Saturday, November 26, 2016

Should the State Proscribe Non-Marriages?

For any conservatives who did not yet question the role of government in marriage (the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists sure were), 2015 was the year those questions were likely to surface after the Supreme Court legislated that gay marriage was the rule of law in all 50 states. For many people the question arose: just what exactly is the societal benefit of gay marriage? The normal argument from those who defend gay marriage is that it's a matter of fairness. If straight people can legally marry, then by extension of legal equality gays should be able to as well. But that argument (and it is a valid argument) skirts the question of what is the societal benefit of gay marriage. Also, they never explain just what exactly the benefit is that gays are missing out on. (I live with my girlfriend and our daughter. I still haven't found out what, for me, would be the benefit of straight marriage).

Basically the argument boils down to feelings. "Well it's not fair they can't marry and it will hurt their feelings." Or perhaps it's not feelings but some belief in a universal principle of fairness. (My toddler tells me about it frequently.) But that doesn't answer the question: what is the societal benefit of gay marriage? The question them might even be generalized to: what is the societal benefit of marriage? Or maybe somewhat less general: if the government acknowledges gay marriage, then what exactly is the role of government in marriage at all?

Society enforces the institution of marriage historically because it provides the most stable and productive society. It was perfectly natural (perhaps not entirely logical or ethical) that the state would enforce the edicts of monogamy. In such a culture marriage yields a very particular benefit: it is permission to have sex. But our culture no longer values monogamy overall it seems, so the enforcement of it by the government is no longer relevant. I still don't know of a single convincing argument that it makes any sense at all these days. Marriages don't enforce child-rearing, fidelity, or the permanence of the marital bond. The only material gain seems to be a tax benefit when the bride & groom (or bride & bride or groom & groom) are of very different income levels.

It is clear that our society no longer enforces the original intent of marriage. By extension, we no longer enforce the proscription of marriage-like arrangements or non-marital sex either. Legally this has not widely been done in America, that I'm aware of. Enforcement of non-marriage was done through social pressure. Even today there is a remnant of this. A couple I am friends with in rural Missouri lived together for some time but decided to marry after the gal's family received considerable pressure from their pastor. This was once the normal proscription process of non-marriages. Those who lived in a married-like state, but were not legally married, would be socially stigmatized, but it is no longer common. Of those that still even go to church, most don't give the clergy great control of their personal lives, and in part the clergy don't seek to control the personal lives of their assemblies so long as they show up on Sundays and make with the tithe.

If society no longer proscribes non-marital cohabitation, then it surely also does nothing to forbid other arrangement long considered harmful to society, most notably polygamy. All states ban the practice of a man being legally wedded to multiple wives. But as we've seen, the state has no power to proscribe non-marriages. Thus it has no power to prevent arrangements that, for all practical purposes, are polygamy. So what is the point of the law at all?

Libertarians will have no problem with this. They don't believe society should be limiting the lifestyle decisions of individuals. If the wives and husbands all willingly accept the arrangement then the government is impeding their liberty by intervening. Liberals will also applaud such an arrangement, if only because they are always seeking to dismantle the traditional order, whatever it is. Only conservatives might take a moment to ponder the benefit of laws against polygamy in the first place. The answer, as mentioned above, is that it provides the most stable and productive society, historically speaking.

There likely is not much we can do to prevent the erosion of monogamy and our fundamental social institution: marriage. In this democracy social conservatives are far outweighed by liberals (of both parties) and libertarians. This is yet another example where we can clearly see trends driving the degradation of our culture, but we are powerless to stop them. Powerless and unwilling. I don't pretend to lecture on the issue as I'm in a non-marriage myself. Self-interest always trumps societal benefit, and sacrificing ones well being to restore society is akin to drowning in the attempt to push back the tide.

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