This Valentine’s Day weekend, there was a lot of discussion about marriage on this blog—including some great testimonies from readers about perseverance and commitment that are required reading.
Whenever we have a discussion on his site about “gay marriage,” a libertarain minded writer—sometimes our own libertarian lioness J.E. Tabler—will challenge the notion that government should have any role in licensing marriage, anyway.
But nearly every libertarian– other than extreme anarcho-capitalists– will concede that enforcing contracts is one of government’s primary legitimate functions. Even the late great Milton Friedman listed that in his top (only?) 5.
Marriage is civilized society’s foundational contract.
And to satisfy Baby Boomer self-indulgence—and line the pockets of lawyers—we have watered that contract down to nearly nothing with “no-fault divorce.”
As social critic Maggie Galagher points out– Imagine what would happen to our economy if in business contracts, one side can not only decide to unilaterally break it, making the first move gives them a legal advantage; that the side breaking the contract will suffer no penalty and walk away with half the assets (at least). The result would make the financial crisis look like a bounced check to the grocery store.
But that is what we have decided should be the case for the marriage contract—arguably society’s most essential contract. And no amount of pre-marital counseling is going to change those perverse incentives.
As Kay Hymowitz posits in her excellent book, Marriage and Caste in America, part of what was revolutionary about America was the idea of marriage being a completely free choice between two free agents, along with private property ownership for the masses and the freedom to chose one’s occupation.
In fact, Hymowitz argues, marriage is at the center of American culture’s “life script” for success. Before the Founding Fathers, the American version of marriage had been a part and parcel of New World dynamism, a blatant rejection of the European caste system of kinship and arranged marriages within class. No one sat down 300 years ago and designed the American way of marriage. It was a natural outgrowth of the freedom and self-determination sought by those who settled here.
While it’s true that every healthy society has developed some sort of marriage tradition, Hymowitz contends that the success of the American free market largely depends on the traditional American model of marriage and children. Such an institution is uniquely evolved to prepare one to be able to take advantage, rather than be left behind, by a dynamic and rapidly changing economy.
Of course, the mere importance of marriage to society is no justification for government’s involvement, anymore than it is for housing or health care.
With that freedom also came the freedom to fail. For generations, America had a higher divorce rate than the countries they came from. This has paralells in the American economy. More Americans than Europeans will be unemployed at some time during their career because that is what comes with a dynamic economy—though that dynamism also generally leads to a lower unemployment rate, our current “crisis” of 10% unemployment is common in European social democracies.
However, it is no coincidence that it was after what Galagher calls “the abolition of marriage” that the divorce rate skyrocketed.
Conservative critics, particularly Christian point to a breakdown in sexual morality and the debased view of marriage as the primary causes. They point to “gay marriage” as the final straw in the devaluation of marriage. And they have their point.
However, most of the activist groups spend their time fundraising over the spectre of “gay marriage,” and ignore the foundation:
1. Marriage is a legal contract and breaking it should have consequences weighted toward the one who breaks it without just cause
2. The state’s primary concern with marriage is the raising of children
3. “No-fault divorce” increases the incentives to take entering a marriage lightly by a hundredfold.
Railing about morality has its place, but without the above principles in place, all the premarital counseling legislation in the world won’t change much.