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Friday, October 17, 2003

MY ADVICE TO "YOUNG PEOPLE": GET HARVEYED 

In Thursday's Wall Street Journal, David Frum takes a whack against same-sex marriage. He whiffs.

Here's his argument. Stable homes make children better off, and marriage increases the likelihood of a stable home. Allowing gays to marry will weaken the institution of marriage, and thus make children worse off, in this roundabout way: since organized religion in the U.S. is too strong to expect that the marital relationship will be successfully redefined to allow in same-sex couples, what is more likely to happen is "the spread of a crazy-quilt of differing systems of 'marriage-lite' across the country"; and, since political and perhaps even constitutional realities would make it difficult to deny these "proliferating domestic partnerships" to heterosexuals, the upshot would be that "the young people of the country would be presented with 50 different buffets, each of them offering two or more varieties of quasi-marital relationships. In such a world, the very concept of marriage would vanish." Why? Because "[i]t would become impossible to tell young people 'Don't have children outside of marriage,' because they would not even know--until it was too late--whether they were 'inside' a marriage or not."

This makes no sense. I agree that stable homes make children better off, if for no other reason than that two-parent families are wealthier than single-parent ones are, almost by definition. But the degree to which marriage increases the likelihood of a stable home depends entirely on the costs associated with ending the marriage: the harder it is to get divorced, the more marriages will stay intact. And these costs are entirely independent of the conditions imposed on entry into marriage. We could let people marry goats if they wanted, with no effect whatsoever on the stability of marriages, as long as we made it difficult enough for people to cast off their goats (or goats to cast off their people, for that matter) once the memories of that magical night behind the barn begin to fade. If we want to make marriages more stable, we should repeal the no-fault divorce laws, enact tougher ones in their stead, and apply them to all marriages--different-sex, same-sex, and human-goat.

Frum's further point that no one will be able to tell what's a marriage and what's not is just dumb. Put aside his uncharacteristic horror at the prospects of a robust federalism--oops, I meant to say "a crazy-quilt of differing systems"--in the realm of marriage laws. Who cares whether we know what counts as "marriage"? It's the functional operation of the relationship that's important, not what we call it. Whichever kind of relationship is the most difficult to get out of is the one we should urge "young people" to get into before they have kids. Call it "Harvey" if you want--what possible difference could it make?

I'm as agnostic on same-sex marriage as I am on most issues. I suppose I lean in favor of it, but I'm perfectly open to a good argument against. This ain't it.

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