Attempts to pass a Federal Constitutional amendment defining marriage have caused me to think. After looking at the definition (you can see the wording and some background on Wikipedia), it leaves me with the distinct impression that such an amendment, if ratified, would only be the beginning. Here’s why:
Clearly the State has a compelling interest in the institution of marriage. Families form the basis of society. It is within a family that children learn appropriate behaviors through the words and actions of their parents. It is also within this environment that children form the emotional and moral foundations that inform decisions for the rest of their lives. Raising children that will have a net positive contribution to society is one of the best measures of a successful family. And families are typically based around a marriage.
Families have historically been based around a marriage because, until relatively recently, we humans were unable to separate the process of conception from the process of childbirth. Prior to artificial insemination, sexual intercourse was the only way to procreate. Likewise, until recently, we humans were unable to separate the process of sex from conception. While intercourse did not always result in pregnancy, it did so frequently that once we figured out the connection, we no longer viewed sex as primarily recreational (if we ever did). The strong natural tendency to connect sexually drives the survival of the species. But because maturation takes so much longer with humans than with other species, childbirth is not the end of the work in creating the next generation. It’s just the beginning. As human groups became larger and human interactions more complex, we figured out that there was tremendous value in involving both parents in the post birth maturation process of the young. And the institution of marriage was born1.
The increasing complexity of human society means that good role models are even more in demand than they used to be. In the past, even as recent as 150 years ago, humans with poorly developed social skills could still find a frontier where interactions with others were limited. This frontier was breathing room that allowed for a lack of societially approved coping mechanisms by eliminating the “society”. That is rarely the case today. The few remaining parts of the world that are without significant societies are that way because they do not provide significant resources that would be of value to humans.
Given the growing crowdedness of our world and the consequent need for training of all immature humans in social norms, the value of parents as role models continues to grow. Further, as more and more societies move from manual labor to knowledge based economies, the economic value of children at home shrinks. And with the advent of society-based safety nets, children as a retirement program becomes less common, and certainly not assumed. Children in modern societies are now viewed as luxuries rather than necessities - we raise them because we love them, not because we need another pair of hands to help harvest the crops. In other words, the economic dynamic that drove the formation of families (because it made economic sense for the parents) no longer exists. It has been replaced in modern societies by a relationship based on psychic rather than economic value.
None of this changes the effort required to raise children. Being a good parent requires effort - a lot of it - on a constant basis. It is often thankless, and you almost never get a vacation. Society as a whole banks on the assumption that most will be “decent” if not “good” parents. The cost to society when this is not the case can be significant, both in real dollars (for the costs of prisons, drug rehab, etc.) and emotional costs (for example, the damage done by violent crime can leave lifelong emotional scars). This dependence on the family is so significant that in some cases societies will punish parents for the actions of their children.
If there is to be this much responsibility, there must be a payoff. Without a payoff, some people will simply decide that the investment is not worthwhile. And given the ease with which we can now separate sexual activity from its natural consequence, it becomes fairly easy to stop having kids. While this might make sense on an individual level, it is disastrous as a national policy2. Both social safety nets as well as private economics depend on a fresh supply of workers and consumers. Population decline means economic decline. A country without a population is not a country at all - it’s just real estate that’s up for grabs.
This being the case, how does the State convince individuals to fulfill this crucial objective of having and raising stable kids? Where’s the payoff? The payoff, whatever it is or will be, is in the law. The law is the codified policy of the State, created to encourage certain behaviors while discouraging others. The “marriage” contract already has a special place in the law, with benefits that are not conferred on other contracts3. Those benefits, if properly constructed, should create an environment where individuals perceive a payoff in becoming parents. Further, done properly, those benefits can be targeted in a way where the quality of the parenting affects the value of the payoff. If we want to encourage a particular behavior, we should recognize the gradations in the quality of that behavior within our incentive system4.
The US Constitution is the highest law of this land. If we are going to address the issue of marriage at all, we should address why it’s important and what we believe should be done. Simply defining a marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” says nothing about the quality of that union. And, consequently, nothing about the quality of the family environment in which children will be raised. It equates the union of a winner of “Parents of the Year” with one of Ma and Pa Barker5. Further, it says nothing about the nurturing qualities expressed by others who, despite their lack of a traditional marriage, take it upon themselves to do the work of raising stable children. Further, it doesn’t address the temporal aspect of marriage - this country, despite it’s strong aversion to parallel polygamy, has become quite comfortable with serial polygamy6.
Raising stable children usually requires good role models - rarely do children have the internal sense and fortitude to make good in life despite the role models around them. And children benefit most from having both positive male and positive female role models from which to learn - and for the same reason. The degree to which children can adapt and “fill in the gaps” left by the role models they have is not yet predictable - some will do better than others, but there’s no easy way to predict that up front. Given that, and the State’s interest in the rearing of stable children, the State has a strong interest in encouraging the kind of family environments that produce these children. To what degree the State is willing to tolerate or encourage arrangements that are less than ideal is a matter for public policy debate.
The issue of marriage as a public policy debate should only exist to the degree that it matters to the State. Where a compelling State interest exists, that debate should be carried on fully - not in a limited fashion. Clearly the State has an interest in how children are raised. If we are going to debate the topic of marriage at all, the impact it has on childrearing must be part of that policy debate. And that goes to why marriage is, not what it is.
1. For those with a Christian bent, the charge of childrearing is central to marriage: Genesis 1:27-28 says “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth”
2. Singapore has a (the only?) government run dating service, specifically to address a declining birth rate. You can see it here.
3. Whether or not those benefits are the right ones is not the topic of this essay.
4. We already do this to some degree - parents can be jailed for child abuse. Again, whether or not our incentive/ disincentive system is properly constructed is not the topic of this essay.
5. This Wikipedia entry and this give some background. I’m not trying to say that Ma Barker was a criminal. I am trying to say that she could hardly be accused of being a good parent.
6. Further, I suspect that the emotional trauma caused by serial polygamy is much worse than that of parallel polygamy because parallel polygamy, if entered into openly by all the participants, does not require the rending of relationships as does serial polygamy. The destruction of parental relationships is known to be traumatic to children.