax laws.)

Consenting adults should be able to arrange, and legally establish, their romantic relationships on any basis they please, non?

Paul Deignan

BTW, the simplest generic relationships are the most efficient for intergenerational development.

The key aspect is making the information-responsibility loop most direct. Otherwise, society would have to pad the relationships (and they would be less efficient). Note that diversity requires male-female pairings.

So polygamous relationships should not be encouraged by law. Be sure to distinguish between encouragement and prohibition. Any sort of private sexual relation (except with minors, farm animals (FDA problems), pets (SPCA), etc. is de facto allowed--see Lawrence.)

Paul Gowder

Paul D.: are you suggesting that we should somehow be concerned about encouraging breeding, or breeding in a certain fashion? And all this time, I thought we were overpopulated, with predictable consequences for our media, democracy, etc. (Massification of public discourse, lack of access to both governmental and corporate decisionmakers, etc. -- read some Habermas to start, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is useful on issues of massification, though I don't recall him tracing it to overpopulation, I do.)


I didn't know Judges blogged!

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