Should The Government Be Involved in Marriage?

Some libertarians, notably Ron Paul, say it should not. Another says that is foolish and irresponsible.

Signing marriage registry

The debate over same-sex marriage has prompted a lot of thinking about the nature of marriage itself. One solution to the current crisis has been mooted by libertarian writers: privatise marriage. Here Patrick Burke, a libertarian, explains why marriage is special and governments still have a role.

Libertarians believe in having as little government as possible and for this they have good reasons. The chief role of government, in libertarian eyes, is to protect its citizens from harm. First, from aggression by other nations, which government can do by having an effective foreign policy and military. Second, from aggression by criminals, which government can do by having a just and effective system of justice: police, courts of law and prisons. When all this has been done—not exactly a small item—libertarians believe government has pretty much finished its job. The rest should be left to the free agreements of individuals with one another. For every action of government uses, or threatens to use, physical force, and to use force on people when they have not done any harm is contrary to human dignity. It also makes everybody poorer than they need be, as Adam Smith demonstrated long ago. The happiest and most successful society is the one that leaves people what Smith called their “natural liberty.”

Marriage does not seem to fall under any of the aggressive activities that people need to be protected against. If a man and a woman want to get married, that is their own affair because it does not harm anybody else. It belongs to the most intimate sphere of life, the bedroom, and we do not want government in our bedroom. This is why for many centuries marriage was regulated by the church, not by government. For a thousand years in mediaeval Europe marriage disputes were settled in church courts under church rules. Reasoning along such lines, some libertarians—notably Ron Paul—are now calling on government to take itself completely out of marriage.

This reasoning is not entirely wrong, but it leaves out something essential. Marriage is a contract. No doubt it is much more than a contract. In the Christian view it is also a sacrament: a visible sign of an invisible grace. But whatever else it may be, it is at least a contract. It is a solemn public agreement. When we get married, we pledge to share our life with another person. As in any contract, we lead the other person to rely on us to carry out our promise. In any contract, if we break our promise, we cause harm to the other person because we cause them to lose everything they have invested in it. This is why government is involved in all contracts, and rightly so. Marriage creates rights.

In marriage especially, more than in any other kind of contract, we can cause immense, lifelong harm beyond any possibility of repair.  Marriage creates the most intimate of human relationships, making us most vulnerable to one another. We have led the other person to give up her or his life alone, relying on us to share our life with them in place of that, so that the two of us can build up a new life together. If we break that promise, we can easily destroy the other person’s life. But that life is just as valuable as mine. If I break the other persons’s life, I deserve to have my own broken.  Of course, if a marriage is irretrievably broken, there must be some provision for that. The message of the New Testament is that the provision should be compassionate.

Marriage is especially for the sake of the children. They have been brought into the world through the unity of their parents, and they need that unity to continue.  If their parents break up, many children never recover. It mars their whole life. Children have rights, and it is the task of government to protect those rights.

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  • Therese Marie

    The problem with Government becoming involved in marriage today, as I see it, is that people by and large do not think and reason properly.  Government is led by officials who do not make the best decision for the people, but, who make the popular decision to get re-elected.  By allowing government to become involved in Marriage, we open ourselves up to unjust laws and the possibility of Marriage being re-defined and contrary to Church teachings.
    You make good points, especially when it concerns Children’s rights and divorce issues, but, that would only work with just, moral, God-fearing officials making decisions through prayer and an informed intellect and conscience.  We are very far away from that situation currently.  Politics in our country has become a slow death with the Republicans or a fast death with the Democrats.

  • Mamk0908

    I agree that government should be involved in publicly recognizing the reality of marriage which unites a man and a woman and any children from their union because having a married mother and father is a fundamental human right that is common to every child with out exception.  It is also an internationally recognized right in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and can be confirmed by the desire that all of us to be known and loved by the parents from whom we originated.

    In a country where 40% of our children are now being born to unmarried mothers, I would say that it is imperative that we have a legal structure that promotes a clear understanding of the reality of marriage and its value to children and society.

  • Blndtrst

    God doesnt care about any of this..he wants His people to truly love one another.  He couldnt care less about this endless worshipping.  It’s draining humanities resources with all the fighting over God.  I’ll say it again, God doesnt care about the chocolate-covered crap that is religion.  Jus’ sayin’…

  • Alex

    Libertarians don’t call for the government to be out of marriage entirely.  We would like government to be involved to the extent of enforcing contracts between individuals, should one individual fail to hold up his side of the contract.  If two Catholics decide to get married in the Church, why do they need a marriage license?  If government is out of marriage, then the only people who would still get married are the people who value it for what it is: a sacrement.  Other people who want to live together and draw up a civil contract can do so, and the government would enforce this contract.  Or, if they so choose, they don’t have to have a contract at all!  They can just live together, and if things go badly, they separate. If Catholics want to draw up a contract in addition to getting married in the Church, they can do so.  Libertarians, Ron Paul and myself included, just want the government to stop giving benefits to married couples, and dictating things such as visitation rights.  We still think that the government has the responsibility and authority to enforce contracts.

  • Peter Nyikos

     Part of the message of the article to which you are responding is that people need to love intelligently and responsibly.  A lot that goes on in the name of love is foolish or just plain wrong.

  • chaco

    Right On ! Peter Nyikos ;  Blndtrst is asserting that “Love” doesn’t need to be defined ie;  “You can eat all the candy bars you want because I “Love” you.” Relativism (no Truth except what is “relative” to each individual’s personal experience / interpretation /appetites) is being promoted by current politics / culture even if it can’t be backed up with reason & DEMONSTRABLE EVIDENCE.[ [All in the name of tolerance & diversity.] Relativism is the “World’s” plan for peace among peoples. We just need to keep using our God given right to free speech  & REASONABLE Truth to counter the UNTENABLE stance of relativists. “The heavens & Earth can pass away but God’s Word will remain.” 

  • dchaitanya