A while back in a comment section on another blog, I got into a debate with several other people about the role government ought to play in recognizing marriages. I argued that the government must be involved and was told by others that this was varying degrees of stupid, ignorant, or dangerous. The thrust was that “marriage worked fine before the state got involved” and therefore, the state ought to back off. It was “fantasy” to expect the state to honor and enforce any aspect of marriage, and I was a fool for defending the idea.
Although it might be fashionably libertarian to argue against state interaction with marriage, I don’t think anyone can reasonably defend that case. I think illustrating the situation will help, but first, some explanation.
In the West, there is a strong but recent tradition of radical individualism that sees every individual person as the fundamental unit of the society they live in. The French Revolution gave us the first taste of this, with disastrous consequences. Western tradition has a much longer-lived, deeper, and more attested view of society, however, which views the fundamental unit as the family. Instead of viewing a man, his wife, and their three children (for example) primarily as five equal individuals, this deeper tradition sees one family with a father, a mother, and children. All five are individuals, but not primarily. This is most obvious when it comes to young children, who are fully dependent on their mother and father just to survive each day. To see each person in the family as an interchangeable fundamental unit is laughable.
I think this view of family as fundamental is not just a part of Western civilization, but one of its axioms. I’d go further and say that this is fundamental to civilization itself, but I have not studied the East to the same degree or with the same interest, so I’ll hold back for now.
Marriage is the fundamental relationship within a family because marriage, by nature, bonds a father to a mother, and both a mother and father to their children.
There are two ways that the government can interact with marriage. It can either respect marriage or it can disregard marriage. In the former, the government treats the family as the fundamental unit, and outside of criminal justice, tries to deal with families instead of individuals whenever and wherever possible. The marriage relationship binds the family together, granting legitimacy to the children and – perhaps most importantly – giving the father rights over his own children.
In the latter, the government doesn’t recognize marriage at all, and simply ignores it. It treats all members of the family as atoms.
Here are two diagrams of the models. The irony here is that the people attacking government recognition of marriage are against no-fault divorce, which is exactly what the government ought to embrace if it disregards marriage. But the important thing here is that if you don’t like the government getting involved in your intimate relationships, you are making a grave mistake by inviting the government to ignore marriage relationships. It may sound like the best way to keep the government out of your marriage, but it’s quite the opposite. You all but invite them into your home: