Andrew is right, classical liberalism does not immediately supply a compelling reason to reject ‘gay marriage’, … except in necessarily narrow and unconvincing terms. This is because it is a political theory, not a moral philosophy.
Thus, while classical liberals can gesture toward love, as Andrew does, they cannot speak to what most couples, certainly all religious couples, and most societies know about marriage: the biological, emotional and sacramental realities merely secular critiques too often ignore. Classical liberals say ‘marriage’ but they mean something else. What they really describe is more precisely a registry office event – one where the witnesses, and indeed the law, are blind to the genitals, hearts and (too often) children (including in potentia) of the parties involved.
Indeed, from the liberal state’s perspective a church wedding is just a registry office with stained glass windows, and the priest just a celebrant wearing strange clothes. That’s how it has to be in a society in which religion has lost its hold over the population, with 60% of marriages now performed by celebrants – and with many of the people who do get married in a church making a rare appearance there to do so. Marriage can have ‘sacramental realities’, but like children and even sex these are optional extras. The law does not require any of them, even though children ‘in potentia’ (or these days, watching mum and dad get married) are used as a reason for distinguishing gay from straight relationships.
But why in a liberal society should the law have anything to do with this aspect of people’s private lives? Why isn’t ‘marriage’ just a particularly intense form of friendship, in which the parties get to make up their own rules without any outside interference or involvement? Or why, as David Boaz from Cato has suggested, shouldn’t marriage just be another private contract, enforceable by the state, but according to terms decided by the parties rather than by the template provided in the law of marriage and (more importantly, in practice) divorce?
I have some sympathy for Boaz’s view, but on balance I think there is a useful role for the liberal state in facilitating the kinds of relationships that people in a free society want to have. In one of his many excellent essays, Kenneth Minogue noted a paradox: that one of our favourite uses of freedom is to get rid of it – we sign contracts, take jobs, get married etc. But these beneficial activities are made easier if they are shaped to some extent by the law.
As I noted in my post yesterday, marriage changes risk assessments by the parties, making exit harder than from a friendship and obligations broader and more open-ended than in a contract. It makes it safer to engage in long-term projects like raising children and provides mutual insurance (‘in sickness and in health’, and all that) in the face of the many unpredictable events that will happen over a long partnership.
Gay marriage would not be inconsistent with these liberal rationales for marriage, and given a general liberal commitment to treating citizens equally it is hard to see a liberal reason for opposing gay marriage.
I agree with John that liberal arguments won’t decide this debate politically; liberal support is largely already built into the pro-gay marriage polling, and it is more conservative people who need convincing. But I think liberal principles provide a good framework for thinking through the issues.