Let me begin by being completely honest: Of late, I've really been wondering whether it's time for social conservatives like myself to come up with a Plan B, since it seems that the Great Marriage Debate may very well end unfavorably for us and has contributed to an erosion of support for the GOP to boot. And of all the Plan B's that I've considered, I'll admit that the idea of "privatizing" marriage has at times seemed acceptable.
I suspect I'm not alone in this, but maybe I'm wrong. Anyway, just in case any of my fellow So-Cons have been tempted by the siren song of marriage privatization, I'd like to take a moment and deconstruct that proposal with a view toward demonstrating that it's total bunk.
Marriage privatization does have a certain appeal, namely, that it allows me to do my thing and you to do yours. Or, as we might alternatively put it, it allows every man to do what is right in his own eyes. If we can't agree in this society on a common definition of marriage, then just get government out of the marriage business. Problem solved, right?
Believe it or not, social conservatives and libertarians are agreed that one purpose of the state is to protect liberty. We disagree, however, over what conditions are necessary for a free society to remain a free society. The libertarians say, essentially, that the only real condition is that individuals not commit acts of aggression against one another, and the state's only real purpose is to see that that condition is met. Social conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the libertarians haven't really thought the matter all the way through; they've failed to consider that a free society must have a solid moral foundation if it's going to stay free, and therefore the state must defend that moral foundation whenever it begins to erode or is attacked outright. Hence, the different views over what the state should do about marriage: This is why libertarians say government should leave the matter alone, while social conservatives seek to preserve the traditional definition.
Let me further explain why social conservatives believe that liberty is impossible in the absence of morality: In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." Perfect people wouldn't need government, since they'd voluntarily do the things that government is there to force them to do when they're feeling particularly recalcitrant, like respecting others' rights. It follows, of course, that imperfect people--people who don't always do things like respect the rights of others--do need some apparatus for accountability, something to encourage them to stay in line despite desires to the contrary; that's where government comes in. Now, if absolute, unrestricted freedom would be suitable for the totally moral, what would the totally immoral need? It seems the answer would be absolute unfreedom. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke expressed the point this way:
Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity...Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without...[M]en of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Only a moral people can make liberty work; an immoral people will sooner or later slide toward the total state.
In a free society, then, it's not only permissible but incumbent upon the state to protect traditional values (read: those values necessary to the survival of a free political and economic order, like a sense of justice, individual responsibility, generosity, a solid work ethic, etc.) and the institutions charged with instilling those values (or, to use a term popular in our time, "socialization"). Being one of those institutions responsible for socialization, it makes sense to resist trends and/or efforts that would undermine--and perhaps ultimately destroy--the family. And since, as Princeton professor Robert P. George expressed it, "family is built on marriage," it follows that the definition of marriage is of public concern, and therefore properly a matter calling for the state's attention.
That's why, despite its superficial appeal, marriage privatization simply isn't a feasible solution, and that's why social conservatives shouldn't give up the fight. There's too much at stake.