Unlike most libertarians, I don't have an opinion on gay marriage, and I'm not going to have an opinion no matter how much you bait me. However, I had an interesting discussion last night with another libertarian about it, which devolved into an argument about a certain kind of liberal/libertarian argument about gay marriage that I find really unconvincing.Having said she has no opinion, McArdle immediately begins discussing opinions. She presents these views as belonging to others so she can't be criticized or rejected by anybody. From her safe "neutral" perch she can criticize both sides while belonging to neither. Yet McArdle does, of course, have an opinion, and has the urge to present it to the world, indeed, an obligation to tell others what to think, as a highly educated person and one of the elite.
Social conservatives of a more moderate stripe are essentially saying that marriage is an ancient institution, which has been carefully selected for throughout human history. It is a bedrock of our society; if it is destroyed, we will all be much worse off. (See what happened to the inner cities between 1960 and 1990 if you do not believe this.) For some reason, marriage always and everywhere, in every culture we know about, is between a man and a woman; this seems to be an important feature of the institution. We should not go mucking around and changing this extremely important institution, because if we make a bad change, the institution will fall apart.
A very common response to this is essentially to mock this as ridiculous. "Why on earth would it make any difference to me whether gay people are getting married? Why would that change my behavior as a heterosexual"
To which social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.
To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"
Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.And now we're deeply in the weeds, where a layperson would have a hard time following or countering McArdle's opinions. It's not that McArdle's feelings towards marriage will suffer, it's the economy. No, McArdle isn't a bigot here and neither are you, dear reader. It's Others, lowlifes in Tuscaloosa who will harm marriage through their bigotry. Not McArdle. But just in case you accidently thought McArdle had an opinion lurking under the verbiage, she rushes to disabuse you of that notion.
This should not be taken as an endorsement of the idea that gay marriage will weaken the current institution. I can tell a plausible story where it does; I can tell a plausible story where it doesn't. I have no idea which one is true. That is why I have no opinion on gay marriage, and am not planning to develop one. Marriage is a big institution; too big for me to feel I have a successful handle on it.Eh, maybe it will, maybe it won't, who knows? But remember, McArdle has no opinion on the subject either way. Marriage won't be harmed by gays marrying, unless, you know, it will.
However, I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."So just in case you thought opposition to gay marriage was silly and bigoted, remember that it might not be, because someone, somewhere might make a negative economic decision, and hurt the free markets.
They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.
So what does this mean? That we shouldn't enact gay marriage because of some sort of social Precautionary Principle [sic]Be humble little thinkers, who do not have McArdle's education and deep thoughts. Listen to your betters, which is why we have elections and stuff. Our ancestors knew what they were doing and did it for a good reason. (After all, it's not like the marriage contract started out as a bill of sale for the exchange of property.) Listen to your Authorities. They know what they are doing.
No. I have no such grand advice.
My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can't imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant. It imagines, first of all, that your behavior is a guide for the behavior of everyone else in society, when in fact, as you may have noticed, all sorts of different people react to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways, which is why we have to have elections and stuff. And second, the unwavering belief that the only reason that marriage, always and everywhere, is a male-female institution (I exclude rare ritual behaviors), is just some sort of bizarre historical coincidence, and that you know better, needs examining. If you think you know why marriage is male-female, and why that's either outdated because of all the ways in which reproduction has lately changed, or was a bad reason to start with, then you are in a good place to advocate reform. If you think that marriage is just that way because our ancestors were all a bunch of repressed bastards with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots, I'm a little leery of letting you muck around with it.
Is this post going to convince anyone? I doubt it; everyone but me seems to already know all the answers, so why listen to such a hedging, doubting bore? I myself am trying to draw a very fine line between being humble about making big changes to big social institutions, and telling people (which I am not trying to do) that they can't make those changes because other people have been wrong in the past. In the end, our judgement is all we have; everyone will have to rely on their judgement of whether gay marriage is, on net, a good or a bad idea. All I'm asking for is for people to think more deeply than a quick consultation of their imaginations to make that decision. I realise that this probably falls on the side of supporting the anti-gay-marriage forces, and I'm sorry, but I can't help that. This humility is what I want from liberals when approaching market changes; now I'm asking it from my side too, in approaching social ones. I think the approach is consistent, if not exactly popular.
Learn from my humility, little people. Deny civil rights to our fellow human beings. They might be miffed at that, but I'm sorry, I just can't help that.
McArdle is afraid of rejection from socially liberal people if she states what she really feels--gays shouldn't marry. If gay marriage hurts McArdle's marriage in any way, shape or form, she cannot allow it. Marriage is for her, happily born heterosexual and therefore good enough to marry. Not for gays, who are not good enough. McArdle has spoken. Be humble and accept her wisdom.
You go and have a very special day, Princess, and rest happy knowing that some people aren't allowed to marry at all, making your Happy Day even more exclusive and therefore better than before. It's the Libertarian Way, after all.