In all the fuss over Rick Santorum’s foolish remarks, the major interference of the government in the bedroom has gone largely unremarked: It marries people.
Marriage used to bring certain responsibilities, notably the obligation to support one’s dependents and not to divorce absent extraordinary circumstances. But the first has nothing to do with legal marriage, and the second is obsolescent. With the divorce rate in this country in excess of 50%, “till death do us part” has become an absurd fiction.
The privileges, however, remain. Married couples enjoy evidentiary immunity, special immigration rights, and various insurance and tax advantages. Some of these are conferred by the State, but most are not. Such matters as inheritance, adoption, joint leases, and child custody are agreements between private parties that could be easily arranged without State interference. Other outside private parties, like insurance companies, voluntarily confer benefits on married couples, which again is no matter for the State. Insurance companies could easily ask you if you live in a monogamous relationship and give you a rate break on that basis, the same way they now ask you if you smoke.
As for the State privileges of marriage, why should they exist at all? Why should husbands and wives not be permitted to testify against each other in court, except possibly to provide a plot point in Witness for the Prosecution? The key tax advantage to marriage lies in being able to pass an estate to one’s spouse without estate tax; surely it would be more rational simply to repeal the estate tax. The marriage exception to immigration law employs a lot of INS bureaucrats; is this a virtue?
Homosexuals who promote laws protecting single-sex unions are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If you want to kick the State out of the bedroom, the answer cannot be to take a special privilege and make it more inclusive. Many people object to homosexuality on moral grounds, and there is force to the argument that the State ought not to grant special privileges to an arrangement that many, or even the majority, of its citizens consider immoral. The proper question is, why should the State grant special privileges to any particular living arrangement?
I don’t object to the conventional nuclear family. On the contrary, raising children under one roof with a mother and father has proved to be enormously popular, for excellent reasons. This very fact, however, makes it absurd for the State to privilege Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis over Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. It’s as if the State were to subsidize the deodorant industry on the grounds that the vast majority of Americans use deodorant. If anything requires special protection, surely it’s the minority arrangements, not the majority ones.
If the State did not marry people, they would doubtless marry on their own, for religious and other reasons, again without objection from me. Even today, people often describe themselves as married when they lack the certificate; my girlfriend of seventeen years and I often do so ourselves, because it’s too much trouble to explain. I’m all for marriage. Just keep it out of City Hall.
Now I grant that for homosexuals, politically, a campaign against legal marriage is not a winning argument. What it is is a logical argument.
(Update: Jeff Bryant argues that the State’s principal interest lies not in marriage, but divorce.)