Marriage: Politics vs. Society

The late William F. Buckley, Jr., stated the mission of his publication (National Review), and by implication the mission of his brand of political conservatism, thusly: “Standing athwart the tracks of history yelling stop.”

If we extend that analogy to other areas of political ideology, it’s reasonable to think of political progressives as firemen on a train rolling down those tracks toward Buckley and his compatriots, building up a head of steam to run right over their barricade and bust through pursuant to a theory of where those tracks must necessarily lead.

Buckley’s take on things is not a bad metaphor, and I think my addendum works with it, but it does leave out a couple of key factors: The passengers on the train — in other words, all of us — and the guns in the hands and holsters of conservative and progressive alike. If the tracks are history and the train is society, the competing gangs trying to control its course through politics are not helpful, useful engineers or brakemen or switchmen as they’d have us believe, but bushwhackers, hijackers and train robbers.

Let’s dispense with rose-colored glasses here: No, it is not obvious that, absent the state, society would magically find itself relieved of controversy, tumult, even violence. Those things are probably part and parcel of the human condition.

On the other hand, it’s fairly obvious — to me, anyway — that roving gangs of malcontents waving guns and flashing shiny badges (they call themselves “governments”) as they demand in turn that society apply the brakes or mash the accelerator to the floor, exacerbate rather than ameliorate those problems.

Which brings us to marriage — and, in particular, same-sex marriage. Over the last decade or so, conservatives and progressives have done battle in America’s political institutions — its legislatures, its courts, its polling places — over whether or not it should be “allowed.”

It’s impossible to sort out what an historical progression untainted by politics might have looked like, but I confess to feeling that the progressives have a better handle on where society’s going here. In my lifetime, Americans have slowly moved down the tracks from a general horror of homosexuality, to a grudging tolerance of it, to majority or near-majority sentiments against discrimination over it.

If progressives are, as some might think, overbearing in their fight to take things further, faster, they at least seem to be in sync with where things are actually going, while conservatives mistakenly think the train can be stopped or even put in reverse.

But, progressive versus conservative cultural instincts notwithstanding, it didn’t and doesn’t have to be this way.

Absent the state, the topic would likely still be controversial (or have been so at some point in the past). But that controversy, no matter how harsh, would be far less damaging to society and to society’s component parts (people).

Families, friends, entrepreneurs and mediators/arbitrators would accommodate (or not) changing societal mores over time, transmuting the controversial into the conventional (or not) bit by bit. Good ideas would eventually find widespread acceptance (or at least acceptance in easily accessible niches). Bad ideas would fade away with far less heartbreak for all involved, and for innocent bystanders.

It is the state which brings the equivalent of nuclear weapons — laws privileging some relationships and prohibiting others, both at gunpoint — to what would otherwise be a series of desultory fistfights.

Marriage has existed, in one form or another, for as long as humankind. Monogamous, (theoretically) life-long heterosexual marriage with property equality between partners is only one such form. If that form was truly superior to all conceivable others in all ways, it wouldn’t need a politician with a tin badge and a .44 Magnum to “protect” it from competing alternatives.

Government screws up everything it touches. It’s past time we told it to get its grubby hands off marriage.

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