Marriage Socialism

I recently stumbled across an interesting essay discussing the connection between free markets and gay marriage, written in 2006 by the prominent legal theorist Ronald Dworkin in the New York Review of Books.

Dworkin argues that culture is shaped, among other things, both organically and by law. Organically, it is shaped "by the discrete decisions of individual people about what to produce and what to buy and at what price, about what to read and say, about what to wear, what music to listen to, and what god if any to pray to." But our culture "is also shaped by law, that is, by collective decisions taken by elected legislators about how we must all behave." Which of these processes - organic or legal - should predominate in the case of same-sex marriage?

What's most interesting about the essay is Dworkin's critique of conservatives who oppose state regulation of markets forbidding evolution in economic practices and arrangements but who invite state regulation of marriage forbidding evolution in familial practices and arrangements.

Socialist societies do give people in power the authority to shape the economic environment for everyone by stipulating prices and the allocation of resources and production. But we insist on a free market in goods and services: we insist, that is, that the economic culture be shaped by a composite of individual decisions reflecting individual values and wishes.

The socialism of a centrally controlled economy is an insult to liberty as well as to efficiency-a view most enthusiastically held by the conservatives who favor a religious model for non-economic culture. They do not realize that liberty is even more perilously at stake in the religious than the economic case. . . .

Everything I said about the cultural heritage and value of marriage is equally true of the general institution of religion: religion is an irreplaceable cultural resource in which billions of people find immense and incomparable value. Its meaning, like that of marriage, has evolved over a great many centuries. But its meaning, again like that of marriage, is subject to quite dramatic change through organic processes . . . . American religious conservatives, even those who regard themselves as evangelical, do not imagine that the cultural meaning of religion should be frozen by laws prohibiting people with new visions from access to the title, legal status, or tax and economic benefits of religious organization.

Within broad boundaries, conservatives believe, markets should be shaped by individual decisions. The presumption in markets should be against central regulation. A similar principle would apply to religious beliefs and practices - they should be allowed to develop organically.

Same-sex marriage is the product of an ongoing, organic process that reflects the values of millions of our fellow citizens living in actual families. The opposition to same-sex marriage, at least in so far as it is grounded in dogma, amounts to this: We know the truth, we have the power to write that truth into law, and we will use our power to stop any further development contradicting it. Applied to markets, conservatives would call it socialism.

10 Comments for “Marriage Socialism”

  1. posted by John on

    I have always thought of myself as a liberal, sometimes more, sometimes less. This article was pretty awesome. This is the kind of article that shows people some interesting ideas of what it means to be a true conservative. So, so much better than just blasting liberals. This kind of thing makes me actual Think about the other side, rather than get my hackles up. Thanks for this well written article.

  2. posted by Another John on

    Brink Lindsey’s book The Age of Abundance provides a pretty interesting way to look at the liberal/conservative split on liberty. He argues that conservatives (that is, the ones who actually are for freer markets) applaud the markets but decry its products, which, for Lindsey, are the social liberalities that first got motivation in the 60’s.

    He sees the opposite as the case for liberals, that is, they celebrate what Lindsey sees as the product of the market (the ability to lead a diverse life), but they decry that which made it possible.

  3. posted by Another John on

    *got motivation should be “gained momentum,” or something like that.

  4. posted by Spencer Smith on

    I am genuinely troubled by the inequality that “traditional” marriage creates, but I nevertheless feel that the state has a compelling interest in keeping it that way because, as most people can agree, it has proven to have social value just the way it is. Perhaps that value would be enhanced by allowing gay couples to marry, but my then problem is this: There is no logical reason why, if marriage is extended to same-sex couples, it should not also be extended to groups of three or more. The is especially true when you consider a bisexual who wants to marry a man and a woman. Yes, I am aware that few actually desire this, but some do, and what logic suggests that that person should be denied? I don’t believe there is any, and if that is the case, marriage will be opened to parties of three, and then more, and at some point down this road, whatever social value marriage provides will be erased. Sorry for my political incorrectness, but if I could have this resolved, maybe I’d come around….

  5. posted by esurience on

    Spencer Smith wrote: “There is no logical reason why, if marriage is extended to same-sex couples, it should not also be extended to groups of three or more.

    What is the logical reason that it would have to be extended?

    If the reason for allowing same-sex couples to marry is “it would benefit society to do so” — that reason doesn’t apply to polygamous relationships (unless you can make a case that it does, but I’ve never heard such a case). If the reason for allowing same-sex couples to marry is that a person should be able to marry someone (as in, one person), that they love, then that too, is not a reason that applies to polygamous relationships.

    Just because you make a single change to something does not mean you have to make all possible changes.

    What you seem to be protesting is that making a change to the institution of marriage might mean you actually have to *think* about what the purpose and benefit of marriage is, and what fits into it. Wanting to avoid thinking is not a good reason to be denying people equality.

    I’m glad that you say you are open to convincing on this issue. IGF contributors have written many articles on this subject, one is available here:

  6. posted by Spencer Smith on

    Ah, see, others have tried to re-frame my argument just as you did. When it comes to polygamy, I totally agree; the argument for polygamy must “be evaluated on its own merits”, and I don’t think it is a terribly compelling one. But the bisexual marriage I referenced is an entirely different ballgame because 99% of the work will have already been done with the same-sex marriage arguments. Equality, immutable sexual orientation, evidence that bisexuals make good parents, etc… The only different issue I can see that remains are some administrative headaches since our entire system of law assumes two person marriages, but I doubt that alone will be allowed to trump equality.

  7. posted by esurience on

    Spencer Smith,

    What exactly is this work that has already been done (in arguing in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples), that also applies to a bisexual wanting to marry a man _and_ a woman? Such a situation is no different than polygamy. A person may want to marry multiple partners, of whatever sex, but the same arguments against polygamy apply.

    A person who is truly bisexual is a person that can have a fulfilling romantic relationship with someone of _either_ sex. This does not mean they have the need for _both_ at the same time. And even if there was a bisexual who felt the need for both a male and female partner, again, this is no different than a person who claims to need multiple partners to be fulfilled (polygamy).

    Not allowing same-sex couples to get married excludes an entire group of people from marriage: gay people. There’s no compelling reason for this exclusion.

    If marriage between two people is beneficial to society (and I think it is), and marriage between 3 or more people is detrimental (and I think it is), then society has every right to discriminate between the two forms. The question is, for what reason is society currently discriminating against same-sex couples who are denied in most jurisdictions from entering the institution of marriage? I think you’re in agreement with me that there really isn’t any good reason.

  8. posted by Spencer Smith on

    There is a compelling difference. That difference is that polygamy, in its technical form, doesn’t involve bisexuality, an immutable orientation. Once bisexuality is involved, it’s an equality debate. I sincerely hope that someone comes up with some proof that a marriage between three or more people is detrimental to society, because that is the only thing that would have a remote a chance of justifying discrimination against a bisexual who cannot be fulfilled in a two-person marriage. Conservatives sense that same-sex marriage will be detrimental to society, but they currently have no proof, which is why they are likely to lose the debate. Proponents of two-person marriage (of any sex), like yourself, sense that three person marriages would be detrimental to society, but likewise have no proof, at least none that would trump equality. I think we will struggle to explain to the “triad” in this story ( why our nation will embrace equality as to two-person marriages, but not to three. But you can be sure that at that point, I’ll be right there with you in the attempt!

  9. posted by Another John on

    I’m confused as to why government must be called in to protect this “social value” that has been created by marriage. That would only make sense if the value of marriage came from its having been codified, and then enforced, by the government, which doesn’t make sense for me. This social value is, I think, social, and not a product of codification and discrimination.

    I also am made very nervous by approving of government acting on so vague and malleable principle as “social value.” I _sense_ that when you say a three person marriage is detrimental to society, you mean to say it is non-optimal since it doesn’t produce the “social value” that a two person marriage does, and not that it is actively aggressive towards society. If this is true, the act of being single is also detrimental to society, in that that person is refraining from creating maximum “social value.”

  10. posted by Harry on

    I think you are misunderstanding bisexuality. It does not mean a desire for a relationship with men and women at the same time. I am bisexual myself, and have found myself at times liking a particular boy and a particular girl at the same, but only in the way that happens with happens with people of any sexual orientation, straight, gay or bi, love isn’t a simple matter, and we often find ourselves conflicted. As in, I fell for this boy, he was on my mind for a while, but then my thoughts went back to a girl I had liked before. It means that I find both men and women attractive, to varying degrees depending on whatever recent feelings have been. I wouldn’t have a desire to be with both of them at the same time. Whatever this is, it is not a bisexual urge, it’s polyamory or, in marriage terms, polygamy.

    I don’t think a recognition of a three-way relationship, with any combination of men and women, would be detrimental, but it doesn’t form a central unit of society the way the way couples do. Society at the moment recognizes couples as long as they are of opposite sex. The marriage equality argument merely seeks to remove that restriction. I really don’t think it makes sense to recognize such three-way arrangements, it doesn’t really follow in the same way. I’m not arguing against them specifically here though, just making the point that that’s got nothing to do with bisexuality per se.

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