Why Is Government In the Marriage Business?

Yesterday’s post focused on what marriage is. Today’s explores why the government recognizes marriage in the first place. As my co-authors and I argue in our new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, virtually every political community has regulated male-female sexual relationships. Why? Not because government cares about romance as such. It cares about male-female sexual relationships because these alone produce new human beings.

While yesterday’s post focused on the definition of marriage, today’s focuses on the public purpose that marriage plays in a political community. For highly dependent infants, there is no path to physical, moral, and cultural maturity—no path to personal responsibility—without a long and delicate process of ongoing care and supervision.

Unless children do mature, they never will become healthy, upright, productive members of society. Marriage exists to make men and women responsible to each other and any children they might have.

As the late sociologist James Q. Wilson wrote, “Marriage is a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.”

Social science confirms the importance of marriage for kids. According to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every examined indicator when reared by their wedded, biological parents. Studies that control for other factors, including poverty and even genetics, suggest that children reared in intact homes do best on educational achievement, emotional health, familial and sexual development, and delinquency and incarceration.

Consider the conclusions of the Left-leaning research institution Child Trends:

[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents. . . . [I]t is not simply the presence of two parents, . . . but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.

Men and women typically bring different strengths to this process, and they are better suited to it the more closely related they are to the children. Fathers are particularly important for child development. Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe explains:

The burden of social science evidence supports the idea that gender-differentiated parenting is important for human development and that the contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable.

Popenoe concludes:

We should disavow the notion that “mommies can make good daddies,” just as we should disavow the popular notion . . . that “daddies can make good mommies.” . . . The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.

Marriage benefits everyone, because separating child-bearing and -rearing from marriage burdens innocent bystanders: not just children, but the whole community. It’s the community that often must step in to provide (more or less directly) for their wellbeing and upbringing. A child born and raised outside marriage is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child in an intact family—and therefore welfare expenditures grow. So by encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence—the state is strengthening civil society and reducing its own role.

In other words, the most basic function of limited government—protecting civic order—also justifies legally regulating marriage. So the goals of marriage law—which do not involve banning other consensual relationships—are legitimate for government, even from a libertarian perspective.

Getting government out of the civil marriage business would be a catastrophe for limited government. Abolishing civil marriage would weaken social support for its norms. Over time, the law shapes what people think marriage is—which in turn affects how current and future spouses act.  As countless studies show, absentee fathers and out-of-wedlock births bring a train of social pathologies, and greater demand for policing and social services. This was, after all, what inspired the original “marriage movement,” as my first post explained.

A study by the Left-leaning Brookings Institution finds that $229 billion in welfare spending between 1970 and 1996 can be attributed to the breakdown of the marriage culture and the resulting exacerbation of social ills: teen pregnancy, poverty, crime, drug abuse and health problems. A 2008 study found that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers $112 billion each year. And Utah State University scholar David Schramm has estimated that divorce alone costs local, state and federal government $33 billion each year.

Civil marriage serves the ends of limited government more effectively, less intrusively, and at less cost than picking up the pieces from a shattered marriage culture.

Of course, it isn’t just the legal title of marriage that encourages adherence to marital norms. There is nothing magical about the word “marriage.” Instead, marriage laws work by embodying and promoting a true vision of what marriage is that makes sense of those norms as a coherent whole.

But marital norms make no sense—as matters of principle—if marriage is just intense emotional regard. There is no reason of principle why emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons, rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands. This isn’t to say that couples couldn’t decide to live out these norms where temperament or taste so motivated them; but that there is no reason of principle to demand it of them. So legally enshrining this alternate view of marriage would undermine the norms whose link to the common good justifies state action in the first place.

And now we can see the link between the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state promotes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, it can’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing it.

  1. Tommy De Seno
    C

    Ryan yesterday you asked for answers to 5 questions and serveral of us answered.  Are you going to head back over to that thread to continue that conversation?

  2. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C
    Tommy De Seno: Ryan yesterday you asked for answers to 5 questions and serveral of us answered.  Are you going to head back over to that thread to continue that conversation?

    Seconding.

  3. Ryan T. Anderson, Guest Contributor
    C

    Yes, I’ll be taking up those questions–and responses.

  4. Becky53

    When I lived on a kibbutz for a summer back in ’75, all the children were raised by staff — they boarded together, worked together for the good of the kibbutz community, and lived away from their parents all week.  They saw their parents on weekends only. 

    If marriage is not promoted or supported by the state, the state will use this ‘crisis’ to control the raising of them. The state loves a crisis, right?

    The ’70′s Feminism/equality  push was the first step in this direction and if you look at the women leaders — Betty Friedan (spelling?) my bet is that they identified as socialists/communists first, before being women. 

    Women working as a choice, even when they have children to raise — and they have a strong earner for a husband — this golden image that was shoved down our throats during the ’70′s was a Trojan Horse.  It was the first step toward states’ raising of our children.

    Whittling marriage down in meaning and using statistics to ‘prove’ it is failing is also a way to convince people that marriage is old-fashioned and should be open to whom-ever copulates.

  5. Barkha Herman

    I get your message.  People are too dumb to figure it out for themselves, so we must:

    1. Get Government to promote marriage 

    2. Define marriage to strict rules and get Government to protect it
    3. If we don’t, <insert some doom and gloom here>

    What of freedom?  What of liberty?  What of responsibility?

  6. mask

    I agree that marriage is essential to a functioning society.

    I’m not convinced that government licensing of marriage makes marriage stronger.  Certainly the responsibilities inherent in marriage that is enforced by the legal structures of a marriage license (e.g., mostly having to do with financial and other responsibilities of parents to children, husband to wife) are important but I’m not convinced that a marriage license is required for these to be in force.

    The disintegration of the family and marriage is primarily a cultural problem – one for which, ultimately, there isn’t a legal or state remedy.

  7. Barkha Herman
    Becky53: 

    Women working as a choice, even when they have children to raise — and they have a strong earner for a husband — this golden image that was shoved down our throats during the ’70′s was a Trojan Horse.  It was the first step toward states’ raising of our children.

    Becky, as a “woman” who married and had a couple of kids in her 20s, and a very fulfilling career, and a high earning husband, and raised two great kids with out differing to the “Government” to raise them, I take offense to this zero sum gain mentality of career woman.

    I didn’t get married because the “State promoted it”.  In reality – I hardly ever do things based on the “State promoting it”.

    And my career added to my kids experiences, they respect me all the more for it – and have an exceptional work ethic, as well as sense of independence because of it.

    Perhaps the issue is that you believe that only those things are worth doing that the “State promotes”?

  8. George Savage

    Right now government is doing its best to discourage marriage on an economic basis.  Consider that the high-rate on the new Obamacare investment income tax and the president’s preferred changes to the income tax code generally will apply to individuals earning in excess of $200,000 but to married couples earning in excess of $250,000–not $400,000 as might be expected if marriage neutrality was an animating principle.

    So a successful married couple–gay or straight–with each spouse earning $175,000 in salary will find itself at a substantial and increasing disadvantage relative to similarly situated individuals living together without a marriage certificate. 

  9. Becky53

    What does this issue or support of man-woman traditional marriage, have to do with impinging freedom, liberty and responsibility?  

    No one is saying people are dumb.

    The above response reduces my thoughts to being dumb — it accuses me of wanting people to be controlled by government. 

    Future posters — please do not let the above post define what I said! 

  10. ConservativeWanderer
    Becky53:

    The above response reduces my thoughts to being dumb — it accuses me of wanting people to be controlled by government. 

     · in 0 minutes

    Exactly, Becky. Those of us who support traditional marriage are “dumb” according to those who want to redefine it.

    ‘Nuff said.

  11. Becky53

    Wow, no.

    Barkha Herman

    Becky53: 

    Women working as a choice, even when they have children to raise — and they have a strong earner for a husband — this golden image that was shoved down our throats during the ’70′s was a Trojan Horse.  It was the first step toward states’ raising of our children.

    Becky, as a “woman” who married and had a couple of kids in her 20s, and a very fulfilling career, and a high earning husband, and raised two great kids with out differing to the “Government” to raise them, I take offense to this zero sum gain mentality of career woman.

    I didn’t get married because the “State promoted it”.  In reality – I hardly ever do things based on the “State promoting it”.

    And my career added to my kids experiences, they respect me all the more for it – and have an exceptional work ethic, as well as sense of independence because of it.

    Perhaps the issue is that you believe that only those things are worth doing that the “State promotes”? · 5 minutes ago

  12. Barkha Herman
    George Savage: Right now government is doing its best to discourage marriage on an economic basis.  Consider that the high-rate on the new Obamacare investment income tax and the president’s preferred changes to the income tax code generally will apply to individuals earning in excess of $200,000 but to married couples earning in excess of $250,000–not $400,000 as might be expected if marriage neutrality was an animating principle.

    So a successful married couple–gay or straight–with each spouse earning $175,000 in salary will find itself at a substantial and increasing disadvantage relative to similarly situated individuals living together without a marriage certificate.  · 0 minutes ago

    This is why limiting marriage to a permit provided by the Government is irrelevant.  I myself  have toyed with the idea of a divorce (on paper) after 20 years of marriage to get around some of the taxation issues.  The trouble is, in Florida, 7 years of co-habitation is considered a “marriage” legally.  I am unclear of the tax implications of that.  I may have to pretend live at a different place :-).

  13. Becky53

    Barkha, instead of attacking my post, it would be far more interesting to ‘hear’ your response to the original post, which is what my post does.  I sure don’t want to tussle with a fellow richochetti.

  14. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Barkha Herman: I get your message.  People are too dumb to figure it out for themselves…

    Exactly Barkha!  I’ve shared your exact view here on Ricochet in the past.

    Imagine on this right of center website, on any other issue, proclaiming that we as people will not be able to run our lives and our families without the help of government.  Would anyone dare make that argument?

    Yet on the marriage issue, certain otherwise conservative people will beg for government intervention faster than Sandra Fluke on Spanish Fly.

  15. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C
    Barkha Herman: I get your message.  People are too dumb to figure it out for themselves, so we must:

    1. Get Government to promote marriage 

    2. Define marriage to strict rules and get Government to protect it
    3. If we don’t, <insert some doom and gloom here>

    What of freedom?  What of liberty?  What of responsibility?

    Even as a fellow libertoid, I confess I’ve never fully followed this argument.

    Among other things, marriage is — as you’ve said — a contract between individuals, entered into voluntarily.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it’s offensive to liberty to have the government standardize the terms of the contract and enforce its terms, including those of divorce.

  16. mask
    Tom Meyer

    Even as a fellow libertoid, I confess I’ve never fully followed this argument.

    Among other things, marriage is — as you’ve said — a contract between individuals, entered into voluntarily.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it’s offensive to liberty to have the government standardize the terms of the contract and enforce its terms, including those of divorce. · 0 minutes ago

    Edited 0 minutes ago

    State recognized marriage is more than just a contract.  There are all sorts of federal and state laws and benefits which key off of it – for example the tax code.

  17. Barkha Herman
    Tom Meyer

    Barkha Herman: I get your message.  People are too dumb to figure it out for themselves, so we must:

    1. Get Government to promote marriage 

    2. Define marriage to strict rules and get Government to protect it
    3. If we don’t, <insert some doom and gloom here>

    What of freedom?  What of liberty?  What of responsibility?

    Even as a fellow libertoid, I confess I’ve never fully followed this argument.

    Among other things, marriage is — as you’ve said — a contract between individuals, entered into voluntarily.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it’s offensive to liberty to have the government standardize the terms of the contract and enforce its terms, including those of divorce. · 0 minutes ago

    Edited in 0 minutes

    It is a discriminatory contract.  If it’s “just a contract” then why limit to 1 man and 1 woman and 1 contract?

    Why not 6 men and 1 woman?  

    Why not 6 contracts for the same man and 6 woman?

    Why not 2 men?  Or 6 men?

    The point is that is is not just any contract, it is a highly restricted contract.

  18. ConservativeWanderer

    I guess we should all listen to this guy:

    I’m not sure that campaigning on a platform of “self-deportation,” abortion bans and traditional marriage would get much traction with that crowd – even for Reagan.

    Yeah, let’s turn our party into a carbon copy of the Democrats… completely open borders, abortion on demand, and gay marriage — maybe even polygamist marriage. That’ll win.

    Just like Coke won with the “New Coke” formulation that was basically a clone of Pepsi.

    Count me out of such a party. Zero dollars, zero support, and zero votes for them. I’d sit at home — which I have loudly decried — before I’d vote for such a party.

  19. Barkha Herman
    Becky53: Barkha, instead of attacking my post, it would be far more interesting to ‘hear’ your response to the original post, which is what my post does.  I sure don’t want to tussle with a fellow richochetti. · 10 minutes ago

    I am afraid the attack is all from your side.  Please re-read my comments to you, to verify.

    As for comments to the original post, please see my first comments to the thread, and feel free to go back and read all my comments to the two previous threads by Ryan – this is a installment in a series of posts by Ryan, and I have been active in all three.

    The technique I use in my first post to this thread is reductio ad absurdum, I use it intentionally, and is a valid form of debate.

    The reason I use it is because I have already laid out my thoughts and feeling on this matter in the previous two threads.

  20. Barkha Herman
    Tommy De Seno

    Barkha Herman: I get your message.  People are too dumb to figure it out for themselves…

    Exactly Barkha!  I’ve shared your exact view here on Ricochet in the past.

    Imagine on this right of center website, on any other issue, proclaiming that we as people will not be able to run our lives and our families without the help of government.  Would anyone dare make that argument?

    Yet on the marriage issue, certain otherwise conservative people will beg for government intervention faster than Sandra Fluke on Spanish Fly. · 18 minutes ago

    @Tommy – it is so rare for me to get a “win” on this topic anywhere – left or right.

    Thank you kindly!

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