Social Issues, Economic Issues, and Marriage

Roman Catholic Bishop of the Providence Diocese Thomas Tobin has stoked the firestorm with another column opposing efforts to change Rhode Island’s definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships.  The issue of same-sex marriage falls plainly in the category of “social issues,” which are for the most part beyond the scope of the Current.  Broad general reading, however, suggests that there is a growing appreciation for the inherent link between policies related to social issues and small-government and economic issues.

As the ongoing controversy over federal mandates for contraception coverage makes clear, when government steps in to help people avoid and respond to the undesirable consequences of their behavior, the move is both invasive and costly.  Marriage is an archetypal example of a social institution that reduces risky behavior and encourages individual, private structures for addressing the costs.  Nobody would dispute the assertion that the institution has been eroding for generations.  Attempts to erase its clear, plain association with male-female sexual relationships (which are procreative by their nature) only further harm the institution’s ability to control people’s behavior.

Commenting on the recent flap over a supporter of Rick Santorum joking about the traditional use of abstinence as a form of birth control, Jill at Pundit & Pundette puts the concept in broad phrases:

… once upon a time society understood that if a young lady didn’t care to risk conceiving a child, she could choose to refrain from the activity that caused it. In a thousand ways, the culture supported her in that choice.

Uplifting marriage as an ideal circumstance for sexual relationships is the central means of offering that support.  The common rejoinder to both suggestions that marriage is intrinsically linked to childbirth and that people should abstain from sex outside of marriage is that the horse has left the barn.  That attitude is simultaneously inadequate and reckless.  What the culture has let slide, the culture can shore up.

Evidence of a need to do so abounds.  After decades of “safe sex” education and an “enlightened” attitude toward sexual promiscuity, our safeguards appear to be running thin.  Here’s one example:

According to the CDC, gonorrhea has a long history of developing immunity to antibiotics, but doctors have always had a stronger medicine up their sleeves to treat patients. Not anymore—about 1.7 percent of gonorrhea is now resistant to cephalosporins, the last line of defense against gonorrhea. That might not seem like much, but it’s a 17-fold increase since 2006, when about one tenth of one percent of gonorrhea was believed to have resistance to cephalosporins.

Moreover, the methods employed by government to address risky behavior appear to be risky themselves:

A study has found that the policy simply encouraged young people to have unprotected sex and had failed to cut down the number of under-age pregnancies.

Professors Sourafel Girma and David Paton of Nottingham University compared areas of England where the scheme was introduced with those where it was not or where it was implemented later.

They found that pregnancy rates for girls aged under 16 remained the same while the rates of sexually transmitted diseases increased by 12 per cent in those areas where the pill was available free from chemists.

During my interview with the bishop, yesterday, he responded to my questions about the Church’s support for government welfare programs by rephrasing in terms of “justice,” presenting that as an appropriate role of government.  Advocates for a more limited government might restrict that role of government to setting the boundaries by which, for example, businesses can compete with each other on a fair playing field.

Marriage is precisely like that.  Defining the institution in the law in contractual terms, it completes the circle that allows the culture to do the heavy lifting in terms of encouraging people toward to productive behavior that it engenders.  If the legal definition is not in line with the longstanding cultural sense and purpose to which marriage has been put, it would be as if the government had rewritten the definition of “borders” in the area of immigration or “monopoly” in the area of trade.  And to the extent that new definitions push society to utilize government to address the consequences, they are ultimately incompatible with notions of independent liberty.

In Justin’s view, marriage as a social issue is inevitably bound up with other policies as small-government issues, and in a way that both “economically conservative social liberals” and “big-government traditionalists” ought to consider.