On left and libertarian marriage: If we don’t like the state, why seek its approval?

I am friendly with some anarchist and libertarian types who share my liberalism on social issues (if not for the same reasons) and a preparedness to “deep critique” the state (if not in the same way). The repeal of California’s Prop 8 gay marriage ban has sparked some discussion among us as to the nature of marriage (that is, civil marriage) itself.

Since marriage amounts to the state’s sanctioning of behavior, Michael asks: “Why should we care about the government’s approval or disapproval?” In context, this can be expanded: “Why seek the government’s approval through (a) getting married or (b) securing marriage rights for gays, given that the state is a fucked up or at least not especially favorable institution?”

This is a fair question. We would likewise question a friend’s desire for his neighbor’s approval, if that neighbor were a jerk or a total stranger. Knowing nothing else, we would expect our friend to be hostile or indifferent to this sanction. His contrary behavior warrants an explanation.

(Michael: Tell me if this articulation is off base.)

This being said, I must answer a question different from Michael’s. This is because I contest the premise that (a) or (b) has to be about seeking “the government’s approval” per se. (It could be; but it need not be.) There are other reasons in favor of marriage, and the right of marriage.

A qualification: There are obvious ways in which the preceding statement could be true, ways that need no argument. For instance, we all know of immigrants who seek marriage in order to remain legally in the country. Obviously they don’t care if the state approves of or ”likes” their union’, they just want to stay here.

The same could be said of people who marry simply to please their parents. Some serial killers get married just to appear “regular” and inconspicuous. However, when I refer to ‘motivations for marriage other than state approval,’ I mean “normal” reasons consonant with the values people bring to stereotypical love-marriage. I mean that this need not be about seeking government approval per se.

(1) Why seek government approval for oneself?

I will first discuss the the motivation to become married oneself, to get married, apart from whether anyone else can.

To use myself as an example: I sought marriage partly because it provided a ready constraint on certain of my own relationship-related behaviors. For me, it functions as a kind of self-enforcement. Marriage can add an immediacy, a sense of “high stakes” to relationship problems which can enhance the drive to work things out, creatively seek solutions, etc. Plus, one’s willingness to place oneself under such a constraint “proves” to one’s partner that one is serious, beyond verbal assurances or “smaller,” less costly tokens. It “puts your money where your mouth is.” (For similar reasons, I believe activist groups are wise to collect membership dues, even if they just throw the money in the wastebasket; paying in, in and of itself, shows and enhances commitment.)

Needless to say, this does not imply a moral mandate to get married. There are valid relationship constraints other than marriage; purely religious marriage and similar non-civil sanctions could serve the same function. Maybe for some, force of will functions well enough without external constraints of any sort. I chose civil marriage because it is “available” and has broad social currency. The point here is that my participation does not depend on or reflect any special romance with the state’s favor–even if the idea of marriage is inseparable from the idea of “state favor.” One can get married despite this feature.

Here is an analogy: Let’s say I really need to get into this drug rehab program. This program will only admit an addict if the Board of Directors determine they possess a certain level of “sobriety promise,” or a “good heart” or “hardy fibre,” or any feature you like. Still, it would be misleading to say that my interest in entering the clinic is fundamentally about wanting or needing the board’s approval. It is about getting sober, gaining access to all those features of the program apart from the board sanction that will aid in this goal. The fact that l cannot get at these features without also getting the approval is beside the point. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with the determination or think the B of D are complete douchebags who have terrible reasons for admitting me. For it is the place they occupy in the world, the role they play, not any “approving feelings” they have toward me, that matters to and drives my decision.

(2) Why seek government approval for others? (i.e., Hating the state and Prop 8 )

We move onto the question of supporting the rights of others (e.g., gays) to get married. First, I am not going to address the issue of homosexuality as it relates to marriage directly. I’m not addressing homophones who believe the “sin” of gayness will contaminate or trivialize “proper” straight marriage. I am instead addressing those socially liberal readers who might see gay marriage as an unimportant cause to take up because “seeking government approval” is silly or wrong.

It may appear I have already answered the question: If you accept my argument that there are good reasons to become married (apart from “government approval”), you would, barring homophobic prejudice, be inclined to think gays should be able to do this. But this appearance is misleading. For it is possible to reject everything I’ve said above and still accept gay marriage. That is, it is possible to think that marriage is silly or wrong (seeking “government approval” or whatever) and thus that nobody should ever do it—and support the right of gays to become married. These are separate questions entirely. (I press this point because I’d like to convince anti-state types to support gay marriage even if they don’t support the above argument.)

My view is: It is reasonable to expect that, when one segment of society can obtain this “approval,” while another segment can’t, this has a deleterious effect on the out-group, one which should, all things being equal, be prevented. And this maintains whether or not becoming married is a good idea.

Similarly, if the state set up and enforced whites-only clubs, this would harm non-whites. And it would do so whether or not any of them actually want to enter the club. (You can see why they might not). The harm would also maintain whether or not anyone ought to want to enter the club—that is, whether or not anyone’s going to the club is a good idea from the perspective of the patrons themselves.

I would argue that exclusion from popular, revered social institutions harms the excluded group directly, in and of itself. For now, I refer to the mountain of evidence suggesting that inequality damages the “less equal.” (Inequality being but a persistent, public, and glaring form of exclusion.) This might not apply in the case of a single club—but imagine exclusion from every club in the country, where patronizing clubs is, like getting married, something almost everyone does or wants to do.

In addition, “state approval” has a causal effect on social ideas: Under “normal conditions,” the sheer legality of a thing encourages citizens to tailor their norms in favor of it (and vice-versa). Being legal also affects the real practice of the thing, increasing the number of instances, heightening its visibility; the more “normal” it thereby becomes, the more the norms (continue to) follow it. (Granted, in some cases, e.g. ending slavery, this ‘norm-alization’ comes only after a period of its opposite, a social reaction against the legalized thing. So this can be a long-term effect.) This effect is only enhanced when the thing in question isn’t just not illegal, but, like civil marriage, actually created by the state and having no life apart from it.

We can use these points to enhance the above “club” analogy: Let’s say that the exclusive club in question is a strip club. Let us assume that watching naked people wiggle around is harmful to those who look at it (it is addictive, ends relationships, etc.), but still acceptable in the “libertarian” sense of only really affecting the lookers themselves. (For the record, this is not my own view on wiggle-watching.) The activity is a “bad” thing, something that, like securing the government’s “approval” in marriage, nobody should care about pursuing or letting others pursue per se. However, if the state allows only whites to do this harmful thing, this also has a harmful effect on non-whites—an effect apart from the harmful effects which flow directly to the whites engaging in the activity. And the harms of exclusion are, for all we know, worse than the “direct” effects of actual participation.

My point is that “inclusive” marriage—offering marriage to gays—should be pursued, even if we “anti-state” types agree that nobody should ever take the state up on the offer and that it would be better if the whole institution didn’t exist for anyone. Given the fact that it does exist in the particular exclusive form that it does, permitting gays to do likewise will protect and benefit them even in ways unrelated to the merits of being married (or conversely, despite the demerits of being married).

* * *

No piece of this argument depends on viewing marriage as good “in and of itself” in any respect whatsoever (though again, I believe it can be beneficial). You could think marriage totally sucks, for the reasons Michael alludes to or any others, and still accept all of the above.

(Hope this makes sense, brother Michael.)

[Facebook friends: A link to this is posted on my wall. If you respond, please consider doing so in the comments section there.]

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