Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

End Marriage Privileging. Or Give It To Everyone
This is an idea I've had for years -- that it's wrong, simply by virtue of being married, to give certain people specials rights and privileges, and that everyone should be allowed to have one "point person" who gets the rights and privileges a married person now gets to give to their spouse. Dalton Conley, chairman of New York University’s sociology department, has beat me to writing about it, in Sunday's New York Times:

...Rather than argue about whether gay or lesbian couples should be allowed to tie the knot, or be granted any marital rights at all, perhaps it is time to do an end run around the culture wars by unbundling the marriage contract into its constituent parts. Then, applying free-market principles, we could allow each citizen to assign the various rights and responsibilities now connected to marriage as he or she sees fit.

In addition to employer benefits, some of the key marital rights include the ability to pass property and income back and forth tax-free, spousal privilege (that is, the right not to testify against one’s husband or wife), medical decision-making power and the right to confer permanent residency to a foreigner, just to name a few.

...Is that really fair to the gay man who falls in love with a foreigner he can’t sponsor? For that matter, is it fair to the many Americans who can’t sponsor aging grandparents or, in some cases, even parents? Or even to straight Americans who are happy marrying their own kind, but don’t want to see the country fill up with my romantic baggage?

Why not instead give all Americans the right to sponsor one person in their lifetime — a right that they could sell, if they so desire? This would mean that if I wanted to marry a Kenyan after divorcing an Australian, I could, but I would need to purchase — perhaps on e-Bay — the right to confer citizenship from someone else who didn’t need it.

Likewise, why not let all Americans name one person (other than their lawyer, priest or therapist) who can’t be forced to testify against them in court? This zone of privacy could be transferred over the course of a lifetime, perhaps limiting such changes to once in each five-year period.

While we are at it, how about allowing each of us to choose someone with whom our property is shared, with all the tax (and liability) implications that choice would imply? We might even allow parenthood to become contractual, by letting people name the people they want to be stepparents to their biological children.

We could go down the list of rights and responsibilities embedded in the marriage contract. Ideally, most people would choose one person in whom to vest all the rights, but everyone would have the freedom to decide how to configure his domestic, business, legal and intimate relationships in the eyes of the law.

Furthermore, let's rightly separate the religious institution of marriage from the secular state, like Kinsley writes in The Washington Post:

...The solution is to end the institution of government-sanctioned marriage. Or, framed to appeal to conservatives: End the government monopoly on marriage. Wait, I've got it: Privatize marriage. These slogans all mean the same thing. Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let 'em. If you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care?

Posted by aalkon at May 20, 2007 12:35 PM


I've heard the arguments that the state should get out of the marriage market completely, but it's never been presented as thoughtfully as this article.

Affording the same basic rights to everyone that marriage has. It's an excellent idea, and it doesn't discriminate. This way, the modern-day Pharisees (members of a Jewish sect in the time of Christ noted for censurious, self-righteous and judgmental attitudes) can piously chirp that "those two faggots down the street" aren't married in the eyes of God, and the "faggots" can cry over their condemnation all the while enjoying the same privileges as a married couple.

Posted by: Patrick at May 20, 2007 4:27 AM

Are people holding their breath about this?

Y'know, the United States government has a better set of charter documents than any institution in history. But with the passage of time, its citizens seem more and more inclined to view their relationship to it as a teenager does his parents in the first (or third or fifth) summer after high school graduation... "You're not the boss of me, man! You can't tell me what to do! (But if you could cut just one more check for tuition, that'd be great, Dad...."

Dalton writes provocatively, but there's something Soviet about the notion that government gives just one serving of this or that legal right (immigrant sponsorship, testimonial immunity), as if those rights were blocks of surplus cheese. And this passage is as bloodless and insane as anything that ever came from the Kremlin:

> We might even allow parenthood
> to become contractual, by
> letting people name the people
> they want to be stepparents
> to their biological children.

My favorite word there is "allow", as if the legal proceduralism of our times is a creeping cancer that'll naturally seize every tissue, so long as we don't poison it with the chemo of our own horse sense. Meanwhile, let's pass kids around like trading cards, OK?

And I had to browser-search the word "children" to find that, because both these writers seem to focus on adult fascinations... It's sort of presumed that that adults know what's best for children. But saying it like that implies that you can sample any set of grownups, tally their impulsive responses to a questionnaire outside the Wal-Mart, and learn what we need to do. But it's not adults who know what's best, it's adulthood that knows what's best, and we have many generations of it working for us, whether or not Kinsley cares to acknowledge it. He is --afaik-- childless. As am I! Good to know, right?

Patrick says "rights," Amy says "privileges," and Amy's correct. One principle that undergirds marriage (or at least used to) was that people who are sheltering and nurturing our new citizens deserve a little extra juice. And when kids belong in homes from marriages, that juice is easier to serve. Much as I hate kids (which is a lot), I can't resist believing in that principle, so I don't squawk too much about paying for high schools that I can't send any children to. Eventually a responsible citizen has to consider events beyond each horizon and quit fussing about his or her own campsite.

This would have been a much better comment after coffee.

Posted by: Crid at May 20, 2007 9:47 AM

Excellent post Amy. It seems to me that this is a good and obvious example where Libertarians have a simple, fair and cheap solution to something that is complex, contentious and expensive right now. I find it a bit depressing that most people to whom I've mentioned it think that it is crazy, but don't seem to have any actual sane argument against it.

Of course removing some of other arbitrary associations of priveleges with other institutions would make some of this a moot point. For example removing the association of health insurance with employment and making it something that people purchase as an individual choice would eliminate the public policy arguments about whether same sex partners should be eligible for benefits.

Crid, it's not just the citizens who seem to be trying to make the citizen-government relationship into something surrogate familial. When I hear politicians speak, I frequently have a more than fleeting feeling that they want to be my Big Brother.

Posted by: Shawn at May 20, 2007 12:18 PM

> some of other

some other


Posted by: Shawn at May 20, 2007 12:22 PM

Because the concept isn't about YOU. That's what's missing here. It's not about you. It's about a claim that society made that the best way to raise children so that the society doesn't have to directly pay for them and handle their welfare is to have them raised by a stable couple of one man and one woman who are their parents.

That's why privatization doesn't work. The issue is that society does, in fact, have an interest in saying what accommodations and arrangements are best for the health of a society's future generations. They picked marriage of one man and one woman because it works better than the rest of the options. As such, the society needs to create a privileged status for that arrangement, one that biases people toward that arrangement instead of others.

Details about picking who can't testify against you are common law issues related to the strengthening of an institution that's best for society, not that's best for you.

Now how does a society privilege an institution? Socially, they do so with social norms, and legally they do it with laws from the government. As society has moved farther and farther from view, and been replaced more and more by government, then the government has more responsibility for defining the privileged institution.

You may think that a society that picks a one-man-one-woman marriage as preferred for its benefit is wrong, limited, narrow-minded, whatever. But stop thinking it's about the couples or individuals. It isn't. It's about what's best for the collective, and how to insulate the collective from the various whims of individuals.

Posted by: Allison at May 20, 2007 9:38 PM

They picked marriage of one man and one woman because it works better than the rest of the options.

Nobody "picked" anything. That's religion at work, and all its homophobia, too, I might add.

Look at the family in Florida that went through the battle to keep their kids. Two gay men who had a family kids from straight families would petition to join, yet when they took such good care of the children that the kids diseases went into remission, the family was in danger of being broken up.

And then there's this:

But, said Dr. Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University, "there is not a single legitimate scholar out there who argues that growing up with gay parents is somehow bad for children."

Dr. Stacey, who published a critical review of studies on the subject in 2001 and has argued in favor of allowing adoption by gays, added, "The debate among scientists is all about how good the studies we have really are."

Since 1980, researchers have published about 25 studies comparing children from same-sex households with peers in traditional families, using measures of social adjustment, school performance, mental health and emotional resilience. Some of the studies have focused on elementary-school children, others on those not quite teenagers, a few on adolescents; a handful have followed children for years. Uniformly, the authors have reported that there are no significant developmental differences between the two groups of children.

And marriage privileging exists whether or not their are kids, and the privileges are absent for gay parents no matter how many kids they have, so that pile of shit you're shoveling just isn't getting bought.

Communism is about how to insulate the collective from the various "whims" of individuals. Furthermore, maybe it's for the good of society to knock off old people instead of keeping them on respirators and paying for them. We don't do that, do we? You don't get to deny some people rights because it's a little better for some other people.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 20, 2007 11:00 PM

I think it would be better for society if the government fund schools to he max and made certian that every child got th best education possible. That way most peoplewould get high paying jobs and buy lots of usless crap to fuel our consumer economy.

They dont do that though do they? There are lots of thing that would be great for society, killing child molesters, sterelizing individuals with debilitating illneses that weaken the human gene pool, and preventing uneducate irresponible people from having more children than they can care for.

Yet somehow these things dont get done. A little secret Allison, the governmnet is not interested in what is best for the collective - it is run by INDIVIDUALS and interests that are only interested in maintaining their monopoly on power.

Do you know why this issue and abortion are so prevelent in polotics? It is because they make great campain contribution fodder - and nobody gives more than the religious right because they prefer to do as their told instead of using the brain their "creator" gave them.

If there is a god I think he would be dissapointed with religion and with the waste people make of their lives.

Posted by: lujlp at May 20, 2007 11:01 PM

Actually, lujlp, throwing money at schools doesn't seem to improve education. But, I'm with you in spirit. If it's about the children, we'd be throwing money and rights at people with children, not people who are married who may or may not have spawned.

Allison's just looking for a way to keep religion going -- and funded by society -- without calling it what it is.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 20, 2007 11:11 PM

> That's religion at work, and
> all its homophobia, too, I
> might add.

Oh Amy, PUH-LEEZE... Anyone who's as fascinated with pop psychology as you are should know better than to toss words like "homophobia" around.

Also, Allison's right.

Posted by: Crid at May 20, 2007 11:25 PM

Then why isn't Allison arguing for funding of children, not of parents? Furthermore, how does it help children if a gay guy isn't allowed to visit his partner in the hospital because he isn't married, and can't be, thanks to our gay-scared society?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 20, 2007 11:34 PM

That help you on the "homophobia" thing?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 20, 2007 11:37 PM

This is a politically incorrect comment...

Before debating this, one ought to first remember just why married couples were originally given these privileges. One may agree with the reason or not, but one should at least be aware of it.

Any society has a long-term interest in seeing its productive members reproduce. These children are the future of the society. Subsidizing children of the most productive members is a society's investment in its own future. In the case of western nations, this means specifically encouraging children from the middle and upper-middle class.

Society gains no benefit from granting benefits to pairings of people who are unlikely to have children (e.g., homosexuals). Nor does it gain anything by subsidizing children of non-productive people (those on long-term welfare, in prison, etc.). In fact, any child-related benefits for these groups should, objectively, be eliminated.

One may choose to "be nice" and extend such benefits to other pairings. But one should consider the repercussions: precisely what is one subsidizing with tax dollars, and what benefit will society receive for this subsidy?

Posted by: bradley13 at May 21, 2007 6:02 AM

But, if this is about children, why not correct it and give out subsidies to people who have children, married or not? Homosexuals have children. I'm heterosexual and I don't. But, heterosexual people take care of their partners, which means the state is free of the burden, yet those people are not eligible under the Family And Medical Leave Act because they are not married to the people they are taking care of. That benefits the state, but yet, no help for the unmarried partners -- some of whom are not even allowed by law to be married.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 21, 2007 6:09 AM

I've been saying the same thing for a long time. I believe in a libertarian view of marriage.

Of course, in an ideal Libertarian world, we'd have a flat tax and there would be no need to have a point person on your income tax form.

Posted by: Jason at May 21, 2007 8:16 AM


Your point of view may be politically incorrect, but it doesn't have any relevance in a modern world.

Individuals can have children without a significant other on multiple levels. I will use myself as one example. Personally, I could have a child without a wife or girlfriend. My income level affords that I can purchase an unused egg. Pay for a surrogate mother. Viola, nine months later my own child. Also, I could have a live in girlfriend or wife and she would have no legal authority over the child. So if there was a future break up or divorce... the partner would have no legal authority over my child. No custody issues.

Of course this is all a hypothetical, because I do not believe in marriage or having children. But there are plenty of individuals (regardless of gender or sexual orientation) that are willing to exercise those options without government interference.

Posted by: Joe at May 21, 2007 9:13 AM

Right, Joe. If you want to have children, you should pay the costs. People benefit from the fact that I'm an advice columnist, but I'm not demanding subsidies.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 21, 2007 9:38 AM

Errors accumulate from the title of the post:

> End Marriage Privileging.
> Or Give It To Everyone

As if those two aren't precisely the same thing. There's this fantasy, usually held by soft-hearted types, that if only some oppressive power (government! teacher! Dad!) could get the policy in order, then by golly everyone could be special! (If you meant it ironically, it didn't fly.)

> Nobody "picked" anything.

Again, the fantasy that everything is happening this way because an old white guy was trying to pull a fast one.

> why isn't Allison arguing
> for funding of children,
> not of parents?

She's not arguing for flat "funding" of anything. (And yet again, a presumption that if we get our policy in order, everyone gets an extra slice of cake but no one has to do any baking.)

She's saying that households with loving mothers and fathers are likely to do what's best for us all. I don't understand people who want to contest this.

> a gay guy isn't allowed
> to visit his partner
> in the hospital

I just don't care about this, never have, never met anyone who did, and never met anyone who had a problem like that. There's probably some shitty neighborhood in some wretched town where it happens, but it's not a broad problem, and you wouldn't be so fascinated with the anecdotal terror if it didn't authorize a condescending fantasy about your superior relationship "our gay-scared society." You simplify for your own aggrandizement, do so with jargon, and it costs you points.

There's a reason that there's a picture of a squashed bug on the top of your blog, and why there's a big handsome man who's going to clean it up for you. Civilization knows that the most powerful distinction in human character is between men's and women's nature, and has determined that seeing the resolution of that distinction in daily life is what's best for children.

You can argue the point if you want. Good luck.

Posted by: Crid at May 21, 2007 1:15 PM

I'm with you - Crid - about the confusion at the heart of this.

Personally, I think it's little more than dog in the mangerism giving the smugly childless their energy - and their convoluted theoreticals.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at May 21, 2007 1:58 PM

"Civilization knows that the most powerful distinction in human character is between men's and women's nature, and has determined that seeing the resolution of that distinction in daily life is what's best for children."

Crid, although I agree with out about the importance of witnessing the resolution of the distinction, I think the distinctions are not sex specific.

My partner and I wrestle with resolving such distinctions. I am the Oscar to her Felix. She does the grilling and changes the oil, but I carry out the scary bugs when she starts screaming. She wants to talk about how she feels until I want to poke my eyes out. The character traits don't divide clear down the stereotypcial gender divide, but each opposite is present. We see similar distinctions among our other coupled friends, regardless of whether they're same- or different-sexed couples.

Posted by: Michelle at May 21, 2007 7:43 PM

Something that suprised me when I helped an adoption agency was that a number of women expressed desire for same sex couple adoption (this was due to them experiencing prior sexual abuse). That being said....this society isnt full of homophobes because it doesnt want to grant gay marriage. I think most people are against gay marriage because they find homosexuality to be an enigma they can not relate to.

Posted by: PurplePen at May 21, 2007 8:44 PM

I think men and women are just not the same, which is why so many of us have a preference.

Posted by: Crid at May 21, 2007 9:02 PM

Once upon a time, community customs determined what was and wasn't a marriage. Somewhere along the way, the State got involved, for good or ill, who cares anymore.

New century, time maybe for new forms. Get the government totally out of state-sanctioned marriage. Go back to letting we the people in our communities decide. We know what marriage is. It's when two or more of us in our community fall in love and publicly commit to each other in front of us all.

Separately, rework the laws to recognize households. People are free to set up any household they choose. The law will recognize some (e.g. single couple, nuclear and extended family), may not recognize others, and perhaps declare a few illegal. A household is formed anytime there's a oral or written agreement among the members to share property, benefits, risks, and work (e.g. childraising).

An unrecognized household means the people can not agree through their legislators about how to secure the rights of these householders, and so leave the matter for another day. For example, in a polygamy situation, must local employers, and if so how, provide family benefits to all children and wives of an employed father.

It's not unfair, it's just that the people cannot agree what to do. But the people are also unwilling to deny you your liberty. And so if you enter into an unrecognized household, you're going to have to accept the fact that your rights are not going to be secure. You householders are going to have to look to yourselves and your private arrangements with your community and employers to secure your living.

OK, so we have fifty States. Some States will recognize households that others won't. Sounds good to me. Only time will tell what households work, and which ones cause trouble and tragedy.

Well, that's what we want now. Throw out the age-old custom (wisdom?) of only hetero-based nuclear and extended families, and let's experiment with our children for a while, so that we can maximize our liberty and pursuit of happiness, see what works. The future won't wait, so we better get busy inventing it.

Posted by: John A. Fleming at May 22, 2007 12:34 AM

Leave a comment