Cultural Recidivism: Arguments for the Abolition of State-Sanctioned Marriage
By Adam Dahmer
In the wake of Wednesday’s semi-centennial anniversary celebration of the famous March on Washington, many Americans have felt compelled to reexamine the ongoing struggle for universal civil rights, and its impact on modern culture. As modern civil rights activists have often repeated in recent weeks, the United States has yet to achieve the degree of equality that Martin Luther King and other participants in the original march promised their listeners five decades ago. Of all the forms of enduring inequality that plague our society, the lingering disparity between the civil rights of gay and straight Americans must surely take a preeminent place.
The debate on the subject of LGBT rights is inescapable, with opinions on both sides emanating almost incessantly from pulpits, radio speakers, and computer screens across the nation. The users of these various media seem to judge one facet of the issue particularly contentiously: same-sex marriage. The question of whether same sex couples should be legally entitled to the same marital rights as straight couples tends to accentuate the already well-pronounced liberal-conservative divide. Traditionalists contend that the recognition of same sex marital unions undermines the institution of marriage, thereby degrading a foundational pillar of modern society. Progressives counter that social institutions should be subject to change when society deems it necessary, and that no tradition, however revered, should stand in the way of securing equal rights and protections for all American citizens under the law. While my inclination is to agree most strongly with the latter opinion, I cannot help but wonder whether either side has correctly framed the debate.
Instead of asking whether same sex couples should be allowed to marry, we ought to be asking whether anyone at all should be allowed to marry, including heterosexuals. The fact is that as it exists, the institution of marriage itself—whether heterosexual or otherwise—is detrimental to American society. While this claim might at first seem outrageous, it is sustained by several logical arguments.
In the first place, marriage represents a means by which the state imposes unnecessary and unjustified restrictions on human liberty. In order to be considered valid, all marriages must be recognized by the government. This means that the terms of the marriage contract are directly subject to the legal supervision of the state, and must therefore conform to the moral impositions of legislators and judges whom the vast majority of newlyweds will never meet. No consideration other than the mutual consent of the betrothed should determine the validity of matrimony. For the government to presume it has the authority to sanctify a marriage is no less ridiculous than for it claim jurisdiction over romantic love. If, before entering a committed romantic relationship, would-be lovers had to pay a fee and formally request the right to proceed, they would surely feel outrage. And yet marriage, insofar as it exists in America today, is exactly that: a legal recognition of an interpersonal commitment to live in a mutual state of love. It is an Orwellian instrument by which what ought to be a timeless and deeply intimate covenant is reduced to a pair of signatures on a registry. Which begs another question: Why a pair?
Polygyny, the marriage of a man to multiple women, and polyandry, the marriage of a woman to multiple men, have long been illegal in the United States, with little excuse but the righteous disdain of the single-spouse majority. Conservative moralists—with the exception of Mormons—maintain that polygamy, like same sex marriage, would fray the delicate fabric of society, if allowed to flourish. However, there is little evidence to support that claim. The ménage-a-trois has been a nocturnal pastime for a sizeable minority of Americans since at least the 1960s, yet our civilization has not yet collapsed. In fact, it seems largely un-phased. New evidence from a number of university studies even suggests that children who grow up in homes with multiple mothers and/or fathers who simultaneously date a single partner for extended periods of time grow up as happily and healthily, on average, as children from traditional two-parent homes. Ultimately, the indefinite legal moratorium on multi-partner marriage is yet another example of the government’s unjustified and unnecessary exercise of its powers of marital recognition.
And yet, it is self-subjugation to this power for which so many in the LGBT community now clamor, and which conservatives so zealously defend. What instills in them the fervent desire to expose one of the most sacred and intimate junctures of adult life to the oversight of strangers? For some, the answer is money. Marriage can—among other things—ease estate planning, facilitate the formation of joint bank accounts, secure spousal social security benefits, and occasionally allow for the reduction or redistribution of state and federal income tax. Although these enticements at first seem well intended, their existence presents some problems in morality and ethics.
In the first place, there is no practical reason for the government to incentivize marriage. Although politicians and philosophers since before the Roman era have extolled the virtues of marriage, few of their reasons bear relevance in the modern age. Marriage by mandate of God or gods cannot be universally applied as a basis for public policy in a multi-religious society with a sizeable non-religious minority. Marriage as a stable environment for procreation is ill-suited to a world so overpopulated that our species might exhaust the natural resources requisite to its survival in mere generations.
In the second place, the marital incentives the government employs, if any, should not be economic. The modern association of money with marriage cheapens and defiles the institution to a level of baseness not seen since the Middle Ages, when nobility treated the marriage contract as little more than a vehicle for land consolidation and the sale of unwanted daughters. People should feel compelled to marry because of their love for one another – not the love of money. Furthermore, they should not marry to legitimize their unplanned children, or to populate the already crowded planet, or to please their parents, or even to obey God. These motivations, while each is valid for some, should never be anyone’s primary reason to seek out holy matrimony. People who desire marriage should do so only because they have recognized in their innermost selves that they and their partners belong together, and are able and willing to share themselves – in their entirety and under all circumstances – for the rest of their lives. That is marriage. It is its own burden and its own reward, and ought to require neither financial benefits to promote it, nor licenses to legitimize it.
As the title of the column suggests, Cultural Recidivism’s purpose is to solve modern problems by delving so deeply into anthropological history that it arrives at phases of human culture wherein the aforementioned problems did not exist, and then apply the reasons for the problems’ non-existence at that level of cultural regression to solve them in modern times. The vast majority of ancient peoples had no concept of state sanctioned marriage—which, considering that many of them also had no concept of states, is not surprising. Even so, I cannot help but think that an informal system of marriage, as practiced by our remote ancestors, is what our country needs moving forward. If legal adults of sound mind want to call themselves man and wife, man and man, wife and wife, wife and wife and man, or man and man and wife, secure in the knowledge that they love one another, then that should be enough to constitute a marital union. If they want to further sanctify that union with a ceremony, or if they would rather not, then in either case society should allow them to proceed as they so choose. And if, per misadventure, one or both of the partners decides that the union has been made in error, then the volition of that partner should be sufficient to affect a divorce. With the adoption of this system, the United States would be, if not a better place, at least a freer one.