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6.4.05

Another Non-AAG Post

Sebastian Holsclaw draws attention to this Jane Galt post presenting the classically conservative case against gay marriage:

By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.

To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"

Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.


I think there's something to this kind of conservatism. But I also think it's important to recognize the flipside argument. Conservatism tends to implicitly conceptualize society as a static entity, changing only when we deliberately reform it. But in fact society is constantly changing (at a comparatively rapid pace in the modern world, but even hunter-gatherer societies changed over time -- they're not mere stone-age relics). These changes can lead an institution that has a long and functional history to become dangerously outdated unless it is reformed. Holding onto an old institution when the conditions of its functioning are lost is just as problematic as changing an institution when the conditions are still suited to the old setup.

The other way conservatism tends to dodge this problem is by positing that the conditions that make an institution functional are basic facts of human nature (and that human nature is a relatively proximate cause of that functionality). We see shades of this in Galt's post, where she implicitly presents the gender-affirming nature of marriage as something biologically rooted. (This also explains the conservative desire to carry out a seemingly un-conservative radical democratization by force in Iraq -- we've found that democracy works in America, and assume that it works because of a universal human desire for and understanding of freedom.)

In the case of gay marriage, we may be at a point where each of these two philosophies has a different domain of applicability. In more conservative communities, the need for gender affirmation is strong, and therefore opening marriage up to couples who not only don't, but can't, fulfil traditional gender roles may well weaken the institution's appeal to heterosexual couples. (I believe that even in the most conservative areas the benefits of allowing same-sex marriage outweigh the damage to opposite-sex marriages, but the point is to understand the source of concern from the point of view of conservative heterosexuals.) On the other hand, in liberal areas, man-and-woman-only marriage has become dangerously outmoded. It's not just that we're secure enough in our marriage decisions to not need the gender affirmation of traditional marriage (as Galt argues), it's that our gender culture -- a culture asserting the uselessness of rigid gender categories -- is out of sync with marriage as it exists outside of Massachusetts. We may be marginal in a different way, turned off to traditional marriage by its insistence on gender roles just as much as the Tuscaloosa dropout is turned off by reformed marriage's lack of gender roles.

Neither side is willing to accept a "live and let live" strategy on this issue. In part, it's because the boundaries can't be sealed off -- even if you can't marry a person of the same sex in Tuscaloosa, knowing that it's possible in Massachusetts sends a message about the nature of marriage, and vice-versa. It's also because both sides have strong commitments to the cultural conditions that underly their vision of marriage, and they hope and fear -- with some justification -- that by changing the institutiuons, they can shift the culture. This is coupled with a conviction that their culture-institution combination is ultimately superior (liberals because more people are given access to marriage, conservatives because even liberals have a fundamental need for gender affirmation).

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