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COLUMN

Speak Now, or Forever Hold --Nevermind, Just Be Quiet

Ken Nesmith

Opponents of gay marriage usually latch onto such a predictable grab bag of arguments that listening to them just becomes boring -- marriage is between a man and a woman, gay people can’t have kids, we can’t hurt the institution of marriage, and so forth. Even casual browsing of the public discourse on these arguments will find those thoroughly discredited upon any serious investigation. Opponents end up sounding a bit like the Islamists who try to defend oppression of females, theocracy, and other primitivisms with impressive, but ultimately empty, rhetorical footwork.

In America, most of these represent attachments to an enduring, subtle mysticism that pervades this country’s history and lifeblood, a mysticism that becomes unpleasantly visible when it attacks the constitutional linchpins put in place to preserve the nation’s commitment to natural rights and freedoms. (I’d say, “Thank God,” but I’m not that facetious.) Christianity makes persistent efforts to inject itself into public life via government -- some judge will try to stick the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, schools will toss science to the wind and teach neat theories like creationism, and the most powerful members of Congress will declare themselves sent on holy missions to remake the world for Jesus’s second coming by depopulating Palestine. These are not things that encourage me. They make me wonder just how great an edge we have on the various theocracies and decrepit socialist/communist states worldwide.

Our strong constitutional commitment to individual, natural rights, though, makes all the difference. Our country is founded on the ideas of classical liberalism, where government protects the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens. Sure, we’ve added a few bonus missions to that, like going to Mars, advising people on what to eat, paying milk farmers, and building the occasional museum or water park, but relative to most states worldwide, we do a pretty decent job of allowing citizens to live as they please, keep what they create, and pursue what they’d like.

Sometimes the imposition of Christian morality comes cloaked in weak, secular arguments, such as “The Ten Commandments are the basis of our legal system and should be placed in courts.” Or that marriage involves a social cost, and we shouldn’t extend it to gays because they don’t repay society with kids. President Bush’s 1.5 billion dollar initiative to promote marriage cloaks his intentions under that mantle of social engineering: marriage yields positive effects for society, and so should be subsidized and encouraged as matter of good social planning.

In a recent column that drew a spate of strong responses, Adam Kolasinski made a similar claim that restricting marriage to straights is a matter of sound social engineering, and that any marriage, gay or otherwise, that does not further the end of propagating society is a step towards the decline of the Western world [The Tech, Feb. 17]. While it was interesting to learn that plummeting birthrates are a social pathology, when most acknowledge it to be social progress, the mention of broken homes drew more of my attention. Divorce is, indeed, a big problem for straight people who get married. More than half of straight marriages end in divorce. Psychologist John Gottman and some mathematicians from the University of Washington thought it was enough of a problem that they made a predictive model for marital strife (and eventually divorce), based on observations of couples’ behavior. It turns out that we straight people could learn something from gays, who were more likely to “use affection and humor when a disagreement arose” and to “remain positive after a conflict.” Pardon one more pun, but Gottman is straightforward: “When it comes to emotions, straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships.” [The Financial Times, Feb. 13]

So if I were a social engineer, I can see how it’d be tempting to encourage gay marriage, to set a good example for straight society and further a stable society and a compelling state interest. I’m not, however, a social engineer, and neither is the government. Let’s not mince words; assigning the government the role of social engineer is revolting. But since it’s been mentioned, we could give it a try with some other, even more compelling state interests. Engineering a system that just produces kids isn’t very ambitious; that’s a fairly simple problem. Proponents of social engineering say nothing, implicitly or explicitly, that prohibits engineering society without regard for individual rights to pursue even better goals -- say, reduction of crime.

Accept credulously, for a moment, that there’s a compelling state interest to reduce crime. How can the state do so? Doing so racially would be a simple enough matter; while blacks comprise just 13% of the population, they are involved in 50% of its crimes, according to federal statistics. If we discouraged black procreation and the black population was to fall, perhaps we could really push those crime numbers down, serving a compelling state interest by sparing both individuals and society the huge costs of crime that are far greater than those of letting gays marry. If that was improperly engineered, and it’s poverty that causes crime, we could encourage poor people not to procreate, with both the carrot and the stick: tax the poor for each child, and subsidize birth control and abortions.

There’s a lot more we could do, such as deciding not to grant the mentally retarded or handicapped, who impose huge costs both on individuals and public educational and healthcare institutions, the costly privilege of birth, or engineering neighborhoods by ethnic composition to manage crime, or managing the deaths of the elderly, who put a huge strain on our healthcare system. These are examples of moving further toward an engineered, planned society. Extending webs of taxes and subsidies further and further makes our imagination the only limit to what we can engineer.

The other option is to move away from central planning and engineering, and move back towards a free society, where the government doesn’t work towards building a centrally planned utopia, but simply protects the individual rights and freedoms of its citizens and lets them flourish. To make a dramatic understatement, it’s a model that’s worked pretty well historically, relative to attempts to plan society without respect for individual rights -- which tend to result in slaughters, starvation, and other problems. Economist Friedrich Hayek’s thoughts are useful here; he noted that in a planned society, the arbitrary preferences of the central planners are bound to replace the wants of citizens. History, and for that matter current affairs, show us where that leads. There’s no way around it; repression of individual rights in the name of planning is not pleasant.

Absent mystical arguments or invitations to social engineering, opponents of gay marriage usually revert to a final escape tactic, asking, “If gays can, why can’t anyone else?” Respected political voices like Congressman Rick Santorum ask as much, and place homosexuality in the same category as beastiality. Their objection is not substantive. Like the cases of those who don’t want children, the sterile, and the elderly to marry for their inability to produce children, these cases are few and far between and we can dismiss them, leaving them at the bottom of a slippery slope that we won’t reach. Viable gay relationships are common, and demand our attention. Other alternatives are not, and fail to merit attention.

The government’s role is not to grant us rights and privileges, and it’s not to engineer society. Its proper role is to defend the inherent individual rights of its citizens, including the right to liberty. The appropriate course of action will move us away from social engineering and control towards the end of freedom; it will not increase planning and control towards the end of a Christian -- or secular -- planner’s utopia. As long as they don’t interfere with one another, citizens in America get to decide how to live their lives. Even gay ones.