July 2, 2003
I'm always a bit frightened when I find myself agreeing with Michael Kinsley, but I think he's on to something in this piece in Slate. He points out accurately that we are about to join a fierce, long battle over gay marriage in this country which may become as intractible as the abortion issue. Can we do something to head this off at the pass? Kinsley thinks so, and I tend to agree: deregulate marriage. Why do we need to have the state subsidize marriage? Doesn't marriage properly belong in the Church (or the country club or Vegas)?
The primary opponent to this will be social conservatives--and they have a point. We should not take lightly threats to the family structure. But is this really one? Does marriage NEED the state to survive? Do we need favorable tax treatment and other legal goodies to "encourage" marriage?
I don't think we have a problem with too few marriages in this country. If anything, we have too many, because we have too many divorces. The problem isn't that people aren't willing to get married--I think they may be too willing. Look how nonchalant we are about marriage when it comes to programs like the Bachelor and Joe Millionaire. We are jaded. If state encouragement truly makes the difference between a couple deciding to get married rather than not, then is that a recipe for a successful marriage? Shouldn't we be goaling for a better quality, not a bigger quantity of marriage? I worry that, as with almost everything, the state's influence can be a distorting one and have unintended consequences (see my post on Paternalism.)
There are reasons to have a legal entity called marriage--having to do with the partnership between two people, contracts, children, healthcare, etc. I'm not saying the state shouldn't respect certain contract bonds and that these aren't problems to be addressed. But does it really help the institution of marriage to force people to get a license from the state? Who's in charge here?