Thursday, June 11, 2009

FiveThirtyEight: Politics Done Right: How To Get 63% of Americans to Support Gay Marriage. (Maybe.)

FiveThirtyEight: Politics Done Right: How To Get 63% of Americans to Support Gay Marriage. (Maybe.)

by Nate Silver @ 9:38 AM
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Back when I used to do high school debate, there were all sorts of esoteric arguments related to the notion of positive and negative rights. The distinction, to simplify the matter greatly, is that a positive right is something that permits you to act a certain way -- something granted to you -- whereas a negative right is a claim to noninterference -- something that precludes action from being taken against you, either by government or by other people. You'll most commonly hear the distinction in association with libertarianism, as libertarians tend to regard positive rights as impure manifestations of government fiat power, whereas negative rights exist intrinsically outside of government, which in turn has a duty to protect them.

I never found this framing terribly satisfying as a matter of moral philosophy -- there are too many things which fall somewhere in between the two poles. But as a political matter, the distinction is potentially quite interesting.

Take for example the issue of gay marriage. When gay marriage is polled, it is almost always framed as a positive right, as in: "should the government permit Adam and Steve to get married?". I wouldn't necessarily say I find this framing biased -- since gay marriage is only permitted in six out of the 50 states and only came about in those states very recently, it is probably the more natural, plain-English way to ask the question.

But there is a different way to frame the question that is no less fair, and flips the issue on its head. Namely: "should the government be allowed to prohibit Adam and Steve from getting married?". This is closer to the logic embodied by the court decisions in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and other states. Those courts didn't create gay marriage; they argued, rather, that it was already protected by their respective state constitutions.

And it turns out that if you frame a polling question in this particular way, as Gallup and USA Today did recently, you get a very different set of responses. Take a look at what happens:

click link to see poll and rest of article

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