I have always loved The Economist. So thoughtful, so sober, yet displaying cheeky British wit in its wry captions. I stop short of subscribing to it–I did once, and found there was so much to worry about beyond the things I already knew enough to worry about; and it takes ages to get through a single issue.
But this week’s ringing endorsement of full marriage rights for gays and lesbians is a great read, in the classic Economist editorial voice. The best part:
The case for allowing gays to marry begins with equality, pure and simple. Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else? Not just because they have always lacked that right in the past, for sure: until the late 1960s, in some American states it was illegal for black adults to marry white ones, but precious few would defend that ban now on grounds that it was “traditional”. Another argument is rooted in semantics: marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and so cannot be extended to same-sex couples. They may live together and love one another, but cannot, on this argument, be “married”. But that is to dodge the real question–”why not?”–and to obscure the real nature of marriage, which is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another. If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?
The reason, according to Mr Bush, is that this would damage an important social institution. Yet the reverse is surely true. Gays want to marry precisely because they see marriage as important: they want the symbolism that marriage brings, the extra sense of obligation and commitment, as well as the social recognition. Allowing gays to marry would, if anything, add to social stability, for it would increase the number of couples that take on real, rather than simply passing, commitments. The weakening of marriage has been heterosexuals’ doing, not gays’, for it is their infidelity, divorce rates and single-parent families that have wrought social damage.
The article ends with the best argument against second-class “civil unions” I’ve yet read:
The importance of marriage for society’s general health and stability also explains why the commonly mooted alternative to gay marriage—a so-called civil union—is not enough. Vermont has created this notion, of a legally registered contract between a couple that cannot, however, be called a “marriage”. Some European countries, by legislating for equal legal rights for gay partnerships, have moved in the same direction (Britain is contemplating just such a move, and even the opposition Conservative leader, Michael Howard, says he would support it). Some gays think it would be better to limit their ambitions to that, rather than seeking full social equality, for fear of provoking a backlash—of the sort perhaps epitomised by Mr Bush this week.
Yet that would be both wrong in principle and damaging for society. Marriage, as it is commonly viewed in society, is more than just a legal contract. Moreover, to establish something short of real marriage for some adults would tend to undermine the notion for all. Why shouldn’t everyone, in time, downgrade to civil unions? Now that really would threaten a fundamental institution of civilisation.
You know, this makes me think about why Canada–which has a society so solid as to be boring–was willing to go full-throttle for “marriage.” I think our friends to the north realized exactly this point–that any increase in full-fledged matrimony is a public good.
There is just something about the prose style that makes any alternative seem foolish. I probably have my mind changed on complex issues by The Economist more often than any publication, even though I read it just five or six times a year. If you know anyone who strongly opposes gay marriage, this is probably the best-reasoned (and best-written) article to share with them.
David, maybe we should subscribe. If we do, remind me why the value of reading it outweighs my inevitable loss of sleep over the looming debt crisis in Kazakhstan, which of course I would never have known about otherwise.