Marriage Laws and the
Proper Role of the State
Part 5 of the
Libertarian Case for
Let’s look at marriage laws and the state from a systemic point of view. How should we think about marriage as a social institution and from a public policy perspective?
Government does not create marriage, any more than government creates parents, businesses, or jobs. Yet government has created laws to support marriage, just as it has done with laws to support parents, laws to support businesses, and laws to support jobs. Just as people have a natural "propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another," in Adam Smith’s famous words from the second chapter of The Wealth of Nations, we likewise have a natural propensity to couple, procreate and rear children. People instinctively create marriage, both as couples and as cultures.
We know from Adam Smith, Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman that the market is more than buying and selling. The market is a complex system of social cooperation. Similarly, the family is a form of social cooperation. In fact, mothers and fathers working together to raise their children is the most basic unit of social cooperation.
In every known society, communities around the couple develop customs and norms that define the parameters of socially acceptable sexual, spousal and parental behavior. The culture around marriage may have legal or governmental elements. But by far, the greater part of that cultural machinery in most societies is more informal than legal, and is based more on kinship than on law.
Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have the idea that no particular type of relationship should be "privileged" over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices and that marriage should be privatized.
Privatizing marriage laws means that marriage cannot provide structure for people’s lives. The social history of the last 50 years bears this out. Every increase of sexual freedom turned out to initiate another episode of lawlessness and an increase of state power. No-fault divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing seemed like a good ideas at the time, ideas that would free us from social and legal constraints.
Besides the private heartaches created by weakened marriage laws, the public consequence is that the state steps in to clean up the mess. We now know that the mess created by divorce and out of wedlock childbearing, can include poverty, mental illness, lower educational attainment, and juvenile crime. The decline of marriage as a social institution has corresponded with an increase in the role of the state in other aspects of society. One study conservatively estimated the taxpayer cost of fractured families at $112 billion per year. Increasing the taxpayer burden is a decrease of freedom.
We have confused freedom with license. It's as if we're saying, "I am free if I get to do what I want. I am free if I get to walk away from human relationships when they become burdensome."
No fiscal conservative or libertarian would make comparable claims about the economy. People don’t get to do whatever they want in a free market economy. Economic laissez-faire doesn’t mean the government can ignore people who violate the norms of property rights, contracts and fair exchange. Nor do people get to walk away from their burdensome economic relationships. With these structures in place, individuals can create wealth and pursue their own interests with little or no additional assistance from the state.
Man/woman marriage supports that sweet-spot of constraint vs. freedom.
This is part 5 of our series, The Libertarian Case for Man/Woman Marriage. Read more:
Part 1: What is the definition of marriage?
Part 2: What is marriage and why do we need it?
Part 3: Gay Marriage Facts
Part 4: Marriage equality creates new inequalities
Part 5: Marriage Laws: How Should the State View Marriage? (you are here)
Part 6: History of Marriage
Part 7: Gay Marriage means Genderless Marriage
Part 8: Government and Marriage
Return to the home page: Marriage Laws