Why shouldn’t men be able to marry other men? Or women marry other women? Who is harmed? How can people be so bigoted? So close-minded? What do they have against gays? How does gay marriage do provable harm to heterosexual marriage? To children? To society? You can’t demonstrate provable harm, so you have no reasonable basis on which to ban gay marriage.
These have been common rhetorical ricercare in the salons and blogs of the liberals and libertarians in recent years. They take a libertarian principle and carry it to its seemingly logical conclusion. The principle is that you have a right to liberty which can only be legitimately restricted (by the state, or otherwise) when it results in an infringement of my equal right to liberty. This is commonly stated more simply as “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” The conclusion is that, since gay marriages can have no such externalities (the economic term for when a freely swinging fist crashes into someone else’s nose, whether intentionally or not), there is no reason for the state to ban them, and no reason except fear or bigotry for the majority of Americans in most states to support such bans (as they evidently do, based on numerous polls over the past few years). In other words, the large majorities who wish to limit marriage to being between one man and one woman have nothing but irrational motivations for that preference.
I have at least one libertarian argument in favor of the proposition that marriage continue to be restricted to being between one man and one woman. But I have no intention of advancing one or more of those arguments in the current essay.
Instead I wish to examine the irrational world of “individual preference” and cultural norms. In order to make my thoughts clear to the reader, I first need to take a quick detour into economic “utility theory.”
People have something they pursue which economists refer to as “utility.” They like to increase their utility over time, or at least avoid any decrease in it. It’s not clear whether utility can be compared interpersonally because of its subjective nature. And it’s certainly not clear that a person’s utility function is anything like what we’d normally call “rational.” Some people like to sing praise to God on Sunday. Some people like to play soccer on the weekends. Some people like to climb mountains. Some people like to watch dog fights. Some people like to torture other human beings. Some people are happy to make lots and lots of money, and the more they make, they happier they get. Some people are happy if they make enough money for a decent living and have little desire to go beyond that.
People try to do what makes them happy (they try to maximize their utility), but since they live in a world where their actions provoke reactions, in both things and people, they must modify their actions to prevent a greater loss in utility via those reactions than that gained in the desired actions. For example, you may like to run dog fights, but your neighbors and fellow citizens may detest animal cruelty and punish you severely for doing so if you are caught. If the expected negative utility of that reaction (adjusted for the probability of being caught) exceeds in absolute terms the expected utility of achieving the desired end, rational people tend to avoid the desired action. They live in a constrained world where they are forced to accept less than that amount of happiness they could acquire in the absence of external impediments — some social and some simply physical.
But why, you may ask, should someone be offended by your wishing to stage dog fights? You may have a very well worked-out theory of property which states that any non-human entity can be property, to be disposed of as the owner sees fit. And you’ll find many to agree with you. Unfortunately for you, in 21st century America you’ll find many more people who will be offended by your actions. They’ll call for laws against dog fights, and may fine or imprison you if you persist in your behavior. They may oppose dog fights because they believe that such fights are cruel to animals, and that an animal’s right to live a life free of coerced pain trumps your right to use your property as you wish. An outside observer may see it differently, and conclude that their wish to avoid mental anguish at the suffering of animals trumps their willingness to let you use your property. I’m not sure the dog fight protesters have a coherent theory of rights, actually. I’m not sure I have a coherent theory of rights for that matter. But what I am fairly sure of is that they don’t wish to live in a society that allows cruelty to animals simply to afford pleasure to people they view as sadistic monsters. Their vision of a culture worth living in — a culture they themselves feel ownership in — does not include legal dog fighting. So they legislate bans on dog fighting.
I hope I’ve been able to establish an example wherein people have their (admittedly irrational and despicable) desires thwarted by a greater number of people acting in a democratic polity who wish to enforce their own cultural norms.
I’d now like to move on to another aspect of culture: sexual relations and their formalization in law and society.
Some men don’t ever want to be married. Some men have no greater desire than to marry one woman and settle down. Some men might like the idea of having a wife so much that they decide one is not enough and they’d like to practice polygyny.
Polygyny is illegal in the US by statute, as it is in most modern Western societies. From an economic perspective, this probably reflects the realization that polygyny would severely disadvantage most men (for every man who has four wives, there are three other men without wives). But the economic argument is considered and understood by few. Instead, monogamy is simply the accepted and enforced cultural norm. Norms like this evolved in the religious backgrounds and traditions of the people who created common law and the laws of these fifty states. People know what kind of culture they want. Strike that: it’s probably more accurate to say that they can tell you what kind of changes to their culture they don’t want, and won’t tolerate. And economic rationality often has little to do with it.
Regardless of the desire of a small minority to practice polygamy, the rest of us “like things the way they are, thank you very much.” We blithely pass and sustain laws that brutally repress those whose greatest desire in life is to marry multiple people. And most of us are perfectly happy to live with that.
A good friend of mine once described what he called the “Pat Buchanan position” in politics and culture: We like the culture to be a certain way. We may say that’s because it’s more beautiful, or satisfying, than some other cultural configuration. We like it the way it is. It’s ours. It’s evolved in an organic way over the centuries or millennia. It’s probably not perfect. But it’s worth preserving, maybe even worth dying for. I’d surmise that this in fact has been the position of 99.999999% of humans since civilization began, and probably even before. This Pat Buchanan model of culture and politics describes what amounts to an irrational bias. It explains things like patriotism and nationalism. It makes no appeal to economics.
Nor does modern economics or philosophy really present a challenge to this. We more and more accept that people are at their core irrational, in terms of what they pursue with their lives. Where rationality comes in is to provide a means to pursue those irrational goals. At least that’s my current view.
So, it’s quite simply the case that you can’t say whether someone is wrong or right, virtuous or villainous, in preferring a culture of monogamy to one of polygamy. They just do. In practice, then, they care about things that other people do, even if it doesn’t affect them directly, so long as it somehow affects the culture. And much as in the case of banning dog fights, they are more than happy to ban polygamy.
People like what marriage means in their culture, who’s allowed to participate in it, and under what conditions, and most have little enthusiasm about changing it.
Note that many, if not most, of these same cultural conservatives (which most people in history have been, overwhelmingly — for good or ill) would be in favor of the establishment of legal civil unions between same sex partners (or other people where warranted, such as two adult brothers uniting to care for a severely disabled younger orphaned sibling) so that common rights which married couples have can be shared by certain classes of unmarried people. They just don’t want what they think of as marriage to be redefined in the culture.
Where we’ve made great progress in the West is in finding ways for people to be relatively free even where they come up against cultural barriers. Compare the majority American attitude toward gays as reflected in their government and their laws and their entertainments to that in modern Iran. In America, we more often than not say that gays can create civil unions, and certainly do whatever they like in the privacy of their homes. In the theocracy of Iran, the government refuses to accept that gays exist (you may remember Ahmadinejad telling an audience at Columbia University that there are no gays in Iran).
“We” don’t like polygamy. “We” don’t like gay marriage. “We” don’t like public nudity. None of these three practices would mean the end of the human race if practiced widely. But they would change the prevailing culture in ways most people would prefer it not be changed. And this is because these are by their nature public things, rather than private things. This is the ingrained cultural conservatism we saw in the Hispanic and Black populations in California who voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8, even while voting in similarly overwhelming numbers for welfare state progressivism. Is this irrational? Yes. But so is all preference, including cultural preference.