Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 November 2004

Bans on Gay Marriage: A Question of Values

Over 20% of the electorate reportedly cited “moral values” as the chief issue in the recent election. Many commentators assume that “moral values” voters provided strong majorities for banning gay marriage in eleven states. They presupposed a direct and obvious connection between “moral values” and bans on gay marriage, and no one questioned that assumption. Far less did anyone ask whether bans on gay marriage are consistent with what Americans value most deeply.

The lack of probing inquiry is not surprising. Americans have always confused sexual mores with vital social values. From the time of de Tocqueville to the twenty-first century, Europe and Asia have noted our nation’s sick obsession with what people do between the sheets. The Monica Lewinski scandal is only the most recent example. A president’s sexual indiscretion virtually paralyzed the world’s most powerful nation for three years. As the rest of the globe looked on with alternate amusement and horror, the possessor of thousands of nuclear weapons, charged with leading the Free World, addressed the world’s problems with all the maturity and perspective of a lovesick teenager.

When we were young, our mothers told us that sex is only part of life. Surely there are human values more important than those governing sexual relations.

History suggests as much. We revere the ancient Greeks as the earliest source of our democratic values; yet they were openly homosexual. Sparta and Thebes, among other city-states, institutionalized homosexuality, making it part of official policy and their highly effective military organization. Islamic society permitted and celebrated polygamy throughout its Golden Age, in which literature, art, mathematics and astronomy flourished. Holland, from which America derives much of its liberal and tolerant tradition, openly tolerates homosexuality and prostitution. These examples from ancient and modern history suggest that what particular brand of sexual mores a nation chooses has little to do its strength, success or ultimate contribution to human development.

So what are our really fundamental values? Unfortunately, we live in an ignorant age. Survey after survey reveals appallingly large fractions Americans who don’t even know what our Bill of Rights says. Some surveys even hint that the Bill of Rights would not survive a popular referendum today. Yet however little Americans know about our written charters of liberty, all of us understand a simple and universal credo: “Live and let live.” Don’t those four simple words capture the essence of American values?

Nearly two centuries before we became a nation, the Pilgrims came to North America to escape religious persecution. Many others followed, fleeing bigotry and intolerance. All wanted a place where they could practice their religion and culture openly, free from interference, persecution and bigotry. Eventually their yearning was codified in our First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom and prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.

Religious freedom, however, is not enough. You cannot act freely unless you can speak freely. So the First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech and the press. It extends these freedoms especially to despised minorities, for only unpopular ideas really need legal protection.

Most, if not all, of our greatness as a nation derives directly or indirectly from these two fundamental principles: freedom of religion and freedom of speech. They saved us from the pogroms and religious and ethnic wars that tortured the world for centuries and still occur in Europe, Asia and the Middle East today. They encourage all to contribute in advancing and perfecting our society, each in his or her own way. By freeing everyone to speak his or her mind, these rights have produced the greatest flowering of scientific inquiry, creativity, and political and social discourse that the world has ever seen. Because of them, there is nothing we Americans cannot examine, criticize, discuss, create or perfect.

Yet both these great legal principles share the same underlying moral value. You can speak of tolerance, liberty, freedom, and equality, but these are heady abstractions. The broad words have different meanings to different people, and some have been conscripted to serve unlikely causes. The simple credo “Live and let live” captures the spirit of all of them, and its meaning is unmistakable.

My wife and I have wracked our brains trying to figure out how homosexual unions “threaten” marriage and why me ought to “protect” marriage against them. Adult abuse, child abuse, and dysfunctional relationships certainly threaten marriage. Statistics show that these problems are rampant, but gays have no monopoly on them. In any event, no one has every proposed a constitutional amendment to ban abusive or dysfunctional relationships.

Our nation has tolerated homosexual relations between consenting adults for decades. The Republic has not fallen as a result. Indeed, we can think of nothing important that is one whit worse as a result of failure to enforce the sodomy laws still on the books. Recently the Supreme Court ruled that the states cannot ban homosexual relationships among consenting adults. So homosexuality is not only tolerated; it is now perfectly lawful and legitimate throughout our nation. Isn’t that what our “Live and let live” credo demands?

Now loving gay partners want our legal system to recognize their commitment and devotion to each other. We've yet to hear any practical argument against doing so that makes any sense. Aren’t stable, loving, productive relationships something that society should encourage? Don’t they lead to healthier, happier, more productive people? Won’t encouraging them reduce unhappiness, suicide, despair and crime?

There is a pre-existing legal framework for such stable relationships—called “marriage.” It makes sense to adapt that framework to new circumstances, rather than to “re-invent the wheel” with new laws and regulations, let alone individual contracts and powers of attorney for each and every couple. Who but lawyers would benefit from re-inventing the wheel with “civil unions” designed to look like marriage without using the word? A cynic, observing the anti-gay-marriage movement from a practical economic perspective, might be forgiven for concluding that it’s a conspiracy among lawyers to ensure their full employment for generations to come.

Insofar as children are concerned, one thing is indisputable: homosexual couples do not generally bear children. (We can leave aside the minuscule fraction that uses risky and expensive artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood to do so.) Rather, they absorb unwanted children from our society, giving homes to children that otherwise might not have them.

Imagine yourself an unwanted child with no family. For several years, you have been a ward of state, shuttled from one foster home to another and often abused. You now have a choice. You can continue your miserable life as it is. You can be adopted by a single parent. Or you can be adopted by a stable, loving couple who happen to be homosexual. Isn't the rational choice in this circumstance the last one, if only because you would have two people to support, feed, nurture and love you and to care for you and each other if one became sick? Maybe heterosexual parents might be better still (my wife and I think that depends on who the couple is.) Even if so, that choice is practically unavailable to many unwanted children. Foreclosing the next best choice does not seem at all child-friendly.

Anyway, how do we “protect” marriage by denying that institution to people who want it so desperately? A despised minority is willing to risk the pangs of bigotry and prejudice, making their most intimate relations a matter of public discourse—all just to enjoy a wonderful institution that the rest of us take for granted. Doesn’t their poignant struggle make the institution of marriage seem more precious, not less? To us, gays fighting for the right to marry are brave soldiers on the frontiers of justice and liberty.

In the end, those who seek to suppress gay marriage do not even pretend to offer practical economic or social arguments. Instead, they use code words that make no sense. Homosexuals marrying “threatens” our own marriage far less than do any of the millions of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual marriages in our land. Bad marriages put a much greater burden on society, and therefore on our taxes, than any stable homosexual relationship; yet no one has proposed outlawing them.

Similarly, resort to “tradition” is patent nonsense. If tradition were our most important value, blacks would still be slaves, women would not have the vote, youth would be subject to universal conscription, and we would make our living by hunting mastodons with spears. Rational arguments against advances in human society demand more than just the assertion “we haven’t done that before.” In any event, humans have done that before: legal and customary relationships among homosexual lovers serving in the military of certain ancient Greek city-states had many of the attributes of marriage today.

If there are valid rational, practical, economic or social arguments against gay marriage, we have not heard them. The objections to homosexual marriage appear to boil down to a matter of personal distaste, usually based on unexamined religious teachings or beliefs. People voted in overwhelming numbers against gay marriage, it seems, because they just don’t like the idea.

The notion that some people can stop others from doing something just because they don’t like it is hardly a “traditional” part of American moral values. The Pilgrims came to North America precisely to escape that sort of regime. So did virtually every other group that came to us seeking refuge from foreign bigotry and intolerance. For four centuries, the world has regarded America with justifiable awe because of our steadfast commitment to our most basic value: “Live and let live.” Through real and rationally identifiable consequences, that simple credo has made us the strongest, richest, noblest and most envied society in human history.

Thomas Jefferson once swore “eternal enmity to every form of tyranny over the mind of Man.” What an eloquent way of saying “Live and let live!” Yet for all his eloquence, Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Schoolchildren and scholars will forever ponder that awful contradiction.

This November, eleven states deprived a despised minority of the right to marry and so to improve their lives and, indirectly, our society. They did so despite the absence of any rational, objective evidence that gay marriage would hurt anyone. They thus violated our society’s most basic credo—“Live and let live.” If our Republic survives, schoolchildren and scholars a century hence will compare the awful contradiction inherent in this November’s election with that of Jefferson’s slave keeping. Let us all pray for the wisdom and restraint to avoid doing any more damage to our nation’s most precious moral value.

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