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Monday, May 14, 2012

Why Not Regulate Marriage and Parenting *More?*

I am a frequent reader of Ryan Anderson's material and links, sent via daily email, to Public Discourse and other publications, offering a particular kind of social conservative response to daily events. Late last week, he provided a link to a co-written blog post at a Heritage Network blog titled "Obama and the Truth About Marriage." Some key passages:

[T]he President’s so-called “evolution” on the timeless institution of marriage marks an unfortunate turn. Society has a civilizational interest in promoting marital childbearing and the faithfulness of husbands and wives to each other and their children. Marriage is a vital social institution that promotes that interest.

The reason the state is in the marriage business in the first place is because sex makes babies and babies need mothers and fathers. As one source has put it, “but for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex.” That “institution” is marriage, and it brings together men and women as husbands and wives to become fathers and mothers to any children their unions bring forth.

This binding together doesn’t happen by accident. Binding fathers to mothers and their children requires strong cultural and legal norms to channel adult sexual desire and behavior into an institution where childbearing leads to responsible childrearing.

Furthermore, undoubtedly one reason voters in 32 states have voted to protect marriage is the belief that, for children, the ideal situation is to have both a mother and a father. This belief is supported by social science, which demonstrates that children do best when reared by their married biological mothers and fathers. Mothering and fathering are not interchangeable phenomena. The ideal for children is love and attention from both a father and mother, as well as the role modeling that each can provide of masculinity and femininity. . . . 

There is a truth about marriage, and most people intuitively grasp that it has something to with mothers and fathers, the offspring they bear through sexual union, and the mutual cooperation required to effectively rear offspring throughout many years of dependency. 

I am grateful to Anderson and his co-author, Thomas Messner, for providing a clear exposition of their views. And it is evident that Anderson and Messner are seeking to ground their argument in a set of policy considerations and not "just" moral or metaphysical claims. (Not that I think the latter is impermissible, on either side. But doing so does tend to lead the matter back to simple political contestation, given insurmountable disagreement about moral or metaphysical claims.) Taking their policy claims seriously, however, does seem to me to raise at least two questions:

1) Why shouldn't government, on Anderson and Messner's view, be far more intrusive in regulating heterosexual marriage and childrearing? If the purpose of marriage is essentially child-focused--to ensure "responsible childrearing," to ensure that children are "reared by their married biological mothers and fathers," and to ensure "the mutual cooperation required to effectively rear offspring throughout many years of dependency"--shouldn't government be far more active in attempting to ensure these goals? Why not insist on marriage between couples who bear children? Why not impose heavy legal presumptions against giving one's child up for adoption? Why not make it far more difficult to obtain a divorce or to remarry? Why not insist on, at the very least, continued cohabitation by parents who find it impossible to remain married? And if the policy behind a particular instantiation of marriage is to protect children, shouldn't the state police married couples' treatment of their children, and each other, far more vigorously? Neither "the belief that, for children, the ideal situation is to have both a mother and a father," nor social science suggesting "that children do best when reared by their married biological mothers and fathers," are the whole of the story. A host of beliefs and social science findings about sound parenting extend beyond the simple fact of same-sex marriage and involve particular views and findings about how best to parent for the sake of sound child-rearing. Of course those views and findings are contested, but what isn't? To the extent that there are findings and beliefs about what constitutes sound child-raising, shouldn't government actively and frequently monitor and regulate marriages and parenting practices--including parenting styles and practices, home-schooling, and any number of other issues--and insist that parents act as required to comply with these requirements? 

2) What do we do about childless couples? Here I'm not making the standard argument that if marriage is about procreation, then childless couples pose a challenge to this justification. I take as a given that not every couple can or chooses to have children. But what public policy response should be appropriate for such couples? Should we ensure that our tax regime penalizes those married couples that could have children but choose not to, or refuse to adopt in those extraordinary cases in which adoption is still necessary? Should such couples, absent children, be shunted into a second-tier form of government recognition such as civil union? Do some of the same social policies that favor protecting marriage even for those couples that do not have children extend to marriage or civil union for same-sex couples?

I'm not saying, of course, that this is what Anderson and Messner want. They don't say how intrusive they think government should be in policing marriage, beyond arguing that it should not extend to same-sex couples. But even--or perhaps especially--taking their policy arguments as a given, I can't see why they should stop there. Surely, given the weighty policy considerations they advance, government should not stop at the threshold of the opposite-parent home. It seems to me that what they are arguing for, at least if one takes their arguments seriously, is a far more active and intrusive government regulatory regime. I take no position on whether that's good or bad, or on what legal limits apply. But surely government, on their view, has a far more active regulatory role here with respect to sound child-rearing than it has traditionally undertaken.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 14, 2012 at 08:48 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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All the rest of nature would rejoice if the human race suffered extinction.

In any case, there is no rational basis for the pro-natalist policies of this and other countries, especially when we can employ potty-trained young Latinos reared in nurturing families.

Even if the gummint's pro-natalism could be justified, there is no excuse for not setting breeding and nurturing standards, much as we do for cars or air conditioners, and let folks, whether single, married hetero or homo, or even Walmart, take a hand at satisfying the market. Posting of a bond and regular accounting could be imposed.

In any case, we need to be disabused of the notion of heterosexual marriage's being the perfect cradle for nurturing the kids we need. Indeed, all evidence is to the contrary! I suppose we'll learn our lesson on that once we wake up having to speak Chinese.

Posted by: jimbino | May 14, 2012 1:01:25 PM

Society is "evolving" on this issue and his comments reflect this. He said just that. President Obama explained that a key reason he supported civil unions was because "marriage" had such an emotional cachet for people & since civil unions would protect the core equality necessary here, that would be the best step. But, as he did in his autobiography, he left things open. Society might change. Marriage might then be best.

Society is evolving. Each one of us probably sees this in our own lives, including the views of people we know. I know I have.

Next, "The reason the state is in the marriage business in the first place is because sex makes babies and babies need mothers and fathers." Isn't adulthood a time to move past childish things. The state is in the marriage business for many reasons. My grandmother re-married after my grandfather died. She was way past childbearing age. And, marriage or not, babies have mothers and fathers.

Why exactly does denying the rights of gays and lesbians to marry their partners stop "responsible child-rearing," particularly when same sex couples themselves are the ones with the children? What is there about "marriage" in particular that does this, as compared to "domestic partnerships" or "civil unions"? The question is rhetorical. If one wishes, you can read the text, but by this point, absurd statements are getting tiresome.

Posted by: Joe | May 14, 2012 12:03:45 PM

A cynic would say they espouse these policy arguments only to the extent they would prohibit same-sex marriage, but no further, because we absolutely don't want government interfering with how these "ideal" couples rear their children. But we wouldn't want to be cynical.

We can go further, by the way. They insist on the need for "role modeling that each can provide of masculinity and femininity." Does this also require the state to ensure such role modeling is going on? And, if so, how? This sounds, potentially, very bound up in other social-conservative agendas about gender roles. Does the model of masculinity mean the sterotypical "man's man" fathers of 50 years ago? Does the model of femininity mean mothers who stay home and rear children ?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 14, 2012 10:25:34 AM

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