Saturday, March 16, 2013

That ship has sailed

I was quite distressed to discover that no longer exists. This site contained Megan McArdle’s pre-Atlantic writings and I have cited it more than once on my blog. Luckily, the old site is archived at the WayBack Machine. The WayBack calendar for the site is here; the WayBack archive of the “current” page of the blog is here - the blog had not been updated since January 5, 2008.

Although I am comforted to know that survives somewhere, I decided nonetheless to build my own archive of the posts from it that I would hate to lose. My first candidate was, of course, the post by McArdle entitled “A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other”.

This post can be found at the WayBack Machine here. (I also saved the following post, entitled “A quick extra note on gay marriage”.)

While saving the “really, really, really long post”, I took the opportunity to re-read it. McArdle’s argument is summed up as follows:

My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can't imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant. It imagines, first of all, that your behavior is a guide for the behavior of everyone else in society, when in fact, as you may have noticed, all sorts of different people react to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways, which is why we have to have elections and stuff. And second, the unwavering belief that the only reason that marriage, always and everywhere, is a male-female institution (I exclude rare ritual behaviors), is just some sort of bizarre historical coincidence, and that you know better, needs examining. If you think you know why marriage is male-female, and why that's either outdated because of all the ways in which reproduction has lately changed, or was a bad reason to start with, then you are in a good place to advocate reform. If you think that marriage is just that way because our ancestors were all a bunch of repressed bastards with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots, I'm a little leery of letting you muck around with it.

She concludes with:

In the end, our judgement is all we have; everyone will have to rely on their judgement of whether gay marriage is, on net, a good or a bad idea. All I'm asking for is for people to think more deeply than a quick consultation of their imaginations to make that decision. I realise that this probably falls on the side of supporting the anti-gay-marriage forces, and I'm sorry, but I can't help that. This humility is what I want from liberals when approaching market changes; now I'm asking it from my side too, in approaching social ones. I think the approach is consistent, if not exactly popular.

The first time I read this, I found it the most compelling argument against legalizing same-sex marriage that I had read. I still find it that but it now seems to me that it also contains the seeds of its own refutation. Two of the examples McArdle provides of well-intentioned reforms that did not work out as those who proposed them “logically” believed they would are extending welfare to unwed mothers and loosening divorce laws. The first, McArdle argues, caused marriage rates to collapse. The second:

... made drastic changes to the institution of marriage itself. David Brooks makes an argument I find convincing: that the proliferation of the kind of extravagent weddings that used to only be the province of high society (rented venue, extravagent flowers and food, hundreds of guests, a band with dancing, dresses that cost the same as a good used car) is because the event itself doesn't mean nearly as much as it used to, so we have to turn it into a three-ring circus to feel like we're really doing something.

A couple in 1940 (and even more so in 1910) could go to a minister's parlor, or a justice of the peace, and in five minutes totally change their lives. Unless you are a member of certain highly religious subcultures, this is simply no longer true. That is, of course, partly because of the sexual revolution and the emancipation of women; but it is also because you aren't really making a lifetime committment; you're making a lifetime committment unless you find something better to do.

In other words, marriage in our culture has already been changed beyond all recognition, has been hollowed out. Yes, we (largely) retain the male-female aspect of marriage but we have changed everything else about it. Let’s accept that same-sex marriage quite possibly would, in ways we can’t reliably foresee, harm a society where marriage is flourishing; where the divorce rate is minuscule; and where most children are born in wedlock and grow up with their “original” parents. It is still not clear to me that there is much more damage that can be done by legalizing same-sex marriage in our society.

This is not a new argument, of course. Even David French, who seems to be staunchly against same-sex marriage, has written:

Imagine the incredulity of a Christian college student — themselves too often the product of a broken home, where they had a front-row seat to their parents’ contentious festival of self-love — watching a thrice-married fellow congregant rail against gay marriage. It just doesn’t add up.

Kevin D. Williamson puts the (to him parenthetical) point thus:

It should also be noted that the liberalization of divorce laws and the legalization of abortion together have had an effect on family life that renders same-sex marriage trivial by comparison. The patient has been shot twice through the head, and we are troubling about his swollen appendix.

He concludes with:

I might feel differently about defending the sanctity of marriage under the law if there were much sanctity remaining to defend.

I find myself in agreement with him on that.


Cass said...

Most of "what everyone knows" about divorce is wrong. French cites the myth that no fault is to blame for high divorce rates, but actual data on divorces don't support that idea.

I think most of these folks have the cart before the horse. The reason affluent, upper class couples who marry late marry at rates greater than the general population and divorce at far lower rates is that they're a self-selecting sample of folks who "get" delayed gratification and self discipline.

The sanctity of marriage argument was never a terribly convincing one to me. What *is* convincing to me is the notion that societies are justified in favoring some familial arrangements and disfavoring (or even prohibiting) ones that cause too big a negative ripple effect.

I'm not sure gay marriage actually falls under that second category but saying that marriage equality is some sort of civil right categorically violates the first precept.

Grim said...

I have a post up on this topic, Elise. Your post is cited, and indeed it was reading it that prompted me to write.

Elise said...

Cass, with regard to no-fault divorce, McArdle cites it also. I think I remember you doing a big post on divorce quite a while ago - I'd like to read it again. Is it easy for you to find or should I just go Binging around for it?

I think your argument about societies being justified in favoring some familial arrangements and disfavoring others is the argument Grim is making in the post he references. I'll have to think about his argument and then I'll comment over there.

I don't think marriage equality is a civil right but that does raise some interesting questions: Is the right to marry at all a civil right? There is an Ursula LeGuin story (I believe it is in The Wind's Twelve Quarters but I'm not sure about that) in which marriage has become a crime. It is, essentially, considered to cause "too big a negative ripple effect".

Cass said...

I'll post it - for some odd reason both that post and the one about child support have gone viral in a small way of late. Very weird!