Privatize Marriage

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The Terri Schiavo controversy has brought on an avalanche of partisan bickering, federal usurpations, arguments over the sanctity of life and personal choice, questions about the role of the judiciary, and many considerations about the role of politics and future implications set by today’s precedents.

One of the most interesting aspects of the case is how liberals have been correctly accusing the right of hypocrisy on issues of federalism, and how conservatives have responded with their own correct accusations of leftist hypocrisy. As in most political scandals, both sides are right about one thing: that the other side is inconsistent.

At the forefront of these accusations of hypocrisy we see much finger pointing regarding one recurrent theme in American politics and the so-called "culture war": the relationship between government and the institution of marriage.

The liberals observe that the right is hypocritical on the "sanctity" and "sovereignty" of marriage: why isn’t Michael Schiavo given the benefit of the doubt if he is, indeed, the legal husband in a heterosexual, conservative-approved marital arrangement with Terri?

The conservatives respond by saying that the left is only appealing to this as a ploy, perhaps to further some other greater anti-family values agenda, and if liberals really cared about marriage they wouldn’t try to dilute it by legalizing it for homosexuals.

Of course, the ideal libertarian solution to the gay marriage question is not really on one side or the other, but simply to privatize the entire institution. If people wish to consider themselves married to each other, let them do so, draw up any relevant private contracts to handle the details of the arrangement, and live their own lives in peace. If third parties wish to consider any given pair (or larger number) of people married, that should be their choice. No one, heterosexual or homosexual, would have any special rights under the law. Hospital visitation rights and other such matters would be handled contractually, and decided by the private individuals and institutions involved — not the state. No one would have to see the government give marriage licenses to some but not others, and no one would have to see the government legitimize any marriage he or she doesn’t personally approve.

It’s simple, really, and it is the way marriage was handled, for the most part, throughout the nineteenth century, when people were married by their own churches and in their own hearts. Marriage is a personal, private, spiritual matter. Government should have absolutely nothing to do with it at all.

The Terri Schiavo case underscores the importance of decentralized marriage arrangements, emerging from individual initiative rather than state sanction. The question as to whether Michael should get to make decisions for his wife is currently blurred, because of the one-size-fits-all construct of state-licensed marriage and all of the exceptions and complications that predictably develop from such a construct.

If individuals were to spell out contractually what kinds of decisions were in the dominion of their spouses and when exceptions would be appropriate, and individuals made agreements with voluntary third parties to ensure the contracts were respected, there would still, obviously, be some problems, tough calls, and controversies. Some of the controversies surrounding Terri Schiavo in particular might still exist. But at least they would be minimized and sorted out by the people most involved, not by some state judge and especially not by the president of the United States.

Some would say it is crude to expect people to write out the terms of their marriage. Perhaps this is somewhat true, but not much could be cruder than the government licensing and approving marriages and the conflicts that inevitably result and amplify to become unnecessarily relevant on a statewide or even nationwide basis.

The marriage controversy, like most battles in the "culture war," has done nothing to advance righteous values, civility and freedom. It has politicized an issue that should be private, religious and personal. It has distracted many good conservatives and liberals from the explosion of government power, the weakening economy, the degradation of tolerant, moral culture and the trampling of American liberty. It has made enemies between people who have no reason to hate each other and very little to gain from being adversaries, pitting people against each other in terms of religion vs. secularism, alleged bigotry vs. alleged hatred of family values, and other conflicts that would be much better resolved, eliminated altogether, or at least limited in their destructive and distractive potential, if divorced entirely from the realm of politics.

Do people not want to get along? Do they like thinking that the other half of Americans is out to destroy their way of life?

I’ve talked to many conservatives who are completely against state-sanctioned gay marriages, but who agree that ideally the government should get out of the matter entirely. I’ve talked to many liberals who are completely for state-sanctioned gay marriages, but who also agree with the libertarian approach as the best. In a free society, all these people would have little to fear from each other. They could consider themselves married or consider others not married, and not worry what other people thought.

The politicians, on the other hand, don’t want this. They like the marriage issue. Things as special and unique to humans as marriage and the love involved, once licensed and stamped by the state, provide for the establishment an ideal political issue — proven to get the grassroots constituencies charged and energetic, guaranteed to bring in campaign contributions, impossible to resolve through pure principle, and successful in further entrenching in our culture the notion that politics is the proper arbiter on morality, virtue and even human love. Meanwhile, the deficits, wars, and government attacks on liberty and family continue.

It’s sickening. And unfortunately, the Schiavo controversy has succeeded for the politicians in all these regards as well. The murderous Republican politicians can pretend to be pro-life. The nationalist Democratic politicians can pose as pro-local control. Though there are principled people with principled arguments on different sides of this issue, we know for sure that this, like other family and marriage issues, will not be resolved through principle or concern for the people affected. Instead, all we will get is more politicization and centralization of decisions that are best made, albeit imperfectly made, by people who actually have a stake in what happens.

One of the greatest blows we could possibly strike at the perversion of family values and the usurpation of family authority by and for the purposes of the political arena is privatizing marriage. A total separation of family and state is the only surefire way to prevent the government from exploiting personal and spiritual values as they concern the most special of human relations, and turning them to its own backwards ends. The partisan Democrats and Republicans would hate this libertarian approach to restoring the family to the family, but many average conservatives and liberals, who now find themselves wasting energy on arguing about personal values that have been disgustingly nationalized, might appreciate the change. And then they might realize, as the world doesn’t fall apart in the midst of separating marriage and family from state, that the government probably shouldn’t be involved in too many other matters of civil society, either.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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