Gay marriage scrooge

I’m pleased the Supreme Court ruled as it did.  I think the decision will result in a huge amount of benefit for gay couples (and their families) with very little cost to society (people being really upset about other people’s marriages strikes me as a pretty minimal cost.  All the arguments about the “harms” of same-sex marriage pretty much come down to “but the bible says its wrong” which is no basis for policy in this country.

Obviously, I’ve read a lot on the matter in the past 24 hours, but my favorite is Richard Posner’s clear argument in a Slate discussion:

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty drew an important distinction between what he called “self-regarding acts” and “other-regarding acts.” The former involves doing things to yourself that don’t harm other people, though they may be self-destructive. The latter involves doing things that do harm other people. He thought that government had no business with the former (and hence—his example—the English had no business concerning themselves with polygamy in Utah, though they hated it). Unless it can be shown that same-sex marriage harms people who are not gay (or who are gay but don’t want to marry), there is no compelling reason for state intervention, and specifically for banning same-sex marriage. The dissenters in Obergefell missed this rather obvious point.

I go further than Mill. I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry. The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is “degraded” by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriageto their cohabitation.

The best part, though, is where he takes on the dissents:

The chief justice criticizes the majority for “order[ing] the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?” We’re pretty sure we’re not any of the above. And most of us are not convinced that what’s good enough for the Bushmen, the Carthaginians, and the Aztecs should be good enough for us. Ah, the millennia! Ah, the wisdom of ages! How arrogant it would be to think we knew more than the Aztecs—we who don’t even know how to cut a person’s heart out of his chest while’s he still alive, a maneuver they were experts at…

Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent, to which I turn briefly, ascribes to the states that want to forbid same-sex marriage the desire “to encourage potentially procreative conduct to take place within a lasting unit that has long been thought to provide the best atmosphere for raising children. They thus argue that there are reasonable secular grounds for restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples.” That can’t be right. States that forbid same-sex marriage do not do so in an effort to encourage gays and lesbians to marry people of the opposite sex and thereby procreate. The nation is not suffering from a shortage of children. Sterile people are not forbidden to marry, though by definition they do not procreate. There is no greater reason to forbid gay marriage, which is actually good for children by making the children adopted by gay couples (and there are a great many such children), better off emotionally and fiscally.

Alito says that states that want to prohibit same-sex marriage “worry that by officially abandoning the older understanding, they may contribute to marriage’s further decay.” This doesn’t make sense. Why would straight people marry less and procreate less just because gay people also marry and raise adopted children, who, but for adoption, would languish in foster homes?

That said, somehow I don’t think the dissents (mostly Roberts’) are entirely unreasonable given that this decision would have been truly unthinkable a mere 20 years ago.  And you know it would have been.  Emily Bazelon— a big supporter of this decision, for sure– nonetheless has a thoughtful piece on whether we really do want major policy changes happening in this fashion:

The dissenters are clear and thorough about the downsides of this. Chief Justice John Roberts asks sarcastically of his colleagues, “Just who do we think we are?” He also makes this sensible pitch for judicial restraint: “When decisions are reached through democratic means, some people will inevitably be disappointed with the results. But those whose views do not prevail at least know that they have had their say, and accordingly are — in the tradition of our political culture — reconciled to the result of a fair and honest debate.”

Roberts warns that “stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

I’m persuaded by the counter-arguments that rights are rights (and liberty is liberty, damnit) regardless of whether the country is ready for it and whether it has to be imposed by the courts.  I think it is a fair argument, though, that it is better for society when these policy changes happen through ordinary democratic processes.

So, why then, the title of this post?  I guess I’m frustrated that this has come to symbolize so much of the contemporary liberal project.  Sure, this is really good for gays and their families, but I didn’t see a tenth as much passion (of changed FB profile photos) when millions of Americans received literally (potentially) life-saving access to health insurance and protection against personal financial catastrophe that can come from health problems.  You would think that this decision had magically eliminated poverty and human suffering.  Alright, then, I guess I’m just a same-sex marriage scrooge.

Why can’t I just be happy for this decision and gays and their families?  Because political agendas, activism, and attention are– at least to a degree– zero sum.  Attention focused on gay rights is not focused on poverty, structural inequality, structural racism, the catastrophe of our criminal justice system (and the much-related War on Drugs), etc., which I would argue creates way more harm to way more people.  Actually, then, maybe I should be happy as the gay rights thing is pretty much won now.  Maybe this will mean more liberal energy translated into other areas where we really need to make a difference.  I doubt it, but I can hope.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

7 Responses to Gay marriage scrooge

  1. It’s kind of like the Confederate flag issue. Big problems require complex solutions, which makes them daunting to even attempt to address. Others are simpler to fix. I’m a fan of trying to fix everything, but if you can only fix a little thing due to circumstances beyond your control – do it.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Good point. To extend your metaphor, though, I feel like the same-sex marriage reaction we’ve had would be like celebrating taking the confederate flag down as the end of racism.

  2. rgbact says:

    “You would think that this decision had magically eliminated poverty and human suffering. Alright, then, I guess I’m just a same-sex marriage scrooge.”

    Thanks for that perspective. Yeah, as a conservative, I think the ruling sucks, but ultimately if all the liberal energy is sucked up by the next fight for normalizing polygamy……am I really that worried about liberalism? I’m not fearing liberals on climate change, since I know there is no passion there like their is for gay marriage, at least based on political forums I read. And I’m way more worried about liberal climate policy than the latest cultural “new normal” that I will just try to hide from. Many of us got tired of the focus on culture while losing everywhere else during the Bush years. I’ve been waiting for liberals to start barking about it during the Obama years.

    Good point on the flag issue too. and how feel good liberal symbolismreal solution to tough problems.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Let’s not forget that the people who are hugely disadvantaged by the institution of marriage itself are the millions of single people in this country. Their disadvantage is that our society gives financial and social benefits to married couples, regardless of whether they procreate or not,
    If we agree that promoting the welfare of children is good for our society, then why not give money to the children? Of course the guardian(s) of the children must decide on how to use this money.
    Then marriage could become a religious or civic recognition out of government altogether except to name a partnership as a “marriage” with whatever social benefits may come from this. But legally and financially, singles would be equal with the individuals in a marriage.
    In many states as in North Carolina, singles who are not disabled have little safety net in adversity. Why shouldn’t they get the same benefits as couples who don’t procreate or adopt or whose children are legally adults?

    Under this system, religious bodies would recognize their marriages and confer any religious advantage to the couple. Local governments could register marriages but married couple without children would receive no legal, economic, or social benefit from governments other than whatever benefit arises from other people knowing a couple has committed to marriage,

    It’s worth discussion, especially for millions of single people who are shut out from the current system.

    • rgbact says:

      Haha. I’d too been wondering how the heck discrimination against us single should still be legal. But, I’m can live with being discriminated against. I’m OK with government saying being single isn’t as good for society as being married.

      • R. Jenrette says:

        It’s not like many singles have a choice in the matter.
        In this country, we value imdividual liberty, we say.

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