The Actual Most Urgent Threat To Marriage: A Libertarian Response To “I’ve Been Divorced Four Times…”

There is an article floating around the webisphere that calls for some attention. In it the author claims that the biggest threat to marriage is divorce. Now I’m not here to claim that divorce is not harmful, that it does not negatively affect the public understanding of marriage. There are many reasons for the prominence of divorce in our society.

But to say that divorce is the biggest threat to marriage is a little like saying that death is the biggest threat to life, or that death is the number one cause of not being alive.

Sure. I guess that has to be true. If you are no longer alive, then surely you are dead. But, for the purpose of preserving life, are we not more interested in the cause of death, rather than death itself?

Just so, for the purpose of preserving marriage, are we not more interested in the cause of divorce, rather than divorce itself?

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Now I know that the purpose of the original article was to point out that the frequency of divorce harms the public perception of marriage. Divorce leads to less marriage and more divorce. Fine. That may be true. But to say so much only scratches the surface of the marital problem. Divorce is not so much a threat to good marriages as the result of bad ones. Furthermore, to conclude that the prevalence of divorce requires more government intervention is absurd.

Why did so many marriages end in divorce in the first place? Why were there so many bad marriages? Why do so many people enter a marriage without understanding its permanent nature?

Why?

Because people misunderstand what marriage is.

Why do people misunderstand marriage?

Because the government is in charge of marriage.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of history, and a modicum of observational skill knows that if you want something done inefficiently, and with as many unintended consequences as possible, you ought to ask the government to do it. This is one of the reasons libertarians believe that the government should only be put in charge of necessary things that cannot be reliably accomplished in the private market. Even if you are not a libertarian, we can all agree that the government should only be put in charge of tasks that a government is capable of completing.

Marriage is not one of those tasks.

Now, to be clear, the government is not actually in the business of marriage. It is in the business of recognizing marriages. Marriage exists outside of the government as its own entity. It is both a natural union and a sacrament, and it does not depend on the government for existence. And yet, when two people claim to be married, it is the government’s responsibility to deem the marriage legitimate (or illegitimate).

Here’s the problem: the government is not capable of recognizing marriages.

A government body may be capable of recognizing and defending a legal contract, but it is not capable of recognizing a marriage.

We cannot expect the government to do a priest’s, a mother’s, a father’s job. We should not want the government to do a priest’s, mother’s, father’s job.

So what’s the big whoop? So the government can’t recognize marriages? After all, marriage exists outside the government. There are still priests for marrying, and mothers for disapproval and cautionary words.

For the government to recognize marriage, it must first define it.

Due to its limitations, the state must necessarily define marriage as much less than it is.

What is the government’s definition of marriage? A contract.

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The negative repercussions of this should be no surprise.

We have elected the government to recognize marriages when it is only capable of recognizing contracts–we should not be surprised to find that a contract is what marriage has become. We have introduced a meaningless governmental blessing as the defining characteristic of marriage–we should not be surprised when couples conclude that marriage is meaningless as well. We have allowed the government to define marriage as a contract–we should not be surprised when people treat it like one.

Now don’t get me wrong, contracts certainly have their place. But to be legally obligated to someone does not make you married. The rampant divorce we are witnessing does not take away marriage’s permanent characteristic. Such is impossible. Marriage is in fact permanent. The rampant divorce we are witnessing reveals the impermanent nature of the contract we call a marriage license.

It reveals that civil marriage is not marriage.

Why do people get into marriage for the wrong reasons? Why do people get lost in their marital roles? Why do married couples turn to divorce at the slightest disruption of their marital bliss?

Because they do not know what marriage is, they do not know what it requires, they do not realize that it has a permanent nature. And they are not cognizant of all this because the fundamental aspects of marriage are not fundamental to a legal contract, nor should they be.

If you’d like to see fewer divorces, and more real marriages, then stop the civil marriage charade; stop allowing a glorified contract to parade around as a marital blessing. Insist that the government perform the tasks of which it is capable: requiring parents to see that their children are cared for, protecting the contracts to which people willingly commit. That is the extent to which the government can protect marriage. By asking the government to do more for marriage, we only do marriage more harm.

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7 comments

  1. Well, I meant to comment on this awhile ago, but unfortunately I never had time to actually sit down and write a comment. Thank you for your interesting perspective on the topic of marriage. I agree fully that part of the reason that people get divorced is because they do not understand marriage to begin with. I also think that the government should have a minimal role in the process, but it is important for official paperwork to have some proof of marriage. Otherwise, it would not be possible to change names as easily.

    I claim to be an independent when it comes to voting because I am both conservative and liberal in many of my views. Depending on the topic, I can be the extreme of either side. But when it comes to marriage…I have always felt that is a personal decision and the government should simply stay out of it as much as possible. After all, the government isn’t the one who has to work out arguments or learn to compromise. That is our personal responsibility after marriage.

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  2. I really enjoy reading your articles. Especially when during a read, I have to suddenly shift from a position of slight disagreement to complete agreement. Really enjoy that process.

    In this part of the world, a few struggling couples do work a little harder on their marriage because of a social stigma attached to the otherwise legally available option of divorce. This has its own consequences, but I guess it does increase the chances of a marriage which could have worked, to work.

    Although I would agree that a marriage which could end by the sheer availability of (and the ease of availing) the option of divorce, is not a real marriage.

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