Megan McCardle writes at Asymmetrical Information under the pseudonym "Jane Galt." She's a libertarian and has posted a marvelous meditation on how the Law of Unintended Consequences has haunted liberal "reforms" of the last fifty years and is likely to haunt others in the years ahead. Her main point is that attempts by liberals (and libertarians) to tinker with traditional marriage by expanding it to include same-sex couples could well have deeply regrettable consequences. It's happened before.
Unlike most libertarians, I don't have an opinion on gay marriage, and I'm not going to have an opinion no matter how much you bait me. However, I had an interesting discussion last night with another libertarian about it, which devolved into an argument about a certain kind of liberal/libertarian argument about gay marriage that I find really unconvincing.
Social conservatives of a more moderate stripe are essentially saying that marriage is an ancient institution, which has been carefully selected for throughout human history. It is a bedrock of our society; if it is destroyed, we will all be much worse off. (See what happened to the inner cities between 1960 and 1990 if you do not believe this.) For some reason, marriage always and everywhere, in every culture we know about, is between a man and a woman; this seems to be an important feature of the institution. We should not go mucking around and changing this extremely important institution, because if we make a bad change, the institution will fall apart.
A very common response to this is essentially to mock this as ridiculous. "Why on earth would it make any difference to me whether gay people are getting married? Why would that change my behavior as a heterosexual?"
To which social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.
To which, again, the other side replies "That's ridiculous! I would never change my willingness to get married based on whether or not gay people were getting married!"
Now, economists hear this sort of argument all the time. "That's ridiculous! I would never start working fewer hours because my taxes went up!" This ignores the fact that you may not be the marginal case. The marginal case may be some consultant who just can't justify sacrificing valuable leisure for a new project when he's only making 60 cents on the dollar. The result will nonetheless be the same: less economic activity. Similarly, you--highly educated, firmly socialised, upper middle class you--may not be the marginal marriage candidate; it may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't mean that the institution of marriage won't be weakened in America just the same.
I am bothered by this specific argument, which I have heard over and over from the people I know who favor gay marriage laws. I mean, literally over and over; when they get into arguments, they just repeat it, again and again. "I will get married even if marriage is expanded to include gay people; I cannot imagine anyone up and deciding not to get married because gay people are getting married; therefore, the whole idea is ridiculous and bigoted."
They may well be right. Nonetheless, libertarians should know better. The limits of your imagination are not the limits of reality. Every government programme that libertarians have argued against has been defended at its inception with exactly this argument.
Let me take three major legal innovations, one of them general, two specific to marriage.
What follows should daunt the enthusiasm of the most reckless liberal bent on reforming something or another in our polity, but you'll need to read it for yourself.
Society is like a delicate explosive and reformers are often like those who tinker with them in their basements without knowing exactly what they're doing. Sometimes they succeed only in blowing up themselves and everything around them.RLC