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TinotopiaLog → Same-Sex Marriage (17 Jul 2001)
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Tuesday 17 July 2001

Same-Sex Marriage


So lately there’s been more discussion about whether people of the same sex should be allowed to legally marry.

The argument being advanced in favor of same-sex marriage is essentially that homosexuals are being denied equal protection of the law because of their sex.  Certain legal benefits and rights are available to John and Jane, should they present themselves to the world in a certain way.  Should John and Jim do precisely the same thing, however, they get no special consideration, benefits, or rights.

The argument most often heard against same-sex marriage is that it’s an abomination!  God (pronounced, usually, ‘Gawd’) has spoken!  Marriage is a holy sacrament, a bond between a man and a woman, patterned after Adam and Eve! Perversion! Decadence! Et cetera!

In short, the only argument I’ve heard against same-sex marriage is one of conservatism per se.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with conservatism per se.  Society and culture are very, very complex systems, and small changes in one place may have huge consequences elsewhere (e.g.: poor handling of Germany after WW I leads to bad traffic in Fairfax County, VA, eighty years later. But that’s another rant entirely.)

But very little in American society is about conservatism per se.  Especially in the last fifty years or so, the general trend is quite the opposite — in favor of novelty for its own sake (usually to our detriment).  So it seems a bit absurd to respect an argument of blind conservatism these days.

Benefits and the Cost of Marriage

Let’s look at what marriage gets you, in the United States.  There are a number of legal rights:

  • Automatic Inheritance
  • Automatic Housing Lease Transfer
  • Burial Determination
  • Immunity from Testifying Against Spouse
  • Medical Decisions on Behalf of Partner
  • Visitation of Partner in Hospital
  • Visitation of Partner’s Children

Anyone with a good lawyer can secure all those rights without marriage, though. The real Marriage Bonanza comes in economic terms:

  • Assumption of Spouse’s Pension
  • Bereavement Leave
  • Crime Victim’s Recovery Benefits
  • Exemption from Property Tax on Partner’s Death
  • Insurance Breaks
  • Joint Bankruptcy
  • Certain Property Rights
  • Reduced Rate Memberships
  • Sick Leave to Care for Partner
  • Wrongful Death (Loss of Consort) Benefits
  • Social Security Survivor Benefits

All of those benefits cost money.  Every single one of them.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just examine the last one, Social Security survivor benefits.

There’s a set of rules that determines whether or not you get this benefit.  Essentially, though, you get it if your spouse dies and you’re old enough, or if your parent dies and you’re young enough.

The Social Security Administration paid $5.1 billion in survivor’s benefits in December, 2000.

It’s impossible to know how many gay people there are in the U.S. — the census doesn’t ask — but 10% is the figure usually used by most gay-rights groups.

If we assume that gay people would marry at about the same rate as heterosexuals, and that they live as long, legal same-sex marriage would cost Social Security about $500 million a month in survivor’s benefits alone.  (It’s hard to find information on what proportion of survivor’s benefits are paid to children, which are presumably more common with heterosexual couples.  I am assuming that this is a fairly small slice of the pie.)

That $500 million a month is $6 billion a year, or $20 a year for every man, woman, and child in the country.  And that’s only for one benefit paid by one agency.

Which is ultimately why same-sex marriage is opposed so vehemently by "conservatives" in the government.  They’re never going to support anything that would cost the government billions and billions of dollars a year, particularly when there’s a thousand years of tradition backing up their "brave moral stand".

How and Why the State is Involved
(and what it has to do with religion)

So why are these benefits paid to married people at all?  Why not eliminate the marriage benefits all together, and save the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year?

Because marriage is by far the cheapest method of obtaining more taxpayers.  It’s much more economical than conquest.

The society as an organism is interested in its own survival.  Marriage and all the hooha surrounding it is society’s way of bringing new members into the society in an orderly way.  It’s such a terrible sin to have a child out of wedlock or by a Man Not Your Husband not because there’s anything wrong with procreation, but because society doesn’t know what to do with that kid.  What’s his name, to begin with?  What claim does he have on his father’s property when his father dies?  In a country with a hereditary system of government, who becomes the king?  Does the government even know he exists? Et cetera.  Possibly this would be simpler in a matriarchal society, but there you are.

This escapes a lot of people in the U.S., because we see religious matters and state matters as completely separate things.  Even the most rabid American Christian conservative sees that the church and the government are two separate things, even if he thinks the Ten Commandments should be posted on the wall at the D.M.V.  It’s important to remember that in England, whence comes our culture and legal system, the church and the state are effectively different branches of the Crown’s system of governing.  The most important laws are codified in the language of the church, and all the rest in the language of law.

The church’s sanction is much more powerful.  The most the state can do to you is lock you away for the rest of your life, or hang you by the neck until you are dead.  The church, though, can see to it that you spend eternity on fire after you die.  For a person of faith, this is a much more effective deterrent.  And you’ve got to be caught and tried to earn the law’s sanction.  Since God sees and knows everything, there’s no escaping the punishment promised by the church.

And this is why the church is so closely involved with life’s transitions.  

The Book of Common Prayer — basically, the Anglican missal — specifies that newborns must be Baptized with a number of witnesses (godparents) in attendance.  It also is quite strict on the points that no minister may refuse to Baptize a child, provided that the rules are followed, and  that any child to be Baptized must not have been previously Baptized before.

This is important because it’s the church register that determines who exists, in the eyes of the law.  If you’re Baptized twice, you’ve got two identities.  If you’re not Baptized at all, you can’t be identified and thus taxed.

Likewise, in the Order for Burial of the Dead, there are no fewer than six prayers specified to be said by the minister while "earth is cast upon the body".  The idea is that the minister, a representative of the Crown and a respectable person, is in attendance until an allegedly dead person is quite decisively buried.

So, to get back to the main point, the state subsidizes marriage between heterosexuals in order to regulate fucking, basically.  The state’s purpose for existence and means of survival is the control (or regulation, anyway) of people.  Just as the state monitors the ports so it knows who’s in the country, it has a role in the legal creation of offspring, for the same purpose. The traditions and cultural taboos surrounding marriage make the state’s job of dealing with its new small citizens or subjects much easier; the state spends less (presumably) subsidizing marriage than it would peeking in every bedroom window, thus justifying the subsidy.

All of this might be obsolete these days, now that the tax man has a computer and you’re required to show official identification for all complex transactions — thus assuring that there a person running around unknown to the state would run into serious difficulties.  Regardless, the fact remains that the state’s interest in marriage is as part of society’s larger sex-control apparatus, an apparatus designed primarily to regulate the production of children.

Deroy Murdock, in a generally well-reasoned article today in National Review Online, seems to misunderstand the church/state relationship.  He says that "Legal requirements that people get licenses before tying the knot have made gay marriage a public rather than private concern."  He fails to understand that marriage has always been a public concern, and always about the person’s (and the couple’s) relationship with the state and society, and that the church and the language of the sacrament was just the way that relationship was codified.

Modern Problems, and a Suggestion

Now that I’ve said all that about marriage being important, historically, in the regulation of sex and of the production of offspring:

The modern purpose (benefit to society) of marriage is to simplify the legal relationship between two adults.  Parents tend to die long before children, and siblings often drift apart.  There is a legitimate societal interest in the majority of adults having a legally-established relationship with another adult of similar age.  Marriage is ideal for this.  Presumably, each party (i.e. spouse) to the marriage have an interest in the well-being of the other party; the law recognizes this by, for instance, allowing one to make medical decisions for the other should he or she be incapacitated.  Unmarried people are  at the mercy of the state or of distant relatives in these kinds of situations.

Ultimately, I suppose the right solution is to adapt the institution of marriage to better serve its modern purpose: to pair people off into mutually-responsible units.  This both makes the people involved happy, and it simplifies the state’s relationship with these people, by establishing a secondary point of contact for every married person, in the event that that person turns up wandering the streets in his bathrobe, or dead, or otherwise in need of some assistance, identification, or advice. It also tends to foster relationships where each party to the marriage acts as a "sanity check" of sorts on the other. This is the nugget "marriage increases stability" argument, I believe.  It is not merely a coincidence that Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Mark Chapman, and John Hinckley are (were) all unmarried.

The modern purpose of marriage, though, has nothing whatever to do with getting additional financial benefits from the government or anyone else.  The laws surrounding marriage should be reformed to provide only the legal short-cuts that automatically assign heirs, power of attorney, joint credit, etc., and to eliminate the mandated benefits windfall that makes up the government subsidy of marriage today.

(It shouldn’t cost you anything to get married, either, of course: if Nicole and I were married instead of just shacked-up, we’d have paid over $5000 more in federal income tax last year, paying for the marriage subsidy.  This is the main reason we’re not married.  I can’t believe that the moral conservatives on the Hill are not screaming about this — but that’s the topic of another rant.)

I believe that, under reformed marriage, very little would actually change, after a period of initial turmoil: the market would favor insurance plans that gave discounts to married couples (if it’s profitable now, it would still be profitable for the insurance companies), and employers who offered spousal benefits.  Sure, it costs money for the company to offer employees "compassionate" leave to deal with a sick or dead spouse.  It probably costs more money to have them come in to the office and screw things up because they are, understandably, not paying attention.

If those benefits were mandated by the market and not the government, though, allowing people of the same sex to marry would not be this absurd political dilemma.  Same-sex marriage could then wind up saving everyone money and trouble, and we wouldn’t have the odious spectacle of "conservative" politicians complaining about gay people wanting "special rights".

Posted by tino at 10:25 17.07.01
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