Thursday, January 24, 2008

Marriage & Government

A battle fought and lost. That appears to be the conservative (and Conservative) opinion on gay "marriage".

While social liberalism continues to move forward, sometimes incrementally, sometimes in leaps, it often seems impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Especially in Canada, the academic, media and social elites have established that any questioning of social liberalization is beyond the pale. Because of their tactical control of much of our institutions of discourse, liberals are able to easily spread their ideas, but more importantly, consolidate and enforce their victories. The conservative answer must be to attempt to reduce the liberal domination of the media & universities, but also to gradually marginalize the various segments of the liberal elites and their institutional supports.

As for gay "marriage", the battle has been lost, and a frontal attack on it today is extremely unlikely to succeed. While some malign effects of gay "marriage" are probably unavoidable at this point, conservatives can still advance policy changes that are aimed at encouraging the same goals as government-recognized traditional marriage: stable families for children to be raised in, a strong birthrate, economic stability for couples, and public virtue.

There are two good, potentially complementary conservative policy answers in this situation. The first is to shift the legal advantages of marriage away from marriage per se and towards the parents of children. Most of the legal benefits to marriage are there in the first place in order to benefit families with children regardless (such as the ability to claim one's spouse as a dependent for tax purposes); to formally give them only to couples with children may be tough on the infertile, but it certainly better reflects the goals to which the policy is directed. If such a policy is combined with an aggressive form of income-splitting, however, we create strong incentives for all couples to remain together to raise their children, discouraging impetuous dissolutions of relationships while making it easier for all parents to opt to have one parent reduce or eliminate their labour outside the home in order to spend more time raising their child or children.

The second policy is to eliminate government recognition of marriage altogether. At first this might appear to be a matter of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face- if homosexuals have to be part of approved marriage, then we shan't recognize it at all. But government-recognized marriage is about advancing policy goals- principally be reinforcing the private understandings of marriage that encourage commitment, permanence, stability, faithfulness and children. Yet even before gay "marriage" was even on the horizon, government-recognized "marriage" was already undermining the private understandings of marriage. The introduction of no-fault divorce was a government policy that strongly undermined the private values of marriage as a strong commitment and a permanent relationship. By eroding the public idea of marriage, no-fault divorce undermined the stability of many marriages, generating its own demand as many people came to see marriage as experimental. The nearly equal benefits given to common-law "marriages" signalled that government did not regard marital commitment as being of a high priority. Finally, while government cannot be significantly implicated in the rise of contraception, its prevalence has undermined the connection between marriage and children; however, the recognition of gay "marriages" has further reinforced the disconnect. Given that the state's treatment of marriage is so flawed, it is time to ask whether the negative effect government marriage policy has on the public attitude towards marriage outweighs the institutional support it lends.

In my view, the erosion of meaning to marriage clearly now is of more importance than the benefits of state endorsement of what remains. Thankfully, government is not the only voice in what defines marriage- but it's continued, discordant presence often drowns out the voice of religious communities, not to mention the innate sense of marriage bequeathed to us by our cultural heritage. If government gets out of the marriage business, a purer, stronger understanding of marriage will likely arise. The decline in couples choosing to marry may continue, but we can reasonably expect that those who do will have a better sense of what marriage truly is, and by that knowledge be better prepared to weather the difficulties and tribulations of both marriage & parenthood - and better equipped to know their joys.

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