Marriage as Parable for State Action
You may have heard that the New York State Assembly passed a bill to “legalize” gay marriage. Although it still has to pass the Senate, it is being viewed as a watershed moment. Although I have nothing against “gay marriage” as most people understand it, I have a problem with the moral and legal underpinnings of the entire system.
More than that, I view marriage as an instructive parable for what happens when the state inserts itself into the private lives of its citizens. Take a look at the constant, intractable, and downright nasty fights that have only emerged because the state inserted itself into the business of marriage, and you see the necessary result of all state action.
Yes, all. Even minarchists have to admit that, where the state inserts itself even into “de minimis” policy decisions, the people affected will disagree, and problems of ideology, rent-seeking, and coercion naturally follow. There is simply no way around it.
The far greater question, then, is why the state involves itself in something like marriage in the first place. I fully and wholeheartedly believe that removing the state from its imposition on any number of myriad policy issues would have the greatest possible ameliorative effect on the social order. Marriage is one of the easiest and most obvious test cases.
Speaking from personal experience, marriage is what you make of it. When I contemplated whether to ask [her] to marry me, I was unconcerned with whether some faceless bureaucrat would notarize and file a piece of paper saying that I was married. That does not mean that I did not go down to the County Government [waste] Center and stand in line to see the person who hands out licenses to keep dogs and be married. I did.
But for me, real marriage is in my church. I picked the system under which I chose to be married. I gave it legitimacy by choosing it, and I could call it whatever I want, whether “marriage” or anything else. And so it should be for anybody.
The state’s involvement has many consequences – tax consequences, property ownership issues, name changes, default death-beneficiary arrangements, end-of-life care, etc. But all of these things can be accomplished by contract, and in most cases, can be done with far more specificity and thoroughness than a marriage license does.
Gay citizens are free to be married in any church that will marry them. They can have their friend perform a ceremony. They can elope to a Pacific island. They can sign a contract. Do I think it is unfair that I “get” to have a state-sanctioned marriage license, and they do not? Absolutely. But the unfairness stems entirely from the fact that the treatment is unequal, and not from the idea that there is any inherent worth in having the state seal on my marriage papers. There is no benefit to state sanction beyond what is available by private contract.
This is why I tend not to bother with arguments about “legalizing” gay marriage. I simply think there should be nothing “legal” about marriage at all. A far more coherent, fair, and orderly solution – and one that would ultimately end up with less culture warfare – would be to remove the state sanction from marriage altogether.
State-sanctioned marriage is not a civil right. It is a legal fiction, and it is one we would be better off without.
**Update** Take a look at this page from the New York Daily News and take a look at their poll. The answers to the question “Do you think same-sex marriage should be legal in New York state?” are either “Yes, why should anybody be excluded” or “No, marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
If you want to know why the two sides will never, ever agree with each other, it is because this question is binary. Either you’re “for us” or you’re “against us.” There is no third way. There is no possibility of tolerance.
In reality, all this means is that the question itself is wrong.