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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Exactly! While most libertarians think that being a libertarian means letting others do what they want as long as they don't harm anyone else and therefore don't want the government to declare gay marriages illegal, Megan McArdle is here to remind them that they are terribly wrong, and that she can think of lots of reasons why a gay woman or man getting married would harm her and her marriage.
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.
Indeed. I do stuff all the time that is different from stuff that other people would do when they are doing stuff. And different people believe different stuff. For instance, in Saudi Arabia their stuff says that my stuff can't drive a car. If I drive a car their stuff could suffer. Therefore I should not have to drive people to the the mall, various entertainment venues, jobs, their boyfriend's house, their best friend's house, and their school when their stuff is too lazy to walk home. For we should always listen to people who attempt to foist their religious beliefs on others.
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.
So according to Megan McArdle, gay marriage in unnatural because marriage is between a man and woman for biological reasons; that is, reproduction, which is a good thing for society. McArdle has quite a few reasons why marriage is good for heterosexuals but no logical reasons why gays can't marry as well. The best she can come up with is that someone, somewhere, might be offended by gay marriage and that will somehow harm heterosexual marriage.
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.
No, we think the gays who persecute other gays via political attacks are repressed bastards with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots. The others are merely enabling, vindictive, passive observers.
Is this post going to convince anyone?
Do any of her posts 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.
It's not bigotry, it's humility. It's not that they relish persecuting others to advance themselves politically, socially, and monetarily, it's just that stuff happens to stuff and one never knows.
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.
Certainly! It's not her fault that people would be hurt if she got her way. It's just the way it has to be, for systemic reasons. So think very deeply and carefully when you are deciding who does and who does not deserve to have civil rights. You, too, may be saddened by what you discover, but what can one do? What is morality, what are Christian teachings, what is empathy and humanity compared to the necessity of preserving marriage as it is, without making big changes?
Look at what divorce did to marriage. And property rights for women. The ending of primogeniture. The selling of women like livestock to any man that wandered by with a couple of sheep to trade. Dear God in Heaven, what have we done by making such big changes to the big social institution of marriage???
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.
So according to Megan McArdle, gay marriage is unnatural because marriage is between a man and woman for biological reasons; that is, reproduction, which is a good thing for society. Which is why McArdle stays home and bears their many children and P. Suderman, boy hunter-and-gatherer, goes out and brings home the bacon: biology is destiny and nothing should ever change. Except when the change benefits her.
But we do not rehash this old post to discuss McArdle's hypocrisy and lack of empathy. We bring it up to say that we hope Megan McArdle is weeping bitter, bitter tears of misery at the thought of being unable to gang together with her friends and exclude the outliers from her exclusive, straights-only club.
Congratulations to our friends, relatives and fellow travelers, for the breaking down of another barrier to universal civil rights.