Following up on an earlier comment from Nick, who suggested that “the definition of marriage should be removed entirely from any legal documents in any laws.” This is an idea that seems rather appealing to me, though with some hesitation that may take us on an interesting detour.
Let’s ignore for a moment what government is, and look instead at what we might like it to be. Clearly there are dozens of different issues we could argue about here, but I’m particularly interested in how decisions should be classified. Let’s say that government faces two kinds of issues; things that can be managed, and things that just are. Any issue can then be placed in to one of these two camps:
“The sky is blue” – thing that just is
“Homelessness” – thing that can be managed
“Cheese” – thing that just is
“Global Thermonuclear War” – thing that can be managed
See how easy that was? It seems fairly obvious, given this distinction, that government should deal with ‘things that can be managed’, and leave ‘things that just are’ alone. The problem with the current treatment of gay marriage (or rather, one of the problems) is that those involved portray marriage as something that just is, but want to legislate it as a thing that can be managed.
Putting aside their religious arguments for a moment (because that’s not what government is supposed to be about), proponents state that marriage is one of our most enduring and fundamental institutions. If that is the case then it’s ‘a thing that just is’, and shouldn’t be legislated on. This is in part the point that Nick makes. Not legislating in this area doesn’t mean the status quo, it means removing the 1,138 different benefits and protections that the government gives to married couples (no, that number isn’t made up, click here if you’re a Time subscriber for more info). We don’t provide benefits for the enduring union between a man and his dog, or a woman and her shoes, because those are ‘things that just are’. If marriage ‘just is’, then we should leave it alone.
That’s a very valid view (see this article from 7 years ago for more), but I actually prefer the alternative, which is that marriage is something that can be managed. But that alone isn’t enough to make it a thing that should be managed. For that, we need to show that there is a public interest to be served by intervening. For example, government could regulate the colour of your carpet, but it doesn’t because there isn’t a public interest inherent in your choice of floor covering. On the other hand, it does regulate the dyes used to create that colour, to prevent little Timmy from chewing on some unsavoury chemicals; a public interest served.
So to legislate marriage, we need to show why marriage is a matter of public interest. I don’t think that’s difficult to do in broad terms; children raised in a (happy) marriage tend to be more balanced, marriage increases longevity, etc. But we need to be more specific about these benefits. Are children raised in a (happy) marriage more balanced because of the stability that marriage provides, or because of the extra stuff 1,138 state benefits buys them? And by extension, are there forms of marriage (such as gay marriage) that should be excluded because they don’t bring such benefits. I suspect that it is possible to demonstrate that, in general, two parents are better than one regardless of the financial rewards of being married, but I’m struggling to understand how those two parents being of the same gender would nullify such benefits (let alone how it would destabilize society as a whole).
Once we are able to demonstrate that marriage is a benefit to society, and that this benefit is increased by providing 1,138 incentives, we should whip out the legislative pen with gusto, But until that point, trying to block some types of marriage because “we don’t do that” is both morally, and logically, wrong.