The Federal Government Isn"t Needed to Preserve Marriage

It is really getting out of hand, and those perpetrating it know it quite well. Just look how President Bush felt the need to square the circle here, when he mentioned that 'America is a free society, which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens' but then added, 'This commitment of freedom, however, does not require the redefining of one of our most basic social institutions.'

OK, so the president is confused'-the whole point of being free is that nothing much is legally required of you other than respecting everyone's rights. But Mr. Bush is, in fact, trying to have it both ways, a limited government dedicated primarily to protecting our individual rights to liberty, and an intrusive federal government that is dictating to all what they ought to call their romantic unions.

It should be a no-brainer to Americans that family life is changing. We have children who are adopted, yet are called our children (I have one). We have children who are born via artificial insemination and are sensibly still called children. We have parents who have no biological relationship with their kids, and that is perfectly fine. The idea of the extended, expanded family is no longer extraordinary.

Over the centuries, social institutions, however stable and fixed they may once have been, change, however much some special group in society may find this unacceptable. If it doesn't violate anyone's rights, such changes are none of the legal authority's business. Can you imagine government defining the principles of logic, which are far more basic than those of family life? Can you imagine, sensibly, government meddling with the rules of various games or business organizations?

All that the law should do in a free society is register the preferred union between people, especially where they involve various binding responsibilities to minors who need to have their rights and interests protected from irresponsible adults. But this is not the same as imposing a fixed model of marriage throughout the society.

Yes, this does mean that there should be no legal objection even to polygamy, provided it involves only willing adults. Such unions may not be for everyone. Indeed, they may even be a bad idea for most people for a variety of good reasons. Yet in a free society'-as Mr. Bush evidently sensed but couldn't stick to as the pragmatic conservative he is'-these matters are just the kind that people handle through various non-government organizations and institutions. They have their churches, for example, that define for them the suitable terms of marriage. (For example, among the faithful on the Reverend Moon, people get married en masse, without even knowing to whom they are to be married; talk about a bizarre idea for American culture, yet nothing the law should prevent.)

Bottom line is that Mr. Bush is making something into a matter of politics that should not be'-and should never have been left to politics in the first place. I am waiting now for him to tell us what the official definition of baseball, chess, farming, dancing, and opera must be! It is truly pathetic.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.