Stephanie Coontz, perhaps the most successful professor at my alma mater in terms of actual impact on U.S. political debate, editorializes in today’s New York Times on why the state should get out of the business of certifying and legitimating marriages (“Taking Marriage Private,” 26 November 2007):
In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married…
Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.
Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.
A marriage is a hybrid of part administrative expedience, part contract law and part sacred cultural institution. The sacred cultural institution stuff is a part of autonomous culture and the state has little business meddling there. As for the administration and contract law portions, Ms. Coontz makes a perfectly pragmatic case for deregulation. Changing mores have rendered the original expedience obsolete.
So the argument goes in the economic sphere: the Twenty-First Century is a fast changing time for which the bureaucratic and regulatory machinery of the state is ill-suited. Best to leave it to the nimble, distributed private market to adapt to this rapidly evolving environment. So it is today also with culture. So how about extending the same courtesy to individuals as to business?