These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s “institutionalized.”
– Red, in The Shawshank Redemption
David Brooks has written a piece extolling the virtues of marriage:
Marriage joins two people in a sacred bond. It demands that they make an exclusive commitment to each other and thereby takes two discrete individuals and turns them into kin.
Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other’s lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: “Love you? I am you.”
To say marriage makes us “better than we deserve to be” goes too far since we can only be what we deserve to be, but his heart is in the right place. Surely marriage helps some be better than they expected to be and “I am you” can be taken as an expression of the sense of identity that accompanies deeply shared understanding.
Some take issue with this:
Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.
Brooks is really describing flight from self and not selfishness. He is essentially agreeing with Ayn Rand that one’s love life ought properly be an expression of one’s highest values.
However, he makes his categorical error here:
Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity – except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a “partner,” a word that reeks of contingency.
This is how an “Institutional Man” thinks, as Red explains in The Shawshank Redemption when he speaks of his difficulty in coming to grips with freedom upon his release from prison:
Thirty years I’ve been asking permission to piss. I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so. There is a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside.
You can hear the same complaint from gays who, like Brooks, assume that one cannot marry without the permission of the state. If marriage is truly a sacred bond, as Brooks claims then what power can the state have over it? Why would you go to the state for the sacred? Why not simply marry your beloved and introduce him as your husband, the state be damned? Or else recognize that you are an Institutional Man.
When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote. Marriage is not voting. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination.
But what does the state have to offer aside from benefits? The state has nothing sacred or even moral to impart. The state has only carrots and sticks and any carrot it might offer you was taken from someone else by way of a stick. You can only defile that which is sacred or intimate in your marriage by inviting the state to take part in it.
It’s a core belief that dwells in the hearts of collectivists, liberal and conservative alike, that if they can, by force of law, dabble here and tweak there, then goodness and morality can be dispensed from the floors of state assemblies, legislatures, and city halls everywhere. Working from such a premise makes it nearly impossible to realize that there is nothing by way of grace or moral legitimacy that the state can bestow on anything.
Inviting the state into your marriage affords you no sanctity that you wouldn’t otherwise have in a private, non-state recognized marriage. Brooks bemoans the omission of a moral argument in favor of state sanctioned gay marriage, but no moral argument can be made because the state cannot produce or dispense morality. Government only dispenses incentives and penalties, so the left is quite strategically correct in limiting its arguments for government gay marriages to the realm of discussing it as a benefits plan. That’s all state marriage can ever be.
Advocates of state-marriage for gays argue correctly that it is not fair or moral for the state to grant heterosexual couples benefits that are denied homosexual couples. Yet, in doing so, these same advocates insist that homosexual couples be granted benefits that would be denied single individuals: They don’t object to social engineering, they just want to be the social engineers.
Some libertarians, like Wendy McElroy and Radley Balko, correctly argue that marriage is not properly a matter of public policy. The only problem is that they tend to argue this as a matter of public policy: The remedies they seek are remedies of public policy.
The Sovereign Individual argues instead, that one must simply evict the state from one’s own marriage. Your marriage is not properly a matter of public debate so don’t treat it as one. Take and keep private what ought to be private. And all of your life is your private affair.
Leave the institution of marriage to the Institutional Man.
Sovereign Individuals are the Makers of Manners:
within the weak list of a country’s fashion
we are the makers of manners,
and the liberty that follows our places
stops the mouth of all find-faults