Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gay marriage impacts everyone

Congratulations to gays and the marriage equality movement for a major victory in New York. But rather than marching along in a pride parade, I need to be contrarian and point out one small but significant area in which the opponents of gay marriage actually have a point. It's not a decisive point by any means -- I still favor allowing gays to marry and so should you -- but it nags at me.

The pro-gay-marriage position is based on the idea of individual and equal rights, and a standard argument for it is that allowing gays to marriage cannot have any conceivable impact on heterosexual marriages (eg here or here). This seems very wrong to me. Despite this argument generally coming from the left, its underpinnings are identical to the libertarian/conservative dismissal of social reality, put in its starkest form by Margaret Thatcher's line "there is no society; there are only individuals". Well, no. Society is a real thing, we are all involved in it in one way or another, and it is involved with our lives. Marriage is a social institution, not merely something two individuals decide of their own free and independent wills to do. This is true of pretty much everything, but it's glaringly obvious in the case of marriage, which comes with a huge set of legal, social, and cultural baggage.

So extending the bounds of marriage to include same-sex couples is in fact a big change that impacts everyone, whether or not they themselves are going to get hitched to someone with similar genes and plumbing. Conservatives are right to sense this. Society works by means of norms and institutions, which are very real things (and sorry if I sound like a college freshman who has been bowled over by his Soc 101 course, but my naive and amateurish interest in the sociological won't be still) and changing them changes the world for everyone.

Now, that particular bit of truth is quite separate from the idea that such a change is necessarily pernicious. And even if it was, those theoretical harms would have to be balanced with the very real harms done to individuals by denying them equal rights.

But proponents of marriage equality should be careful in their arguments. Extending individual freedom is great, but pretending that it doesn't have any impact on society is a bad tactic because it isn't true, and people (including the people who need to be convinced in order to continue the legislative victories) know that it isn't true.

The issue is complicated by the fact that marriage generally has a religious and a secular component, but they are tightly interwoven. Proposals to split it up and get government out of the marriage business entirely and just have it manage the legal relationship of civil union made a lot of sense, but that's not the way things have been playing out. Marriage has remained a unified concept and that's where the battle is taking place, and if our side wins let's not pretend that there was a ground to fight over and the other side has not lost something.

The larger issue is that the left should not be in the business of making libertarian arguments and ceding the ground of society to conservatives.


Ben Hyde said...


Political actors load up their rhetorical arsenal with many different talking points. These arguments serve to move members of the body politic in one of three directions - into your camp, into the opponents camp, or into the disinterested camp.

The talking point that argues the doing X has minimal or zero cost moves people into the disinterested camp, and arguing that it will do serious damage moves them into the opposing camp.

Another example of the 'zero or minimal cost' argument is seen around lowering trade barriers - where the proponents like to argue that it lifts all boats and does little or no damage to the existing stake holders.

I agree that I find it somewhat offensive to advocate for civil rights by saying in effect "what's it to you?" rather than "wake up, this is about you; if not today tomorrow!" or 'ok, so your argument is that we should be cruel this class because it might just cost your something?"

But arguing like that isn't necessarily wise politicals.

Once people are starting to move into your camp you can probably begin to argue that we should be proud, honored even, to pay the cost, if any. Which as you suggest requires embracing the social contract(s) rather than shunning them.

scw said...

"...the left should not be in the business of making libertarian arguments and ceding the ground of society to conservatives."

I agree - but that would require the left to be honest about what it wants to do to society, and how it wants to do it. It wishes to tear down the familiar, organic, and time-honored institutions of civil society, and to rebuild them according to its theories, using the coercive power of government as its tool.

Maybe you can find some verbiage that makes this sound more palatable; political correctness is, after all, largely about euphemism. But the underlying facts remain, in any event. A corpse is still a corpse, even if we refer to it as "the dearly departed." Just so, buggery is still buggery, even if Nero and his Sporus solemnise it with a nuptial ceremony and celebrate it with a feast.

At least what has happened in New York took place by vote of an elected legislature, rather than being decreed by the courts, the least democratic branch of government. The action more arguably reflects the wishes of the electorate, and is accordingly less objectionable than the many left-wing measures that have been forced down the craw of an unwilling public by judicial fiat.

May we hope that the left will accept its defeats on this issue in more conservative states with a grace equal to the warmth with which it welcomes its legislative victory in New York? A functioning federal system of government depends on the willingness to let settled matters stay settled, even if they are not settled in the same way everywhere.

mtraven said...

Think for a second. If "the left" was trying to tear down existing institutions, why would it be trying to reinforce the institution of marriage by extending its reach?

There is a minority of gays who disdain the bourgeoise conventionality of marriage, but obviously they are not the ones who want to get married.

... the many left-wing measures that have been forced down the craw of an unwilling public ...

You do realize that every time a winger uses that kind of language in this context (which they seem to do an awful lot) it causes a chortle among the cognoscenti?

May we hope that the left will accept its defeats on this issue in more conservative states...

Not really practical. It's one thing to have, say, abortion be legal in some places and not others, but wouldn't work for a couple to be legally married in one state and not have that recognized in another. Unconstitutional besides, since the states are required to give "full faith and credit" to each other's acts.

scw said...

The notion of "gay marriage" does not "reinforce" the institution of marriage. It alters it by setting buggery equal to procreative sexual relations which lead to legitimate children (i.e., the creation of a family, as traditionally understood). The partisans of "gay marriage" do not want to shore up the traditional family - they flaunt their contempt for it.

That marriage was historically understood as being the foundation of a family, and not applicable to same-sex relations that are by nature infertile, is shown by the non-existence of any sort of "marriage" between members of the same sex, even in societies that were generally tolerant of homosexual behavior, e.g., ancient Greece, the Roman empire after it became Hellenized, or medieval Japan.

There was no marriage, for example, between Hadrian and Antinous. The relationship between erastes and eromenos was acceptable and even thought honorable; but it was not of the sort for which the institution of marriage was intended. Nero's "marriage" to Sporus was considered scandalous not because the Romans regarded homosexual relations with the revulsion expressed in the Old Testament, but because it was inappropriate to such relations, and would have been a ridiculous parody of real marriage.

"Forced down the craw" seems quite appropriate to describe the fellatial rape of public opinion by judicial decrees that reflect what we might call an "evolving standard of indecency."

Certainly a state may give Constitutionally-required full faith and credit to another state's permission of same-sex unions without providing that its own officials license or perform such marriages. In other words, if Bruce and Percy live in Utah and wish to get "married," let them go to New York (and meet its residency requirements) to do so. Utah may be compelled to recognize the resultant union, but need not condescend to the furtherance of such travesties.

mtraven said...

Your arguments are tedious. But I guess being tedious is baked into the conservative ideology, which shrinks from novelty as if it was asbestos-covered plutonium.

And you obviously have zero understanding of what might motivate gay people to want to get married or enjoy equal rights.

So I suggest you stop wasting my time and yours.

And I'll just add that one of the defining features of being an American (or citizen of the modern world in general) is that we are not bound by ancient custom, but have granted ourselves the power to arrange our laws and institutions in ways that we feel are improvements. A bit unnerving, and who knows, the whole experiment might blow up, but all in all preferable to the statsis preferred by your kind.

scw said...

Calling my arguments "tedious" hardly rebuts them.

I do not recall having expressed any opinion about "what might motivate gay people to want to get married or to enjoy equal rights."

So far as I know, gay people do enjoy equal rights, along with all other citizens, to freedom of speech and religion, to keep and bear arms, not to have soldiers quartered on their property, not to be subject to warrantless search and seizure, to jury trial, and all the other rights provided for in the Bill of Rights. These quite significantly do not include the right to marry. Marriage has always been subject to legal restrictions under the broad police powers reserved to the states. For example, one cannot marry one's sibling. One cannot be married to more than one person at a time. Persons below a statutory age cannot marry. In what essential respect do such prohibitions not infringe upon "equal rights," while prohibiting the marriage of two persons of the same sex does?

One reason often mentioned for two persons of the same sex to wish to marry is that one might thereby obtain spousal benefits for his catamite under insurance, pension, or other social welfare programmes. These are understandable economic incentives. They reflect the way that the institution of marriage has been converted into a mechanism for the delivery of such benefits by the willy-nilly development of the welfare state. Whether this is good for the institution of marriage or the family is quite another question.

And has anyone thought how much extending such benefits to same-sex partners might cost the government, directly or indirectly? I observe that state-provided benefits are a direct charge to the government; and benefits provided through employers are an indirect one, since they are deductible from the taxable incomes of employers.

Here's a conundrum for an egalitarian wealth-redistributor such as yourself: that portion of an estate left to one's spouse is not subject to the estate tax. Recognizing same-sex marriages as valid and equal to those between a man and a woman opens up all sorts of ways in which estates might be shielded from taxation. Let's consider the situation of an elderly person without children who wishes to leave his or her substantial estate to a young relative, friend, or business associate of the same sex. A quick trip to the registry office, and the whole kit and boodle can then be transferred via a testamentary marital trust entirely tax-free! Of course, there need not be any actual homosexual relationship between the "spouses" - just the formality of marriage is sufficient to establish the tax shelter. Will the IRS insist on evidence of "consummation"? If so, by what means? Will the audit include a colonoscopy of the legatee?

I have lived all my life in the shadow of the estate tax, and although you might think the suggestion is far-fetched, my experience inclines me to believe that estate planners in New York are already looking into the possibilities of same-sex marriage purely as a tax-avoidance measure.

Even if we discount such scenarios, it's a certainty that some quite large estates will now be shielded from taxation that would not have been before. Did any of the left-wing ideologues now savoring their triumph in New York think of that particular unintended consequence?

mtraven said...

Calling my arguments "tedious" hardly rebuts them.

No, but it means I can't be bothered to rebut them.

I have lived all my life in the shadow of the estate tax...

[[cue the sound of the world's smallest violin]]

Your idea about marriage as a tax shelter is certainly unique, at least, but I fail to see how gay marriage would be any more or less subject to such abuse than heterosexual marriage. Or to put it another way, if heteros have the right to a particular tax shelter, for good or ill, why shouldn't homosexuals?

scw said...

I am not asking for your sympathy about the estate tax, so you can lay down your pardessus de viole. I merely mention it because I'm quite familiar, as a result of personal experience, with all the stratagems estate planners devise to avoid it. It would be foolish to suppose that they aren't beavering away already, trying to exploit the new opportunities offered by the New York law.

The Wall Street Journal carried an article yesterday pointing out that the measure was passed in large part because of a handful of Republican votes, and that these were swayed by the large amounts of money spent on promoting its passage by four extremely rich hedge fund managers. No doubt some or all of these people are queer as three-dollar bills. I hope every one of them lives to be past ninety, and just before kicking off, each one "marries" some adolescent Ganymede who is a devotée of the works of Ayn Rand - and that all of these heirs will in turn repeat the process when they are old and grey, shielding billions from the greedy tax collector for decades or even centuries to come. It would be such sport to see the leftist social engineers thus hoist with their own petard.

For an interesting take on the New York law, not particularly connected with any of my comments, see:


I am far from endorsing this man's opinions, but find them rather entertaining.