Family Issues

Separating Marriage and State

|

The historian Stephanie Coontz offers a brief but potent description of how and why the state seized control of marital contracts.

Elsewhere in Reason: Julian Sanchez reviews Coontz's most recent book. I observe the ongoing evolution of marriage. And Jonathan Rauch makes the Hayekian case for gay unions.

NEXT: Attn, DC Reasonoids: Happy Hour, Tuesday, November 27, 6.30PM

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Separating Marriage and State

    I heart that title!

  2. So, in the end, it all comes down to money……

    Face it, we will never see the state get out of the marriage biz – too many fees are at stake.

    Around here you have to get a city permit – with attached fee – to hold a frikkin’ garage sale. I doubt that the state will let you shack up without demanding a cut.

  3. no! it’s to protect the sanctity of marriage! ive been married 4 times so i should know how sacred marriages are and there not for two men or two women because thats just wrong and its bad for the children! what next? ill tell you what next their gonna want to marry there dog or something thats what!

  4. By regulating marriage, the government gets to stick its dirty fingers in every aspect of the relationship, from taxation to child custody. Why would it give up that level of control?

  5. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

    Here we go with that whole ‘paycheck for life’ stuff.

  6. The whole article is an unintended reminder that the institution of marriage is based on the fiction that women are helpless beings who need to be taken care of by men, slightly modified for today that some able-bodied people are helpless and need to be taken care of for life by other able monied people of the same sex.

  7. Lets just cut the faux-neutral crap, shall we?

    Meanwhile, many legally married peoplemen are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several householdswomen.

    And no, I do not now support and have never supported more than one woman at a time. Still, we all know the score, no?

  8. My most holy faith would like it if churches get to decide who gets to marry!

    http://www.subgenius.com/bigfist/answers/articles2/X0066_ShorDurMar_Categorie.html

  9. So this whole thing is in place because of racism and the welfare state? You don’t say… [/snark]

  10. Ms. Coontz obviously works hard at research, but not so much at judgement. She gets things wrong on several levels.

    First of all, anyone can live with someone else and tell everyone you’re married. The State involvement is actually a set of benefits and responsibilities that they offer and require if you register with the State. This is coupled with social and cultural benefits.

    Here’s the point that Stephanie Cootz completely ignores: Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves. Now that it’s easier and easier to be unmarried, we actually need *more* State incentives to get married, not fewer.

    Why does she ignore it? Simple– she gives the game away when she takes pains to repeat ‘gay or straight’ every time she talks about marriage. Since the benefits to the State of gay marriage are far less than the benefits to the State for straight marriage, she just drops the issue completely.

    Intellectual Dishonesty at the New York Times. Who woulda thunk?

  11. Here’s the point that Stephanie Cootz completely ignores: Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves. Now that it’s easier and easier to be unmarried, we actually need *more* State incentives to get married, not fewer.

    I didn’t know states were supposed to perpetuate themselves. Here’s a better role: Leave me and my family alone.

  12. Re: Mr Berman

    TYVM, but we don’t have blood for the benefit of the leeches. “Benefit of the state”? Fuck the state.

  13. God said Adam and Eve…not Adam and Steve…

    Oh I’m just a foolish old Troll

  14. Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples – gay or straight – decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.

    So close and yet so far. How about:

    Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples – gay or straight – have no legal protections and obligations.

  15. Here’s the point that Stephanie Cootz completely ignores: Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves. Now that it’s easier and easier to be unmarried, we actually need *more* State incentives to get married, not fewer.

    Yes, we should be coupling happy little family-units, so that we can better serve the state and the nation.

    Honestly, Andrew Berman, fuck you and your fascist idea of how the ideal couple should be, and how the state should reward (with my money, no less) those that fall in line and salute.

  16. If marriages are separated from state, how am I gonna get my green card? And will I get my money back for paying that woman to marry me?

  17. God said Adam and Eve…not Adam and Steve…

    I got so sick of hearing that when TX voted on the constitutional amendment defining marriage. (The amendment unfortunately passed.) Another one that drove me mad was my ex-husband’s “Gay people are free to marry, they just have to pick the opposite sex.”

    That coming from a Jesus freak ex-crackhead who didn’t care enough about his children to buy a school outfit killed me. When the ex finally decided to be a father (the little one was 14), he found kids who wanted nothing to do with him, a court system that said he lacked standing, and no help from Jesus. The “protection” my family recieved from the state cost nearly $20k in legal fees.

  18. “Here’s the point that Stephanie Cootz completely ignores: Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves.”

    I’d like a bit of clarification on this point. How does that work again?

  19. I’d like a bit of clarification on this point. How does that work again?

    The monarchy depends utterly on the legitimacy of heirs and clear inheritance rules.

    Clear enough 😉

  20. God said Adam and Eve…not Adam and Steve…

    I’ve always contended that “GOD” lacked imagination. 😉

  21. God said Adam and Eve…

    Assuming no transciption errors.

  22. The state should be out of the marriage business, but since that will never happen they should only recognize civil unions. Make it a simple contractual arrangement for the sake of inheritance and guardianship. After you’ve filed your paperwork, if you still need the tile of “married” to validate your relationship to the world, you can head down to whatever priest, pastor or witchdoctor that will accept you.

  23. I don’t really understand how the system she is proposing is different from what we have now, except that maybe the relationship the state recognizes would be called something other than marriage. A couple can go to their church and get married without a marriage license. They could then hold themselves out as married if they wished. Of course, they wouldn’t get the legal benefits of marriage.

  24. Another of the problems now is that couples who live together in some States, with no intention of being “married” in any sense, get declaired “married” because some States just say they are married.

    Frequently this is sprung on the unsuspecting partner when the person with less “stuff” wants more “stuff” and a new partner too.

  25. Oh, also this “common law marriage” is sprung on the people who the stuff was supposed to go to by someone the deceased never intended to give anything to any more anyway.

  26. Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves.

    The primary utility of women is to give birth to soldiers.

  27. …they should only recognize civil unions. Make it a simple contractual arrangement for the sake of inheritance and guardianship.

    At risk of sounding like an anti-profit shrill, the real reason why the politicians are preventing gay union is that their corporatist buddies don’t want to pay the benefits.

    Sure, they appeal to voters with screeds of morality and such, but in all reality, it’s just a bunch of bullshit…

  28. Ms. Coontz avoids another salient point about the history of marriage: the arrival of legal sanctioning of marriage in the 16th Century neatly coincides with the decline in secular power of the Catholic Church. Prior to that time a church-sanctioned marriage effectively *was* a state-sanctioned marriage.

    That said, she does raise good points about how marriage is now almost analogous to a Social Security card.

    I believe the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, but I’m not naive enough to think that such a thing could be done painlessly or without consequences. It’s a pretty entrenched part of our society.

  29. At risk of sounding like an anti-profit shrill, the real reason why the politicians are preventing gay union is that their corporatist buddies don’t want to pay the benefits.

    Actually, you may be appearing shrill because of some missing facts.

    Over the past 5 years I have seen benefits packages from numerous firms in the Northern VA area who allow an employee to insure 1 adult reguardless of marriage status and their under-certain-ages dependants. All were primarily in the Defense business.

    If anything, the legislature is trying to thwart firms attempts to hire the best people, with innovative benefits packages, with attempts at laws preventing this practice, like VA tried to do within the past 2 years.

  30. ack, super crappy spelling day for me, apologies

  31. are preventing gay union is that their corporatist buddies don’t want to pay the benefits.

    There is a bit of truth to that but it only would be true if one partner was the stay-at home-spouse.

  32. Jesse, great stuff. We all knew this and I used to argue it with my mother, who wasn’t having any of it. 🙂

    First time I’ve really ever seen anyone talk about it.

  33. ….we actually need *more* State incentives to get married, not fewer.

    Good, let’s start with the marriage tax that penalizes high earning, two earner households. Then we’ll move on from there.

    Now, I’m off to the big city, sorry I can’t bitch and moan and gripe more.

  34. Ah, but carrick, old chap, that isn’t true; monarchies with clear succession rules are the exception. Imperial Rome is one of the worst cases, with a legal fiction carried over from the death of the Republic masquerading for a thousand years as a law of succession (just inexcusable sloppiness for a nation of lawyers.)

    One might even claim, with considerable exaggeration of course, that human history is the history of succession crises. (Still true today – what’s a presidential election but a bloodless civil war for control of the crown?)

  35. “Here’s the point that Stephanie Cootz completely ignores: Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves.”

    Really? Look at the size and relative wealth of the United States now compared to when it adhered to a more traditional definition of family structure. Thus, ergo, therefore and hence, traditional marriage is a palsy on successful society.

  36. I mean, as long as we’re making broad, unsupported statements, I mean.

  37. I believe the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, but I’m not naive enough to think that such a thing could be done painlessly or without consequences.

    The state will continue to be in the marriage business because it’s the state that must enforce contracts. Someone has to decide who gets what when a couple splits or someone dies. I think what Coontz is suggesting is that the marriage contract should be treated like any other, i.e. any competent person can voluntarily enter into any arrangement that is not specifically illegal. And nothing should be illegal that doesn’t violate someone else’s rights.

    Legally, we’re moving in that direction, i.e. “married with prenuptial agreement.” We just need to break Berman’s “State” of setting nanny rules banning activities on moral grounds.

    Since the benefits to the State of gay marriage are far less than the benefits to the State for straight marriage, she just drops the issue completely.

    The state (no, I’m not going to capitalize it) isn’t making a choice between gay and straight marriage. Straight marriages will still happen among straight people and provide the same societal benefits.

    The true choice is between allowing gay couples to easily form legally stable relationships or prohibiting such relationships. Legally sanctioned stable relationships benefit the social order whether they are straight or gay.

    Now that it’s easier and easier to be unmarried, we actually need *more* State incentives to get married, not fewer.

    I sort of agree. On one hand, “I’m getting married. Aren’t inheritance laws wonderful!” doesn’t portend a happy ending. On the other hand, I know many couples who would like to get married, only they can’t afford to because the state will screw them out of benefits. As usual, government is the problem, not the solution.

    At risk of sounding like an anti-profit shrill, the real reason why the politicians are preventing gay union is that their corporatist buddies don’t want to pay the benefits.

    Really? Then why, when corporations decide it’s good business to pay benefits (offer health insurance, etc. to gay partners) do the politicians try to prohibit such, despite the fact that people without medical insurance are a major political issue?

  38. “””God said Adam and Eve…not Adam and Steve…”””

    He also didn’t say Madam and Eve. 🙂

    The whole Adam and Eve story bugs me anyway. It says we are all products of incest. With whom did Able and Cain have kids? Their mom was the only woman, so the story goes.

  39. “””God said Adam and Eve…not Adam and Steve…”””

    Look everybody God doesn’t like GAYS

    However, God’s spokespeople (Priest that jerk off with lil boys, Larry Craig, and other closet case republicans) don’t agree with GOD.

  40. Republicans are ALWAYS ANTI-GAY

    At least until they are caught in a public mens room playing Beef Jerkie and enjoying a Bukkaki Mushroom

  41. …while slurp’n on hot fudge on Sunday…

  42. The whole Adam and Eve story bugs me anyway. It says we are all products of incest.

    We ARE all products of incest. The math –

    32 generations X 25 years per generation = 850 years. Since the number of ancestors doubles with every generation (2 to the 32nd power) gives us 4,294,967,296 ancestors 800 years ago. Obviously there weren’t 4.3 billion people 800 years ago. The only way these numbers can be reconciled is incest.

    If you’re ancestry is 100% of any ethnic group, those incest numbers pop up much quicker.

  43. Oops!

    Make that 32 generations X 25 years per generation = 850 800 years.

  44. The whole Adam and Eve story bugs me anyway. It says we are all products of incest.

    We ARE

    GOD Created Adam and Eve in his own image.

    After they had kids…and their kids had kids…They came out retarded

    Basically, we are a super retarded ancestor of GOD

    I don’t know why people have a problem comprehending this.

  45. If you’re ancestry is 100% of any ethnic group, those incest numbers pop up much quicker.

    Even quicker if your entire ancestor base was living in south-central KY for the last 200+ years.

  46. Even quicker if your entire ancestor base was living in south-central KY for the last 200+ years.

    Or Brooklyn or da Bronx

  47. The author wants unmarried people to get Social Security for a deceased romantic partner, and have a government-guaranteed family leave from work whether the employer likes it or not. At present, these legal privileges are only available to married people – the author wants to *expand* these benefits.

    Pure libertarians, of course, want *nobody* to get these benefits – they would be satisfied with policies under which no-one gets Social Security or government-guaranteed family leave. Do you think the author would really support such a policy? She seems quite clear that her goal is to give unmarried persons the same government benefits as married people, while keeping these benefits at the same level as they already are for married people.

  48. Pure libertarians, of course, want *nobody* to get these benefits

    No, the idea is that nobody be forced to give these benefits unwillingly.

  49. Guy,

    The point is that S. Coontz wishes to expand government benefits – the type of benefits that involve *forcing* taxpayers and employers to give certain things to the beneficiaries.

    Is there any doubt that the enactment of Coontz’s proposed policies would in fact have this effect?

    It’s one thing to talk about what a future Libertarian Republic of the United States would look like – and to talk about how the government would not distinguish between married and unmarried people.

    Meanwhile, in the actually-existing United States, people like Coontz want to expand government benefits (the involuntarily-provided kind), so that benefits formerly given to married couples will be given to all couples involved in cohabiting, romantic/sexual relationships. (And why not stop at couple? Why not triples and quadruples?)

    It’s about making big government bigger.

  50. MM,

    I got all of that just fine and, as you may notice if you scroll up, I made no objection to it.

    I was pointing out a false statement of yours. Or was I missing where you were quoting someone else?

  51. Guy, you’re better than this.

    You know what I meant by “these benefits.”

    In fact, I spelled it out specifically.

    My reference to “these benefits” involved (a) certain Social Security payments (did you think Social Security was a voluntary program?), and (b) mandated family leave against the wishes of the employer.

    Not even Bill Clinton could twist my words into meaning *voluntary* benefits. Let’s look again at what I said:

    “The author wants unmarried people to get Social Security for a deceased romantic partner, and have a government-guaranteed family leave from work whether the employer likes it or not. At present, these legal privileges are only available to married people – the author wants to *expand* these benefits.

    “Pure libertarians, of course, want *nobody* to get these benefits,” etc.

  52. The point is that S. Coontz wishes to expand government benefits – the type of benefits that involve *forcing* taxpayers and employers to give certain things to the beneficiaries.

    Yet if the government’s going to be giving out benefits anyway, I’d rather see the benefits be distributed equally. For example: I oppose the idea of subsidized housing. But if we’re going to have it, I think anyone who meets the income/poverty/whatever criteria should get it, rather than excluding blacks or gays or any other minority group.

  53. Or Brooklyn or da Bronx

    yeah, but those locations dont apply to me.

  54. What would Coontz’s ideas mean in practice? What about enforcement? How would the government weed out fraud?

    Think that’s a quibble? Look at what Coontz is suggesting:

    “Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect *interpersonal relationships* is increasingly impractical. . . .

    “A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner’s wrongful death. But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments.”

    So it seems that the government should protect at least some “interpersonal relationships.” The examples Coontz gives indicate that she’s thinking of romantic relationships. But she leaves plenty of flexibility. To the average employer, of course, it matters a great deal how broadly the government defines “interpersonal relationships.”

    Let’s say that, pursuant to the Coontz Amendment to the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers must grant leave to employees to care for people with whom they are in an “interpersonal relationship.”

    Imagine that an employer hires someone he assumes to be a single college student. Then, at the busiest time of year, the student asks for time off.

    STUDENT: I have to take a couple days off to see my roommate in the hospital.

    EMPLOYER: Well, I consulted a lawyer, and I don’t think the law recognizes college roommates as being in an “interpersonal relationship.” That’s not within the intent of the statute.

    STUDENT: Uh, did I mention that my roommate is also my boyfriend? So there’s my interpersonal relationship.

    EMPLOYER: But you’re a straight man. I see you with that heterosexual porn at your desk all the time.

    STUDENT: Uh, I’m a *closeted* straight man. I haven’t worked up the nerve to tell my boyfriend yet.

    EMPLOYER: How do I know your roommate is really your boyfriend? Do you have a same-sex marriage license, or some kind of domestic partnership certificate?

    STUDENT: I don’t believe in pieces of paper, you homophobe! The Coontz Amendment says I don’t have to produce any marriage license or anything like.

    EMPLOYER: Do you have witnesses who saw you being intimate or affectionate with each other?

    STUDENT: God, no! We’re very private people.

    EMPLOYER: Then I don’t believe your story and I’m not giving you leave.

    STUDENT: See you in court!

    Then the employer has to face lawsuits and/or administrative proceedings in which the student’s relationship status is adjudicated. If the employer guessed wrong about the law or the facts, he may be forced to pay heavy damages.

    Or do you have some other idea on how to administer the Coontz Amendment to the Family and Medical Leave Act?

    What about Social Security?

  55. I’m glad to see more libertarians recognizing that separation of marriage & government is just a glib slogan.

    The state will continue to be in the marriage business because it’s the state that must enforce contracts. Someone has to decide who gets what when a couple splits or someone dies.

    More importantly, someone has to adjudicate 3rd party benefits accruing to spouses of a 2nd party — insurance, employment arrangements, etc. When they say a spouse gets benefits, someone has to determine who’s a spouse in case of a dispute.

    Now, none of this means the state has to license or regulate marriages, only establish the fact of them. And the best way to do that is to use the customary meanings of words as used in legal documents.

    BTW, Coontz missed entirely the impetus for state marriage in Britain in the 19th Century, which was to prevent clandestine marriages, which in turn would prevent cases where one would defraud another by marrying and claiming to have been unmarried. The state’s involvement was not to license, but to witness the marriage. The idea is that a marriage be a public record, which makes it possible to determine whether any person is married and to whom.

    So if government and state can be separated (and I think they can be), you can have marriage without state involvement, but not without government.

  56. “Marriage and Family is how successful States perpetuate themselves.”

    That should have read “successful societies”. Every successful society has had some method of promoting stable, long term partnerships between men and women who are going to be raising children. That’s why divorce was historically very difficult (or impossible) to get in many cultures around the world that had never even heard of fundamentalist Jesus freaks, including those that didn’t have strong central governments. Cultural pressures can work very well.

    And no, that doesn’t mean women are cattle whose job is to pump out soldiers. It means that the parents work to provide and care for the children, teach them right from wrong, and prepare them to be self reliant and constructive members of society.

    “To the institution of marriage the true origin of society must be traced” – James Wilson
    “The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families” – John Adams

  57. How many here want to go back to cohabitation as proof of a common law marriage?

  58. Cohabitation seems to be necessary to establish the fact of marriage, at least according to INS. However, it was never sufficient; there also had to be the factor of exhibiting themselves as married, which of course includes a desire to be considered married. There seems to be this idea about that one could be married involuntarily by common law, but has there ever actually been an unequivocal case of that?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.