Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

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3 thoughts on “Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

  1. There’s a little bit more nuance to that, I think. Usually, what I’ve heard following that argument from serious people, is an advocacy of civil unions for everyone and an abolition of “marriage” as far as the state goes, be it homo or hetero. I have a hard time disagreeing with that. It wouldn’t cede the issue to social conservatives because the social conservatives are still adamant that marriage be a state-recognized institution. Rather, it follows more along the lines of anarchist Free Love where — as you said — couples can carve their name in trees and do ceremonial dances or whatever pleases them, free of state intervention or blessing.

    On the surface, it’s kind of a semantic issue but people still have hang-ups over the word “marriage” and its meaning. Civil unions-only for all would be a good middle-of-the-road solution, but since that’s not an option on the table, then complete marriage equality should be enjoyed.

    • I haven’t heard this argument from any “serious people,” certainly not with that extra suggestion. The arguments I have heard evince no understanding that there is any civil, state component at stake which marriage equality supporters are actually fighting for.

      And honestly, that does strike me as a purely semantic issue. For one thing, it’s just redefining the legal institution of marriage as a legal institution of civil unions. The stakes don’t actually change at all. For another, couples can already just declare themselves married without state interference. That was my point in bringing that up. For a “civil union” they would still need a license from the state, just as people looking to just get hitched with a “marriage license” at city hall do now. Regardless of what labels you want to apply, the distinction is between personal, perhaps religious, rituals affirming a couple’s commitment to each other, and a state institution granting a couple certain legal rights in recognition of their commitment.

  2. The civil, state component is only partly what marriage equality supporters are fighting for. If that was the only thing, then we’d be talking about civil unions only. This is, largely, a fight over semantics; over what marriage means and to whom. Religious fundamentalists number one issue isn’t whether gay couples should enjoy the same legal requirements as straight couples (in fact, civil unions was the compromise for many religious leaders, IIRC.) Their number one issue is whether the state-endorsed institution of marriage should include gay and lesbian couples. That word, “marriage,” has a societal significance for gay couples because of the weight that our society and government puts on the word and the concept of marriage. To say they’re married carries the legal weight and — just as importantly — a signal of societal equality.

    That aside, I’ve only ever heard Libertarians say “I’m for marriage equality, but I’m also more for making marriage a personal thing, rather than a State thing.” I’ll retract my previous argument before and say that, yeah, they probably just end there most of the time. It’s just always been my assumption that they are in favor of some sort of civil union contract for everyone since the argument starts with them being in favor of marriage equality. (That tends to be the line LP spokespeople take.)

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