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Marriage, Family, And Government

Maggie Gallagher makes the most coherent case I've yet heard for why someone committed to smaller government would also support intrusive government regulation of sex. To support her claim that marriage is more important than federalism (against conservatives like George Will who have, admirably, preferred letting some states try out gay marriage to see how well it works, rather than amending the Constitution), she writes:

The practical result of the retreat from marriage as a social norm has been a vast expansion of the welfare state. What conservatives call welfare is only a drop in the bucket: High rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing are a driving force behind virtually every category of social spending. As more than 100 scholars and civic reformers noted in their 2000 Marriage Movement Statement:

Divorce and unwed childbearing create substantial public costs, paid by taxpayers. Higher rates of crime, drug abuse, education failure, chronic illness, child abuse, domestic violence, and poverty among both adults and children bring with them higher taxpayer costs in diverse forms. . . . While no study has yet attempted precisely to measure these sweeping and diverse taxpayer costs stemming from the decline of marriage, current research suggests that these costs are likely to be quite extensive.

This argument works if you assume that gay marriage goes along with an overall decline in marriage. I can see where she gets that idea. Gay marriage is typically justified on individualist and private love grounds. Being open to the idea of challenging the traditional definition of marriage makes a person more likely to be open to the idea of challenging marriage altogether. Yet I think the individualist justification for gay marriage has been overplayed (not that I'll complain too much, since it's harder for the anti-gay-marriage side to win if the debate is framed in individualist terms). But I think that most gay people who want to get married, as well as the people who support them*, want marriage because of the social benefits of marriage. We see the exclusion of a segment of society from those benefits as having a negative impact on society, just as a breakdown in the health of heterosexual marriage would have a negative impact on society. There are very few who want marriage as a stage in a plan to bring the institution down from the inside.

Gallagher herself is apparently confused about this question, as she later states that:

After redefining marriage, the next act is to redefine parenthood to accommodate two-mother families, two-father families, and whatever else people's yearnings for connection may produce.

So will gay marriage result in fewer families, or more families? The latter opens up the possibility of a quite different kind of argument -- that a society composed of gay families and straight families is worse than one composed of single gay people and straight families. The assertion that one mother and one father is the only legitimate parenting arrangement is implicit, but never supported, throughout this piece. Perhaps she could tie it back to her original point by claiming that gay families require more public services than gay singles**, even though the relationship is reversed for heterosexuals (given the economic benefits of sharing one's life -- even something as simple as finding a roommate to split the rent -- I'm skeptical).

Yet she forges on with the "traditional marriage or no marriage" false choice, presuming that the only kind of marriage that could be sanctioned and strengthened by society is heterosexual marriage.

*The tendency for people against gay marriage to ignore the large number of straight people who support gay marriage is perhaps indicative of the presumption that gay marriage is just about private individual behavior. It's this very kind of network of social support that makes marriage as a social institution work.

**One possible line of argument might be that, with the advent of socialized health care, gay couples will demand public subsidies for reproductive techniques like IVF, whereas straight sex is a cheap way of making babies. Of course, this presumes that somehow this service would or could only be used by married gay couples, and that the costs of such interventions are greater than the costs of forgoing having more children in society that would stave off the impending demographic collapse that Gallagher fears.


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