The Magazine

Marriage Defeatists

From the December 15, 2003 issue: Federalism is a poor excuse for abandoning a core social institution.

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By MAGGIE GALLAGHER
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In America and other developed countries, government now provides social insurance for the unemployed, the destitute, the elderly, the sick. Meanwhile each of us depends far more on the market than on family members to provide what we need in material terms, not only the goods we consume, but also the workers we need to produce goods.

These changes are broad, deep, and permanent. We have no desire to abandon the miracles of market capitalism to go back to churning butter and weaving cloth on our family farms, even if it were economically possible. The local WalMart will do just fine, thank you. As for government--Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, child care subsidies, public education, and some form of welfare for poor kids (and their single moms) all are here to stay.

THESE ECONOMIC and political changes did not necessarily make sexual revolution a good idea, but, along with contraception and abortion, they made it possible. Before all these changes, it was unthinkable for large numbers of ordinary people to imagine that what they did with their bodies was nobody's business but their own.

Today, marriage retains significant economic and social-insurance value; it remains an important unit of production and provides much dependent care. (As singles age, for example, they are especially likely to end up in nursing homes.) But relative to other social institutions like government and the market, marriage has played a diminishing role in recent generations, to the point where many Americans can no longer see the functions it performs. Educated Americans do not immediately grasp how they and the country at large depend on marriage. So many feel nothing essential is lost if we move, state by state, to a multiplicity of definitions of marriage--whereas "contract," say, or "private property" or "corporation" they can see must mean by and large the same thing in every state for the economy to function.

Marriage increasingly is not a public norm, but an optional lifestyle and a mostly emotional good. Reducing marriage to an emotional good fuels a divorce culture, since marriages that cease to fulfill "yearnings for security, safe haven and connection," in the words of Goodridge, are easily abandoned. And when millions of young women view marriage as having lots to do with their own yearnings and nothing in particular to do with making babies, unmarried childbearing abounds.

So why not just go with the flow? Give in and give up on the idea that marriage is a social institution and accept the economic and social changes that have reduced it to a mere symbol, a form of expressive conduct? Why not gay marriage? Why not polygamy, for that matter, if it makes three people, or four people, or a majority of a state's supreme court judges happy? What right has the government to interfere in romance? What possible rational reason is there to oppose the longing of people to express their love in legal commitments?

Here are two: First, for every American who cares about the future of American civilization, marriage continues to have a vital function that no other institution is capable of fulfilling: creating the next generation and giving children the mothers and fathers they need.

Second, for proponents of limited government--which is in turn what makes freedom possible--marriage is the only alternative to a vast, continued expansion of the welfare state, where the people themselves shall be shaped by government (through the courts) and socialized by elites in a new set of values. When mothers and fathers don't marry and stay married, the demand for government protection and services inevitably increases. Women alone raising children need help. If marriage is not the normal, usual, and generally reliable way of raising children, mothers (and their friends and relatives) will demand an expansion of government services to help them cope.

The practical result of the retreat from marriage as a social norm has been a vast expansion of the welfare state. What conservatives call welfare is only a drop in the bucket: High rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing are a driving force behind virtually every category of social spending. As more than 100 scholars and civic reformers noted in their 2000 Marriage Movement Statement:

Divorce and unwed childbearing create substantial public costs, paid by taxpayers. Higher rates of crime, drug abuse, education failure, chronic illness, child abuse, domestic violence, and poverty among both adults and children bring with them higher taxpayer costs in diverse forms. . . . While no study has yet attempted precisely to measure these sweeping and diverse taxpayer costs stemming from the decline of marriage, current research suggests that these costs are likely to be quite extensive.