The Deinstitutionalization Thesis

by Reihan Salam

In a reply to Ross Douthat’s latest column, which argues that the advance of the same-sex civil marriage cause may have contributed a broader shift in how Americans think about marriage, Matt Yglesias posits that if opponents of same-sex civil marriage actually won the debate, the erosion of marriage might have actually accelerated:

And if there was a stable and clearly unchanging consensus that marriage was a straights-only institution solely about procreation and gender difference, the steady march of public opinion on gay and lesbian equality would still have moved forward. Straight people would be uncomfortable patronizing discriminatory marriage norms, and feminist skepticism that marriage can be made compatible with a modern concept of gender equality would be greatly enhanced. Moves to provide the concrete material benefits of official coupledom in terms of health insurance, inheritance, joint property ownership, and even adoption would still continue apace and secularly minded heterosexual couples would increasingly avail themselves of these para-marriage institutions.

This argument closely parallels the views of one of my most insightful correspondents, who wrote the following last spring:

Countering this, the main argument for gay marriage (in terms of indirect effects on heterosexual unions) is less about it being better for straights than the c. 1990 status quo ante than it being less bad than the counterfactual future where it doesn’t happen. If the right somehow succeeded in defeating gay marriage or, as is more plausible, forestalling it another generation before it happens anyway, the likely outcome is not the c. 1990 status quo ante. Rather, it is almost certain that we would see a push for one of two things. (a) Domestic partnerships which are eventually extended to heterosexuals, or as I think of it “no fault” on steroids. (b) The complete deinstitutionalization of civil marriage. You often see this Solomonic, split-the-baby wisdom coming from libertarians as “why is the state involved in marriage in the first place?” This isn’t even counting the Brad Pitt effect, in which a substantial part of the country would come to see marriage as a discriminatory institution, sort of a family equivalent to the Augusta National Golf Club, and refuse to participate in it.

At the time, many socially conservative readers found this argument implausible. But I think the deinstitutionalization of marriage really is the most realistic alternative to the recognition of same-sex civil marriage rights, due to the underlying changes in the culture identified by Matt. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.