Why worry so much about policy?
Some think supporters of marriage should focus less on politics and more on civil society. This is a false and self-defeating dichotomy. We should focus both on politics and on culture, because each can only reinforce — or undermine — the other. Indeed, they are not entirely separate things.
Over time the law shapes what people think marriage is and requires, which in turn affects how people act toward and within marriage — just think of the effects of no-fault divorce laws. The effects of redefining marriage to exclude sexual complementarity will likely be multiplied by anti-discrimination laws requiring the compliance of unwilling third parties and by changes in public-school curricula. Political and cultural efforts simply can’t be separated. They are two fronts in the same battle to provide the space, motivation, and social support for couples to live according to a true ideal of marriage. Indeed, in some ways they aren’t separate fronts at all: Law, policy, and politics are themselves part of culture.
How much does such social regulation matter? History is our lab, and the results are clear. Every political community that has lasted long enough to leave a trace of itself has regulated male-female sexual relationships. Why? These alone produce new human beings — highly dependent little creatures who have the best chance of reaching physical, moral, and cultural maturity and of contributing to the community when reared by their own mothers and fathers in the context of marriage. But family stability doesn’t happen by chance. It requires a strong marriage culture: norms and subtle influences designed to guide people’s choices toward their own long-term interests and the common good.
Indeed, justice demands as much. By encouraging marital stability, the state vindicates a right — that of a child to know the committed love of his own mother and father for him and for each other. And it limits the impact of negative externalities on innocent parties, because failed marriages and out-of-wedlock births burden us all with a train of social pathologies and a greater demand for policing and state-provided social services. The research of sociologists David Popenoe and Alan Wolfe on Scandinavian countries shows that as marriage culture declines, the size and scope of state power and spending grow. Libertarians, please take note.
A study by the left-leaning Brookings Institution finds that $229 billion in welfare spending between 1970 and 1996 can be attributed to the breakdown of the marriage culture and the resulting exacerbation of social ills: teen pregnancy, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and health problems. A 2008 study found that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers $112 billion each year.
Government is leaner and more effective when it supports marital norms than when it tries to pick up the pieces from a shattered marriage culture. And it can support these norms without banning anything. Libertarians and social conservatives should be allies on marriage.
Why wouldn’t you want to recognize committed, monogamous same-sex relationships?
Some argue that marriage will civilize and stabilize same-sex relationships. But there is nothing magical about the word “marriage.” It does not by itself promote marital norms no matter where or how we apply it. Rather, marital norms are promoted by marriage laws that embody and encourage a vision of marriage that makes sense of the norms as a coherent whole.
Marital norms make no sense, as a principled matter, if marriage is just whatever same- and opposite-sex couples can have in common — namely, intense emotional regard. There is no reason of principle that emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive (as opposed to “open”). Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands. (Couples may live out these norms where temperament or taste motivates them, but there is no reason of principle for them to do so, and no basis for using the law to encourage them to do so.)
In other words, if sexual complementarity is optional for marriage, present only where preferred, then so is almost every other norm that sets marriage apart. Though some same-sex marriage supporters would disagree, this point can be established by reason, and is increasingly confirmed by the rhetoric and arguments used in the campaign to redefine marriage, by the policies that many of its leaders are increasingly led to embrace, and even by preliminary social science.