Freedom Discussions

What Will it Take to Get Governments Out of Marriage?

by Dalebert, Prometheus Unchained

I’ve been having a conversation with a smart person pretending to be an idiot over on the Free State Project forum. Generally, the only point of an argument with someone who ignores logical and rational thought is for the benefit of the audience. Presumably at least some of those seeing the discussion will be rational and will gain something from the exchange, even if it’s just the realization that one of the people is full of shit. However, there was an added benefit to this otherwise seemingly hopeless attempt to have a rational discussion. I realized that a misinterpretation of a key term in the discussion has corrupted the entire debate.

The term that keeps coming up is “government marriage”. Libertarians, includingsmall ‘L’ libertarians can be frequently heard to reject the notion of “government marriages”. But what does that mean? Marriages were traditionally very standardized contracts between consenting adults that in essence meant they were to be considered family for all practical purposes despite not being blood-related. State governments started issuing licenses for marriage, and a license is basically a permission slip. They did this so they could deny marriages to some couples, the most obvious example being inter-racial couples, right? Not quite. What the license really meant was that governments would acknowledge the contract for the purposes of any government dealings which may be affected by familial status. People could generally form marriage contracts with whomever they like but the government wouldn’t necessarily acknowledge them as having any validity. It’s much like how I view the so-called social contract, except these marriage contracts actually had signatures and confirmed commitments between consenting adults to honor and validate them.

In this light, what now is a “government marriage”? It’s a contract between consenting adults that the government acknowledges and respects. So what is meant by those who reject “government marriage” and want to get government out of marriage? Does that mean we want the government to stop acknowledging the validity of contracts between consenting adults? I certainly hope not! That doesn’t sound very respectful of the ideas of liberty. If you keep digging, what most people mean who support that notion, and that includes me, is they don’t believe the government should treat anyone differently based on whether they’re married or not. That sounds like a noble goal. It would be an end to a sort of government discrimination. So let’s try to apply that in the real world and look at some ways the government deals with you differently based on your familial or spousal status.

Probably the most obvious and frequently-referenced one is taxes. A married couple can file under one total income and each additional member after the first is a “dependent”. A basic premise of this is one spouse might have a role that’s supportive of the bread-winner and therefore contributes to that income but it’s not technically separate income that would be convenient to file separately. In a graduated tax system, they’d be paying a lot less taxes if they each made half that money and filed separately, so it’s obviously unfair to them to tax one person on the graduated scale and treat the other person as unemployed. So how do you get government out of marriage in this instance? Just flatten the tax rate and end the Marx-inspired graduated scale and the complication is resolved. Now government can equitably treat everyone the same regardless of familial status. Better yet, end all taxes! Taxes are theft anyway. Problem solved.

Another aspect is Social Security. Government forces people to participate and extracts a portion of income that is supposed to help fund a program that sends you funds when you are less able to provide for yourself. The complication with families here is much like taxes. One person may be in a supportive role that contributes to the income potential of the other person, which affects what is contributed and therefore what is later available as a benefit, and so is logically entitled to share those benefits. Right now, if one spouse dies, the living spouse is entitled to the greater of the two benefits, theirs or their spouses, and for good reason. So how do we get government out of marriage in this respect? We end Social Security! Put another pixel block in the getting government out of marriage progress bar.

Immigration status is another government benefit applied differently based on familial status. I’ve long said I would not want a government marriage because I don’t need a government’s approval to validate my relationship. Then I found myself wondering how long I’d sing that same tune if I fell in love with someone who wasn’t a citizen of the U.S. government. See, if that government would acknowledge a consensual contract between me and this other person as spouses and family members, it would make it much easier for me to get that person a green card so we could live together and function as a family. Getting them to acknowledge our contract is about preventing I.N.S. agents busting in to drag one of my family members out of the country! I hope most liberty lovers would immediately acknowledge that as a horrible injustice. Also, most liberty lovers support open borders. So how do we get government out of marriage in this situation? The solution here is to just open up the borders and not kick anyone out of the country based on some silly arbitrary notion of citizenship. Once done, we have gotten government out of marriage in another aspect of our lives. Problem solved! We’re probably at least 25% of the way done with getting government out of marriage and we’ve only had to deal with three of the most bloated and hopelessly entrenched programs of the U.S. government.

Now if we just keep going down the line for each issue of government involvement that is affected by familial status, then the obvious way to get government out of marriage is to end every single entitlement program since F.D.R.’s administration. They basically want to abolish the government, or at least nearly so. Hey, that sounds great to me. I’m an anti-statist after all, but… that’s not likely to happen any time soon. How convenient.

The non-citizen example is a great one because it refers to one of the key defining issues of liberty. In fact, until recently it was in the World’s Smallest Political Quizwhich is used to ferret out closeted libertarians. It’s the issue of open borders. How many so-called liberty lovers have you heard say that they’re all for opening the borders but they don’t dare do that until we’ve ended all the entitlement programs? “It’s those entitlement programs that are really the problem!” I agree that those are the big problem. So then why are you punishing immigrants which you claim should be treated the same as everyone else? They aren’t the ones who created all those entitlement programs. Politicians, lobbyists, campaign workers, and voters, i.e. citizens, might deserve some blame but certainly not immigrants.

Like many lovers of freedom, when I hear someone say they want to open the borders but not until the entitlement programs are all gone, I can’t help but hear racism, or at the very least, something nearly as selfish and arbitrary. They want liberty for themselves but not others, and that’s not liberty. They want to live here without harassment themselves and enjoy all those government benefits while working so hard to deny others until some distant Utopian future when they’ve purified the U.S. of entitlement programs and can graciously allow those pathetic, undeserving, non-citizens to come join the party.

I admit the term “government marriage” sounds dirty and tainted to me but often the way people use the expression sounds bigoted to me for similar reasons. I hear it as an excuse to avoid taking a stand on obvious and unavoidable injustices based on government discrimination regarding which marriages they will acknowledge. And this happens in a massively complex system where marriage status is far from trivial, as I’ve discussed even though I’ve barely scratched the surface. I register my car so they don’t tow it and I get a driver’s license so they don’t arrest me even though I believe in the freedom to travel without special permission. I pay taxes on my home so they don’t kick me out of it even though I see taxes as theft. I do these things not because I believe in their authority but because they intrude into my personal life with overwhelming violence and leave me little choice. There may come a day when I need them to acknowledge my marriage for reasons a lot more important than acknowledging my right to drive a car. Governments will likely be intruding into our personal business for quite some time. Meanwhile, governments that more consistently respect contracts made between consenting adults are a lot less tyrannical than those that don’t. If governments respecting the contracts we make with each other is what is meant by a “government marriage”, then how can I possibly be against that and call myself a lover of liberty?

Addendum 2011/02/05:

What I hope people will gain from this is what I gained– That while governments do exist, getting them out of marriage will mean getting them to respect all clearly-consensual and contracted choices of family and stop claiming they have the right to decide that for us with regard to their bureaucracy and the extent to which it is thrust upon us.  It should also mean not forcing anyone else to accept and embrace those choices as long as we aren’t forced to be involved with those entities, whether that’s private businesses, private non-government-funded charities, or churches and other private institutions, etc.