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February 21, 2005

From Character to Culture

In response to my disagreement, Ramesh Ponnuru has elaborated on his suggestion that, if "it really is the case that 'matters of character' are 'matters that should precede governmental authority,' as Coleman concludes, then I think his separationist conclusion [about marriage and state] certainly follows." Inasmuch as Ponnuru's point is that pure libertarianism doesn't allow "much of a defense of marriage laws," I suppose I've no choice but to agree. One might as well attempt to dispute that socialism doesn't allow much of a defense of inheritance laws. But as with socialism, libertarianism is a flawed, weak, ultimately dangerous approach to government when implemented as a political philosophy rather than a general principle for assigning preference.

The question, as I addressed it, is whether the degree of libertarianism that can claim the broad appeal that Ponnuru appears to be assuming requires government's lack of authority over "matters of personal character" to translate into a separation of marriage and state. On a more theoretical level, the question can be taken to be whether that degree of libertarianism is justifiable (or sane).

I may very well be missing a step in his thinking, but it seems to me that Ponnuru is conflating concepts that are actually distinct. If we reject "the idea that the promotion of morality is a legitimate aim of the government," does that mean we "can't count in cultural effects that occur through subtle influences on people's behavior and beliefs"? I don't believe so. What's more, I don't think many people do, and I don't think this represents a emotion-driven inconsistency on our part.

The idea that Americans generally reject is that it is a legitimate aim of the government to promote morality per se. It is difficult to imagine what the proof might look like, but arguendo, if it could be proven that every act of fornication brought our civilization closer to doom and ruination, then few would be the purists to declare the SCOTUSian right to privacy inviolable.

This is why we spend so much time arguing over whether same-sex marriage will have deleterious effects. Many supporters of same-sex marriage may see it as such a basic right that damage to society is irrelevant, but even they surely understand that their cause is dead if they ever reach the point of having to argue as much. Ponnuru refers to the principle that "everyone has the liberty to swing his fist until it hits someone else's nose," and I will concede that this understanding of government's purview is broadly held. That does not mean, however, that "subtle influences on people's behavior and beliefs" are outside of the state's authority. Rather, it means that the "cultural effects" must be persuasively arguable as wounds.

Unless Ponnuru's conclusion, as follows, is intended to illustrate the shortcomings of libertarianism, then it falls to a subtle, but decisive, distinction intellectually and as a matter of what America's citizens actually believe:

If you don't see a legitimate role for government in promoting morality at all... then you would support same-sex marriage only as a move toward a contractarian policy. Ultimately, I think, you would have to say that marriage is none of the government's business.

In the paragraph previous to this one, Ponnuru suggests that "liberty and social welfare" are truly what "marriage laws promote." Taking that as true, it doesn't matter that those ends are accomplished "precisely by encouraging moral behavior." The question is whether those ends are accomplished "precisely by encouraging moral behavior."

Posted by Justin Katz at February 21, 2005 9:23 AM
Marriage & Family
Comments

I beleive if we are goingto see restoration of the father back into the family it is going to take a gathering of the church and they must begin to cry out for what the enemie has stolen. for there is a generation out there asking a question and that is who am ? and that has been given to the man for he is the adam like in creation that names and what ever it is God said it is so. God says to the man like he did in the beginning adam where art thou.

Posted by: debois gooden at February 28, 2005 1:36 PM