Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Bad Yet (Increasingly) Popular Idea: Ending Government Licensing of Marriage

This post is the second in a series of ten -- five covering "good but unpopular ideas" and five covering "bad but popular ideas" -- all with the theme at looking at the long term direction of the conservative movement.

A few weeks ago, at the first Republican Presidential debate, Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul was asked about his stance on marriage -- and his answer was an unusual one -- rather than outlawing gay marriage or supporting gay marriage, he wanted to simply get government out of the marriage business completely.  Here is what he said:

"Well, as a matter of fact I spent a whole chapter in a new book I’ve written on marriage, and I think that it’s very important, seeing that I’ve been married for 53, 54 years now. But I think the government should just be out of it. I think it should be done by the church or private contract, and we shouldn’t have this argument — who’s married and who isn’t married. I have my standards, but I shouldn’t impose my standards on others. Others have standards, and they have no right to impose their marriage standards on me. I just don’t like it."

Basically, that's the ultimate libertarian way out of the marriage debate.  Rather than endorse gay marriage, say that you have your "own standards" and that you want to do with government involvement in marriage completely, that everything should be by private contract.

It is an attractive viewpoint for the social libertarian or the personal social conservative who doesn't want to "impose their views" on others -- a way, in a sense, to be a moderate while at the same time supposedly maintaining your own personal moral beliefs by relegating these decisions to churches and "contracts".

This is a viewpoint, in the eyes of this blog, that is slowly creeping its way into more libertarian aspects of the conservative movement -- those who want to disassociate government from anything that they see as not the role of government or involves government placing a definition or limits on what is a personal act that doesn't impact the rights of others.

This should not be unexpected, as this worldview can be found on the specific issues of drug laws, gambling, drinking laws, sexually-oriented businesses, and other areas where the government places a limit on personal behavior.   Given that the "definition of marriage" is now apparently up for debate, rather than being a fundamental truth, this line of thinking has now found its way to the issue of marriage.

So, in Ron Paul's world, if Jack and Jill want to get married, they can sign a contract or have a ceremony, but there would be no obtaining of a marriage license, no actual government recognition of their marriage -- in the eyes of the state, they'd be two individuals. 

Others who may believe in traditional marriage or even restrictions in other "behavior-related" areas of state law may also be susceptible to the "slippery slope" argument -- that is, if we pass a law on something like marriage or sexually-oriented businesses, therefore it is harder for us to defend opposing laws on limiting things such as soft drinks and fatty foods. 

While, indeed, conservatives are wise to think through the consequences and wisdom of passing any law, particularly those which, at their core, do involve the government in social policy, that does not mean it is not wise to do so in all cases.  In our view, conservatives should be capable of adopting a case-by-case approach to such laws and not an all-or-nothing one.  That is, in our eyes, the definition of good legislating -- there may be good reasons to restrict alcohol sales but not restrict soda sales, for instance.  Legislators will, of course, have different views depending on the particular issue being discussed, but the judgment should not be "get government of social policy completely."

Specifically related to marriage, it is our view that though increasingly popular with libertarian-thinking conservatives and likely to be an increasingly popular view among younger Americans, we should avoid any notion of getting government out of the marriage business completely, as Ron Paul advocates.  Such a movement is problematic for several reasons:

1. Marriage is not just a private matter -- it is a public matter as well.   Government does have a role in reflecting the mores and values of the society it governs -- i.e., establishing some notion of law and order.  Marriage is a critical part of that, as it should be and historically has been over centuries, backed up by cultural evidence that healthy marriages are an ideal for which any society/civilization should aim to promote and cherish.  By getting government out of the marriage business entirely, the civilization which that government represents is essentially saying marriage does not matter in the organization of a civilization -- a notion that in our view, would lead to cultural anarchy.

2. Marriage is marriage -- it is not just an evolving concept.  Marriage IS between a man and a woman.  It always will be.  No government, church, or contract can change that. Yes, they can create laws and ordinances and pieces of paper that say otherwise, but that doesn't make it so.  Truth is truth.   Moreover, marriage also exists as an institution in which families are created and prosper.  Now, that doesn't mean that all marriages must produce children or that all children are produced out of great marriages, but certainly ample evidence exists to show that children are raised best in a household involving a married man and woman.  That is the ideal, and that there is nothing wrong with having an ideal, even if sometimes we fall short.  Government, of course, has an interest in ensuring that its populations prosper and that children grow up to be productive adults.  Marriage is a part of that, and it should be encouraged and defined as what it is in law, not what some think it should be, nor should it be dealt away with completely simply because some don't want to define it in law. 

3. Strong marriages help keep people off government dependency.  Broken families are unquestionably one of the chief reasons for poverty in this country, and poverty leads to dependence on government services, both for children and adults.  If government were to get out of the marriage business, it would be endorsing a society in which it has no stance on the structure of families -- which could lead to the further erosion of the family and marital unit, even beyond what we have seen up to this point.  Social anarchy will lead to dependence on government will lead to welfare states which will lead to busted budgets -- look no further than Europe for an example of such.

4. It is fiscally conservative to support marriage.  This is related to our previous point -- many libertarian-leaning conservatives primarily focus on fiscal responsibility and government spending.  While those efforts are important, one key component in reducing spending is reducing the outcry from the public for such spending.  While again, marriage is certainly not an automatic ticket to prosperity, broken families certainly increase the likelihood that a child will end up in poverty or, at least, in a position where they are at one point, reliant on government for one service or another.  Stronger families -- backed up by strong marriages -- will lessen the likelihood of such dependence and thus, provide less of a demand for public services.

5. No one is forcing anyone to marry.  One thing Ron Paul and other advocates of getting government out of marriage is that no one is forcing anyone to marry "legally" in the first place.  If Jack and Jill or Jack and John want to have a relationship, no one is saying they can't.   Moreover, for "covenant marriage" laws such as the one that exists in Arkansas or that was proposed in Kansas previously -- no one is forcing anyone to enter into those either.  It is a choice, but in our view, it is a choice that should not be taken away.  Some, like Dr. Paul, like to often state that government shouldn't impose marriage on everyone -- when people are free not to marry -- but isn't doing away with marriage laws entirely essentially amount to Dr. Paul and company imposing their libertarian no-marriage-law worldview on society?

Essentially, we feel strongly that doing away with marriage laws would be a dangerous step for governments -- at any level -- to take, because government, whether we like it or not, does and in our opinion, should, reflect the culture it represents and should seek to encourage a culture in which families prosper and children thrive.  Marriage, even if imperfect, is a part of that -- and it would be a sad day if the state of marriage reached a point where government essentially threw its arms up and said "it just doesn't matter anymore".

It does matter.  We all know it matters.  There is too much empirical and statistical evidence to suggest otherwise.

In fact, in our view, there are stronger arguments on the side of enhancing and strengthening marriage laws, and embracing a culture in which the man-woman marital union is embraced as ideal, and not treated as one of many array of lifestyles one can choose from, almost like trying to pick out car insurance.  We'd like to see states from coast-to-coast adopt covenant marriage laws, in which divorce is more difficult.  We'd like to see culture, in general, both in schools and churches, embrace the institution of marriage between one man and one woman.  We'd like to explore the reasons why marriages fail, and seek ways to ensure that rate drops.

The reason is simple -- a civilization in which marriage is the social and cultural centerpiece is much more likely to prosper, both economically and culturally, than one that does not.  Conservatives of all stripes should embrace this -- and avoid advocating for a profound change in social policy that would undermine everything we are fighting for.