By N.S. Palmer
The headline of today’s New York Times editorial about gay marriage trumpets the conclusion supposedly reached by all right-thinking people:
“Marriage is a Constitutional Right”
But I have a simple question:
What right, exactly, does marriage provide that cannot be provided by civil unions?
It’s not tax preferences for married couples. Civil unions can do that. It’s not spousal rights or inheritance. Civil unions can do that. It’s not even national recognition of non-traditional unions, so that gays would have the same civil-union rights in every state. A national civil-union law, pre-empting state laws, could do that.
So what’s the right at issue?
Look, I know lots of gay people. My family includes at least one of them. They’re perfectly good people, and I wish them well. Some of them are up in arms about gay marriage, and others don’t care about it.
But in the absence of any information to the contrary, I’m forced to conclude that all the hoopla about gay “marriage” has nothing to do with equal legal rights for gays.
Instead, it has to do with deconstructing an institution that our civilization and others before it have had for thousands of years. It’s mainly so that the minority of gays who want to call their relationships “marriages” — a minority of a minority — will feel better about themselves. It’s also to put society’s imprimatur on the belief that gays should be treated exactly like straights. Finally, it’s to get revenge on the straight majority, which some gays blame (not completely without cause) for their unhappiness.
No reasonable person wants gays to feel bad, and all reasonable people want gays to be treated fairly. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that such a significant social change has no cost.
Concentrated Benefits and Dispersed Costs
The situation is not unique to the gay-marriage debate. It often happens in society that a tiny minority strongly supports an idea and raises holy hell about it. An equally tiny minority strongly opposes the idea but lacks the resources and media access of the idea’s supporters. And the vast majority of people mildly oppose the idea but have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that limit their time to do anything about it.
It’s also why corporations and the rich have so much influence over law and policy. The phenomenon is called “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.”
A change in the law might bring billions of dollars in new profit for BP or Goldman Sachs but cost each American citizen only fifty cents. As a result, those corporations throw everything they’ve got into lobbying, pressuring, and bribing government officials to get that change in the law.
But how much time can you take off from work to travel to Washington and lobby against something that’s going to cost you fifty cents? Especially when it’s fifty cents for this law, fifty cents for that law, fifty cents for another law, on and on for hundreds of laws and regulations each year? It’s more than a full-time job just to keep track of all of them, let alone to do anything about them. Corporations and the rich have the money and the time. The majority of people — who will bear the cost — have neither of those things. That’s why they’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death.
In the case of gay marriage, the interests of the minority and of corporations are in sync. Gay-marriage activists want to feel better about themselves by appropriating the word “marriage,” and they don’t want to hear any backtalk about it from the straight majority. Corporations find traditional Western culture to be a nuisance, so they’re busy dis-assembling it.
The Most Important Issue
However, the most important issue in the debate is something that almost nobody talks about. Yes, there are good reasons to keep “marriage” as a heterosexual institution, and to guarantee equal rights through adequate civil-union laws. Yes, some of the arguments for gay marriage are bogus. Yes, some of the gay activists are motivated by hostility toward the straight majority rather than concern about equal rights.
But still, there’s something else at stake. Regardless of Constitutional issues, regardless of what’s legally required or not, there remains the question:
What kind of society do we want to have?
Do we want a society that, intentionally or not, consigns some citizens to second-class status? Or do we want a society that embraces everyone who wants to belong to it? Whether or not civil unions are legally equivalent to marriage, they are inevitably perceived as “separate but equal” by both gays and heterosexuals. That sends a message that gays are not full members of our society. It says that we do not grant them the acceptance and brotherhood that they deserve.
I know that there are costs. I know that a lot of the arguments for “gay marriage” are specious. But for me, inclusion is the bottom line. It trumps the other issues.
Gays work with us, live next door to us, and go to our churches. They’re our brothers and sisters and friends and, sometimes, even our parents. If we reject them, or if we tell them they’re not quite as good as heterosexuals, then we also reject what’s best in ourselves and our society.
I won’t reject those things. And I won’t reject or belittle the gay members of society. If they want to get married, and call it “marriage” instead of civil union, then they have my blessing.*
* This was not always my view. My niece, who attends college in Massachusetts, argued me to a standstill and convinced me to change my mind.
Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.