Previously on this site, I argued that marriage allows you to unambiguously define your family. Now I want to add to that point with regards to children. Marriage can arguably be said to have been designed for the protection and provision of children (I am not sure that the state would ever have got involved if it had not been about children - it would have just been a private contractual matter).
Essentially, you get married, you have children and the state says "get on with it" (there is, of course, a law relating to compulsory education and more and more interference - but they are breaches of the principle). When somebody has a child without two parents there to bring him or her up, the state tends to get heavily involved - not always but generally. It is still broadly true when people are married with children, the state keeps its nose out. Sadly, this is becoming progressively less true over time and Libertarians should support policies that reverse this ‘State creep’ into family life.
The reality of family break down can mean a sudden influx of State lawyers, social workers and, in worse case scenarios, the police, into your private life. Once agents of the State come into your life, they are usually there for a long time. I recently watched as the break down of a friend’s marriage not only involved all of the above but also made him effectively homeless as he was not entitled to social housing because he had equity in the shared home he was prohibited from returning to.
In cases of divorce or abandonment, the State will normally end up either financing the child care while the mother goes out to work (empirically it is nearly always the father who is absent); pay the mother an income while she brings up the child; or, if both parents are there and they split up, the State ends up adjudicating about the family finances, who sees whom when and so on. Marriage in the context of children can be thought of as a liberal buffer against the state poking its nose in to the upbringing of children. It is not a necessary condition for that to be the case, but it is the case with remarkable regularity.
Marriage allows the whole family unit to be treated unambiguously as one - though the fact that it is treated as one for benefit purposes but not for tax purposes leads to discrimination against family formation. This is a quirk of the tax code that should be vehemently opposed by those of us with an anti-State persuasion.
Libertarians have long neglected emphasis on family relations, perhaps because it is seen as the domain of Conservatives who taint anti-statist arguments with notions of “morality” that not everyone can subscribe to. Healthy, in tact marriages, however, mean less intervention from the State. We can not argue in favour of reeling back the State without articulating, bolstering and defending the social structures that should replace it; and one of those institutions is marriage.
Marriage was designed to protect women and children physically, emotionally, and ensure the property and financial conditions conducive to their well being were in place. Even though the institution has changed over time, what is interesting is not how the institution has changed but what remains the same. Libertarians should see marriage as part of an organic safety net and advocate for its strengthening as buffer against the State’s pernicious involvement in our family lives.
Recently, I have come across a new mantra amongst people my age of a libertarian/anti-state persuasion. The shunning of Marriage, dismissed simply because it’s 'just a piece of paper.' Some of you may have heard something similar to the following: “We don’t need a piece of paper – our love is pure!” Yes, that’s right, the belief that love is all unicorns, fairies and angel farts… I get it. Good for you! Now, let me explain to you how wrong you are…
A Marriage certificate is not just a piece of paper. It is a contract; and contracts are important. Things like Marriage certificates and Wills are some of the few times in our lives we get to explicitly sign a social contract with the State; however, inadequate they may appear to be. In exchange for signing the contract, certain rights, privileges and obligations are granted from the State.
There are lots of other arguments in favour of Marriage on the basis that Marriage affects the quality of the relationship, more likely to last, etc., but this article is deliberately not concerned with those.
The most valuable thing Marriage and civil partnerships do from a legal standpoint is make you unambiguously related to your partner in the eyes of the law. Governments are big, fat and stupid so unless you have a piece of paper saying you are married to your partner, as far as your Government is concerned you are two unrelated adults.
In recent years there have been calls for the rules to be changed to acknowledge the condition of Cohabitation. Obligations regarding ‘Cohabitation’ are often only applied when there are children under the age of eighteen involved. Once those children become adults, you and your partner effectively go back to being unrelated adults again. That’s how the State treats you if one of you dies prematurely, regardless of how many children you’ve raised together, or how many years you’ve lived together, or how much you loved each other.
I don’t think these laws will ever be changed because Cohabitation is too ambiguous. Oh well, I lived with him for two years and we have a kid, but I lived with him for five years and I loved him more… What? If only there was some sort of contract couples could sign to make their relationship completely unambiguous…
Also, there is no such thing as a ‘Common-law wife/husband/spouse.’ I’m amazed at how many people think that it exists. It’s effectively a polite term for ‘living in sin.’
In the Gay Marriage debate, I found myself rather surprised that no one was actually arguing that Homosexuals should have Marriage because Marriage is good. The main thrust of the debate from ‘liberals’ was about getting the State to acknowledge and sanction Homosexual relationships (despite the fact that when Heterosexuals do it, it’s a caustic patriarchal institution – but that is an article for another day…). I was pro-Gay Marriage because, since Marriage is actually a really, really good and useful contract, it’s blatantly unequal that Homosexual partners should not be allowed to have the privileges of a Marriage contract.
Rather than being a collusion with the State and it’s sanctioned institutions, Marriage acts as a barrier between you and the State. If you die without a Marriage certificate and/or a Will, it is the State who decides what happens to your worldly possessions, your estate, your pension, or even your body. Your partner will probably not be included in those decisions: why leave that up to chance? In a world with so much uncertainly, why shun a tool that provides some measure of certainty?
As you may have guessed by now I’m a fan of Marriage, although I do acknowledge it’s not perfect. What makes the Marriage contract inadequate in many ways is, not it’s relationship with the State but, the fact that it doesn’t resemble a private contract enough.
Marriage is not ‘just a piece of paper,’ it is an exceptionally useful and valuable public contract. Dismiss it as ‘just a piece of paper’ at your peril!
For Conservatives For Liberty, March 2016.