Same-sex marriage advocates frequently appeal to our country’s limited government tradition to urge redefining the age-old, cross-cultural understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife into a union where a husband or a wife is unnecessary. “Government shouldn’t tell people who to marry,” they say.
Notwithstanding this argument’s misleading claim (no one is “telling” you to marry anyone—though a society with gay marriage will have the force of law to tell some opponents to participate), its premise is still troubling. Expanding legal marriage to include same-sex unions, far from being a victory for limited government, is inconsistent with it.
A limited government can remain limited only when citizens take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. The less people take responsibility, Benjamin Franklin observed, the more they need government. The same is true with marriage. Marriage as traditionally understood ensures that a man and a woman channel their attraction for one another into a stable, committed relationship that gives any children they have the best developmental benefit: a mom and a dad.
In the absence of an independent institution that holds men and women accountable for their relationship’s public effect—the having and raising of children—government must make greater expenditures to fight crime, improve the education system, enforce child support requirements, aid abandoned single mothers, and provide general social services.
To be sure, the increasing severance of marriage from procreation—not same-sex marriage—caused these problems. Same-sex marriage, however, represents a further break. Marriage’s purpose as the only institution that unites children with their mother and father disappears if a union for which that purpose is inherently irrelevant is also considered a marriage. The marital union is distinct in this regard.
Even infertile couples have the potential to conceive a child, and even those who use birth control can potentially conceive. A male-female couple fully open to conception won’t conceive every time they mate, but same-sex partners never present this concern. Marriage as a legal institution would have to be geared toward something else to remain distinct if a husband or wife is no longer needed.
The new basis of marriage, same-sex marriage advocates tell us, is not procreation or sexual difference, but love. For them, the personal promises husbands and wives make to each other is the government’s only reason to license (or not license) a marital relationship.
But if that were true, any relationship that has love and makes promises could also be regulated and licensed by government—including dating relationships and cohabitation—while also giving the government a rationale to criminalize adultery. What’s more, if the institution of marriage only exists to license love, then how can we justly discriminate between relationships characterized by love but that lack sexual relations—like two brothers who love and support each other, or two best friends who live together after their spouses died and raise a child? For same-sex marriage advocates, these relationships aren’t marital precisely because they are not sexual.
Many gay marriage advocates claim that part of the point of legalizing gay marriage is to get the government out of our relationships, yet in reality, it would expand government so as to discriminate in favor of relationships with sex partners versus relationships without sex partners. How is that not an intrusion? Traditional marriage is concerned only with public effects—so while other relationships may be fulfilling and loving, they aren’t marital because they do not advance society’s interest in responsible procreation and child-rearing.
Perhaps more worrying, a likely result of redefining marriage is that it will ultimately mean nothing at all. If friendships, dating relationships, or any relationship that has love with a remote possibility of sex is all it takes for the government to choose (or not choose) to license its existence, nearly all relationships will constitute a marriage; and thusno relationship will constitute a marriage.
A society where marriage is divorced from its procreative purpose within a stable union is a society that neuters its ability to prevent predatory men from impregnating women and abandoning them and to ensure that men take responsibility for their offspring. And it denies the child an incontrovertible social benefit: a present mother and father.
In such an alternative society—where marriage is divorced from procreation—the government steps in to look after children and relationships. And why not? If same-sex advocates view government validation of relationships as the means to achieve their social legitimacy, why not also look to government to solve the social failings of relationships?
Ultimately, the argument for same-sex marriage attempts to appeal to the personal promises we husbands and wives make to each other. But it only uses this course of reasoning because it cannot appeal to society’s reasons for establishing marriage laws in the first place. Yet when debating whether or not to license something, we cannot let our emotions determine the extent of government power. Government power that lacks a logical limiting principle—as the argument for same-sex marriage does—is inconsistent with limited government. To support limited government is to support traditional marriage.
William J. Haun is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
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