Does Homophobia Have an Economic Basis?

by Will on September 30, 2010

Tyler Cowen doesn’t see one. I am surprised. I think the answer is Yes. Homophobia is too stupid and irrational not to have an economic basis.

Let’s go back to the Malthusian Nightmare in which most of our ancestors lived: the grim era before 1825 or so, stretching back thousands and millions of years. There are a number of stark realities that face people living in that nightmare.

First, infirmity in old age is quite likely for the man who spends his days laboring in the field. It is thus in his interests to couple with someone with whom he can reproduce, so that he will have children to take care of him.

Second, women are held in lower status than men. A man is compensated for trading his freedom for a wife, in the form of a dowry. He is not compensated at all if he quietly resides with another man, a confirmed bachelor.

Third, women need husbands to provide for them, so that they may survive, and so as not to be a burden to their parents. If a man declines to marry, and instead takes a male partner, this will breed much resentment among the parents of eligible women, who see two potential husbands removed from the market. Homosexual behaviors will thus hurt social cohesion.

Fourth, property is all-valuable, as it allows one to work and to live. To go childless, and see the property revert to the noble’s ownership, would be supremely distasteful to most people. Thus it is all the more essential to reproduce and have not just a child, but a male child capable of holding land.

Fifth, life is hard in the Malthusian Nightmare, and often ends prematurely. Survival of the tribe militates in favor of everybody in the tribe reproducing, and reproducing as often as possible. So if two people opt not to reproduce, by following their homosexual impulses, the tribe will think  that this makes its chances of survival less certain, and will thus stigmatize it.

So homophobia does have an economic basis, but one that is rooted in economic conditions that have been happily done away with by the industrial revolution and the growth of trade. The stigma once seemed beneficial to the tribe, though from the larger societal perspective it was never good or helpful. Now there is absolutely no reason to discourage homosexuals from seeking happiness, and as people socialize with gay dudes and lesbians and see that they aren’t all that different from them, they’ll realize that the stigma is a waste of their time. That’s why I’m more sanguine than Cowen about the future of tolerance.

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