Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Same-sex marriage

I'm irritated. It seems to happen any time that the "gay marriage" debate comes up. And today I'm annoyed at someone with whom I agree on a great number of issues.

I consider myself to basically be a socially conservative libertartian. No, that is not a contradiction. I'm someone who has never smoked a cigarette or had a drop of alcohol in any form, never mind anything stronger. I think drugs and alcohol and tobacco are all bad things. I also think that most of the anti-drug laws are silly - the idea that alcohol and tobacco are legal but marijuana isn't is utterly ludicrous.

I don't gamble, I don't even play the lottery, but I think that the anti-gambling laws are silly. I would never think of going to a prostitute, but I think that at least some of the anti-prostitution laws are silly. OK? Just because something's bad shouldn't mean that it should necessarily be illegal.

But I also think that there's a huge chasm between "shouldn't be illegal" and "should be endorsed by the government."

There was a lot of talk a couple of years back about the work of UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, and his contention that conservatives were winning politically in America because of language, and that what Democrats needed to do was to change the language of the debate, the terminology that people use when talking about issues. While I'd disagree with much of what Professor Lakoff had to say about the current state of the language debate, there's no question that the language being used in a discussion carries with it enormous weight.

Here's where we come to gay marriage. Glenn Reynolds, the Insta-pundit, had a post last night briefly talking about this issue again. And I think that the language of the discussion is dishonest, in a couple of different respects.

The first dishonesty comes in the very start of the dicussion. The people of Tennessee are facing, on the ballot this fall, a "gay marriage" question. Professor Reynolds links to, and endorses, a column from Sam Venable that refers to Tennessee's "proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage." Well, I haven't read the text of the amendment, but I'd be willing to bet that it does no such thing. I suspect that what it does is make explicit in the state constitution that marriage, as recognized by the government of Tennessee, only takes place between a man and a woman. Banning government recognition of same-sex marriage is not the same thing as banning same-sex marriage. Some would argue, I suppose, that this is a distinction without a difference. I disagree. If the state were actually "banning same-sex marriage," they'd have to put laws on the books, and some kind of policing in effect, to look for homosexuals gathered in their living rooms with friends and families and clergymen. I'm skeptical, to put it mildly, that any of that's going to happen.

Later, in response to a reader comment, Professor Reynolds says,
Well, ideally I'd take the state out of the marriage business entirely and make it a matter of contract. But if the state is in the business of recognizing marriages I think it needs a good reason to discriminate. That some people say "Yuk" is, as with Leon Kass's concerns about science, not a good enough reason in my opinion.

Professor Reynolds is a smart guy. This kind of comment is utterly unworthy of him. He's reduced the entire opposition to government recognition of same-sex marriage to a knee-jerk, uninformed "yuk" reaction. He can go on, as he does, to say "it's a terrible mistake to call those who oppose gay marriage 'bigots'," but he's essentially just done so. The fact is, the opposition to government recognition of same-sex marriage is both wide and deep, and while there may be, in some corners, a "yuk" reaction, there are a great many principled objections that the supporters do not, as near as I can tell, ever address. They just say "Fairness!* Equality!" wave their hands, and presto! same-sex marriage is all good. It doesn't work that way.

Marriage is, fundamentally, a social construct. It's not a government construct, but a social one, developed over the course of centuries of human civilization. It developed because it serves three purposes.

  1. It civilizes/domesticates men.

  2. It provides support/protection for women.

  3. It produces a stable environment for producing, supporting, nurturing the next generation.

Governments recognize heterosexual marriages, and grant them certain legal rights, because they serve those three purposes. A marriage of two homosexuals serves none of the three. The government of the people, by the people, for the people, recognizes that "the people" have a vested interest in stable marriages, stable families, having and raising children. Society has no vested interest in the sexual union of two men or two women. There is no greater societal good that accrues from the government recognition of the sexual partnering of two men or two women.

Now, if two men or two women want to make a vow to each other, want to commit, and bring their families together for a ceremony, and call themselves "marrried," that's fine with me. I don't care. But when they want the government to change the rules, to force society to treat that couple exactly the same way as it treats a couple that will be having children and raising them, that affects everyone.** It is impossible to know what all of the effects will be, but the law of unintended consequences doesn't get repealed just because open-minded liberals and libertarians think that the government should bestow "equality" on same-sex couples. It's easy to look at modern society as already paying the price for significant undermining of the family structure (does anyone think that the black community in America benefits from nearly 70% of births being out-of-wedlock?) and, while it is conceivable that same-sex marriage could be legislated without further negative societal impact, it is, in my opinion, extremely unlikely. It is difficult to see any reason for the government to legislate societal recognition of same-sex marriages which is nearly as compelling as the reasons for not doing so.

* - An aside, on the whole "fairness" issue. Marriage laws tend to limit one's ability to get government sanction of marriage only when one marries someone who is a) not a close blood relative, b) the opposite gender, c) of age and d) not already married. There are certainly far more people restricted by b than a or c, but every law on the books affects some people more than others. The fact that some people want to marry someone of the same sex imposes no obligation whatsoever on the government, or the society at large, to endorse that action. Comparisons here to anti-miscegeny laws are, in my opinion, inapt. The three fundamental purposes of marriage that provide the basis for government recognition are served whatever the race of the marriage partners. A same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is a fundamentally different social construct. It's different behavior, with different implications, and it is not unreasonable or bigoted to give it different treatment.

** - Yes, there is some percentage of homosexual couples, primarily female, who will, through some means, be raising children. I don't believe that fundamentally changes the issue.



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