L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 267, April 18, 2004
Sing The Song, Children!
Government in the Wedding Chapel
Special to TLE
The recent gay marriage debate has effectively re-ignited the culture war and drawn attention to fundamental assumptions concerning humankind's most ancient and sacred institutions. Those in favor of allowing gays to wed plead their case in the name of equality; those opposed ask us to consider the potential ramifications for the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the family itself. Recently, even President Bush stepped into the fray, advocating the passage of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The fate of this initiative has yet to be seen. Meanwhile, state governments are also taking up the issue.
However, whether the Bush marriage amendment is successful or not, and no matter what steps state governments may take, our American culture has taken such a turn so as to ensure that this issue will not disappear from the social and political landscapes. A marriage amendment will not end debate over the institution of marriage or what constitutes a family anymore than Prohibition eradicated booze or stripped people of their taste for alcohol. It will not silence those who claim that the law discriminates against them by denying them an equal footing with others. The issue will remain, and, at some point, a Bush marriage amendment will likely be overturned, just as Prohibition eventually was. Our governing officials are drawn from our society at large, and if a majority of our society decides to accept gay marriages, ultimately, a majority of our elected officials will support them as well.
The point here is that American society shapes American law, not vice versa. We are not a dictatorship, a monarchy, or an oligarchy. No one person or exalted group of persons forces laws upon us. As distant as our leaders sometimes are from the will of their constituents, they are still subject to recall or replacement. To gain, and then maintain, their office, they cannot afford to cross the majority too often. If they are found lacking, the people will eventually replace them with someone who at least goes along with what the people want often enough to appease them. This process takes some degree of time given the various constitutional barriers of representative government, but look at how much America has changedand how much the government has changed along with itsince the dawn of the 20th century and subsequent radical alterations in our cultural fabric. Our government may run behind the times, but it will eventually go where society itself is heading.
Conservatives who back the Bush marriage amendment, and there are some fine minds among themmake no mistake, have largely forgotten this simple truth of our way of life. In so doing, they ignore the real threats facing homes and families, and they make hypocrites of themselves by diluting their own limited-government ideology to promote their own personal morality and point-of-view. They allow the breakdown of the family to continue, and they set the stage for liberals and statists to use the precedents that they themselves have established for the lawful promotion of their own values, values conservatives are likely to eschew.
For example, liberals often tell us that it is our duty to society to support the social welfare state. To their way of thinking, taxing me to give some portion of my income to someone they deem as less fortunate is leveling the playing field and helping the downtrodden. Conservatives respond that this is not government's place. They argue that the welfare state is socialist redistributionism, and that we are not helping the poor by making them dependent upon the state. Conservatives say that, instead of government taking action, we should promote stronger families, support private charities to aid the needy, and lower taxes to free up capital that can be used for starting new businesses, paying existing employees better salaries, and boosting economic activity overall.
In other words, conservatives usually argue that improving society itself is the key to addressing poverty, discrimination, and other social ills. They say that government involvement only complicates things.
At this point, I have to ask: where is this rhetoric with regard to the gay marriage issue? Why is it suddenly necessary for government to intervene? "Because we must maintain our country's moral foundation," they answer. "Because we must defend the institution of marriage." So what? Liberals argue that their redistributionist schemes are also an essential part of our country's foundation. They argue that the social welfare state is the proper moral and compassionate route for us to take as a people. They argue that we must all "pay our faire share" and "protect the less fortunate."
Both sides claim to sway government to the cause of protecting what they view as essential, proper, and "right". The side that prevails is the side that wins the next election and holds power. Meanwhile, the defeated opposition schemes for new ways to come to power and reverse their loss. And so back and forth we go, vying with one another each election cycle over "what's right for America" when it really comes down to the issue of using government to enforce our morality and sense of what is best for everyone. Under the right circumstances, conservatives can be just as staunchly pro-government as their liberal counterparts.
Personally, I think there is a better way, and that way is for government to get out of the business of marriage altogether.
Let me ask you this (no matter what side of the gay marriage debate you may be on): why was it necessary for me to go and obtain a marriage license from the State of Florida in 1995? I wasn't having my wedding on government property. No government official presided. I didn't take a state test to determine whether I would be a good spouse. My wife and I simply showed up in downtown Orlando, proved we were both over 18, and paid our fee. Then voila! The state handed us a pricey piece of paper authorizing us to be legally considered man and wife once a qualified person said the necessary words over us, which might as well have been "abracadabra", as long as the person was state-authorized.
Why? Why did the state have to sanction our union? The cynical side of me says that it was so that they could collect $88.00 for five minutes worth of work, and that is indeed part of the answer. Yet, I know it was because the state desires to defend a certain legal interpretation of what comprises a "marriage".
But what if we hadn't gotten a marriage license? What then?
We could have simply saved the $88.00 and gone off and lived together. We could have shared a home, bought a car, paid bills, attended a church, raised children, and voted in each election. Heck, we could have even bought rings for one another. All of this without the state's sanction. It would cost us something when we filed our taxes, but again, that has to do with what the state does or does not recognize. My wife and I could have acted as a marriage and a family in every commonly understood sense of the term without actually having the paper. And, if we had wanted it to be so, no one but the state would have known we were not married. My wife could have changed her last name in the courts and we could have referred to each other as Mr. and Mrs.
In that situation, the state refusing to accept our union as a marriage would have amounted to no more than sticking its legal tongue out at us, which is what conservatives are doing with their demand that government intervene in the gay marriage dispute. Denying gay couples the right to legally marry will not prevent them from living together, or raising children, or doing anything that a married couple and a family might otherwise do (except that they'd have to adopt the children). For that part, denying cousins or siblings the right to marry will not prevent their cohabitation.
Divorce rates are at all-time highs. What do we do about this, President Bush? Pass an amendment forbidding divorce to protect the family? Men routinely father children and then abandon them. What do we do about that, conservatives? Pass laws against sex outside of marriage? Would anyone actually want to try enforcing that? Better yet, would anyone even try suggesting that such laws be passed? Yet, either of these actions could be taken with the justification of protecting marriage and the family.
President Bush and conservatives, this issue of government determining what constitutes a marriage or a family is, at best, so much tilting at windmills when it comes to "defending" those institutions, and is no more a legitimate or beneficial function of government than the welfare state. This is an issue that belongs in the purview of the family, the church, and the community; for, ultimately, society will take the issue from you anyway and do what it likes with the law based on the precedent you yourselves have established. Laws do not make a society virtuous. At heart, the issue is one of individual morality and ideology, and it is there that the battle for the home will be won or lost. As the old saying goes, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." A Bush marriage amendment will not prevent gay couples from cohabiting and acting, in just about every other sense, as married couples and families. It will not end the debate about what marriages and families really are. As long as we continue to legally sanction a particular definition of "marriage", we will continue to fight one another over just what that definition should be; and this arguing over the definition of words, and pretending to be above what is happening under our noses, will not save the institution of marriage or the family unit.
Do you really want to defend the institution of marriage and the family unit, conservatives? Then spend less time crafting laws designed to enforce your vision of what is right on others and go home. Be good husbands and good wives. Take the reigns of your child's education back from the state and popular culture; teach them what a family is, and then demonstrate it for them. Offer a supportive hand to struggling single mothers. Encourage your friends to own up to their responsibilities, to stop creating welfare babies and headless households, to remain faithful to their spouses. Speak to the upcoming generationswarn them that they must save themselves by taking the business of love, sex, marriage, faithfulness, commitment and children seriously or else watch society crumble around them.
We do not need government or special interests in the wedding chapel or in the home. Government has no more business telling me who I can marry than it has telling me how often to brush my teeth, and those who think we can save our society merely by defending the definitions of certain words are deluding themselves. It's very easy to sit around passing laws about what it means to be a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, or a good parent, and then pat ourselves on the back and say that we've done something about what's wrong with America. It's another thing to go home and change ourselves and the way we live from day to day. This is the hard way to save marriages and families, but it's also the only way. Only by being committed to our own marriages will we save marriage; only by being committed to our own families will we save the family. Only by teaching our children what marriage and family mean, and then proving it with our own behavior, will those institutions endure.
Is America becoming a police state? Friends of liberty need to know.
Some say the U.S. is already a police state. Others watch the news for signs that their country is about to cross an indefinable line. Since September 11, 2001, the question has become more urgent. When do roving wiretaps, random checkpoints, mysterious "detentions," and military tribunals cross over from being emergency measures to being the tools of a government permanently and irrevocably out of control?
The State vs. the People examines these crucial issues. But first, it answers this fundamental question: "What is a police state?"
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