Why does the government care about marriage?

After seeing the news of North Carolina's ban on same sex marriage, my thoughts again return to the questions that came to me when California's ban was voted in: Why is government even in the marriage business? What benefit does it bring government to control it instead of it being an individual contract? And, in the face of all these budget issues, is managing marriage really of value to government?

I asked those questions on Twitter and had a lively chat with @striatic and @alanstorm (which had the background flavor of making me happy about the internet and the kind of conversations it can enable).

 @striatic said that yes, managing marriage is of value. "Unless you want ceaseless advertisments for 'marriage brokers' and all the inherent overhead dragging on the economy. And then you'd need to regulate these contracts anyway to sync them with government offered benefits."

Still not sure I see the first half of that argument—are other common contractual agreements really prone to over-advertising and, even if annoying, would that actually drag the economy?—but I do see the point that if the government is offering benefits, the management of verifying the required status is something the government is interested in.

I drew an analogy with business contracts not resulting in ceaseless ads or economic drag (indeed, perhaps having an economic contribution). @striatic said, "The majority of people don't need legal aid or ever form business partnerships. The majority of people do get married."

Well, that sent me off immediately for the numbers. According to a Pew Research Center study from last year (as reported by ABC), 72% of U.S. adults have been married at least once, though only 51% are married now. That figure is down dramatically since 1960, when the numbers were 72% and 85% respectively.

Finding numbers on how many U.S. adults have entered into a contractual agreement other than marriage (such as incorporating a business) at some point in their lives was not so easy to find. While I accept @striatic's point that marriage is a significant agreement which the majority of adults still participate in, I am holding out for data on whether it's actually exceptional over other comparably complex legal experiences.

At this point @alanstorm joined in, "Government involvement helps create a standard of fairness for the individuals getting married and enforcement of rights."

To which I replied, "Ok. Standard of fairness with regard to which rights? Tax law? But that would need to change to if gov got out of marriage biz."

He said, "Jerks could coerce individuals into unfair marriage contracts, hospitals could ignore spousal rights in an individual contract, (that is, an individual marriage contract written like a standard employment agreement)."

Domestic partners face the latter (hospitals ignoring spousal rights) often enough. Seems the former (unfair marriage contracts) has old roots in expectation of female financial dependence, though. A lot of old assumptions (e.g., taxes re: shared home ownership/parenthood are linked with married status) would need re-examination were the government to 'get out of the marriage business'.

@alanstorm said, "It's complicated for sure, Wikipedia has a list of the sorts of things I was thinking about: Rights and responsibilities of marriages in the United States. There's a huge legal support system for married people that gay couples deserve access to. That's what government recognition [is] for."

If the government offers special rights/responsibilities for the married, it is in government's interest to administer marriage. That is clear. What is unclear to me is why it is in government's interest to offer special rights/responsibilities to married people.

@alanstorm said, "Because marriage is complicated, and irrespective of strides in women's rights, one partner often becomes dependent on another. And government (despite its reputation in entertainment politics) is here to help us when things don't go as planned." @striatic said, "Married people want those special rights and responsibilities, which makes it in the government's interest. That's 100% fine if the special 'rights and responsibilities' are not 'advantages', and are accesible equally to all."

However, I remain unsatisfied. I'm not asking "Why are there some societal benefits to government taking an interest in protecting these special rights/responsibilities?" but "What fiscal or administrative arguments continue to make it in government's interest to offer special rights/responsibilities to married people?"

@striatic rightly pointed out that "governments have goals other than self administration, established by their constituencies .. governments aren't businesses." But I can counter back, "What other goals is it serving for government to offer special rights/responsibilities to married people?"

He said, "altogether nuking marriage is a solution looking for a problem. The problem isn't marriage, but who isn't allowed it."

I'm not proposing nuking marriage. I'm just questioning which aspects of it should be managed by government.

@alanstorm concluded whimsically, "Fiscal argument? Because we pay taxes and deserve it! (I'm glad we managed to resolve 200+ years of policy in one twitter night.)"

But I'm not satisfied there, either: "Well, except that taxes are biased toward the married, which for unmarried committed couples (by choice or exclusion) ain't great."

That last round brought in @lrgc, who said, "Assuming it's in society's interest, then government is society's administrator. Now I'd need to think if it's in society's interest."

 

And can I just say, '140 character limit means you never have serious conversations', my lily white ass! 🙂

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dinahsanders

Author. Discardian. Defender of life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness. she/her

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