New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece this Monday, suggesting that the current push for gay marriage represents a group of Americans committing themselves to a freedom-restricting institution: marriage. Brooks sees this phenomenon in a positive light, arguing that “same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.”
Marriage is frequently a wonderful institution. But if gay marriages end with the outcomes that many heterosexual marriages do, they will not have nearly as strong a stabilizing effect on society as we might hope. Divorce rates are high and infidelity has come to elicit ever-dwindling moral opprobrium. We should take bold action to inject marriage with renewed meaning — and we can start by criminalizing adultery.
The state gives couples certain benefits after they marry, including tax and insurance perks and rights such as hospital visitation. There is a reason these couples receive special treatment from the state: Marriages often create stable, productive and supportive relationships that benefit both partners and society at large. Pooled income acts as insurance against risks such as job loss and illness, and emotional support is important for mental health. Couples, including same-sex couples, are better-equipped to devote more total time and energy to raising children, the lifeblood of future society, than single parents.
Gay people have had great success in advancing their cause when they point out how unfair it is that they are denied some of these state-granted benefits. If gay marriage creates stable, productive and supportive relationships like heterosexual marriages do, then logically, a married same-sex couple should also receive that kind of special treatment from the state. In both cases, the couples are providing a good to the state, and the state is providing them with some benefit in return. In effect, a contractual obligation between the couple and the state has been forged.
When parties to a marriage violate their contractual obligations to the state, on the other hand, the state has the obligation to punish them to deter others. Divorce is permitted because the state recognizes that sometimes couples are actually incompatible; though they entered the marriage in good faith, they just couldn’t make it work. But when someone enters a sham marriage to gain immigration rights or military survivor’s benefits, the state rightfully prosecutes him for knowingly accepting the perks of marriage without keeping his end of the bargain. A similar principle holds true for businesses that misrepresent themselves as non-profits — why should an organization reap a reward without providing society a service?
So it is with adultery, which constitutes deliberate deception of (and results in non-trivial harms to) both the spouse and society. The emotional costs for the spouse who was cheated on are substantial, and he or she will never be able to regain their lost years. Contentious, bitter divorces are terrible drains on the emotional health of children. These things are not as obviously harmful as violent crimes, but they are still quietly devastating. The state should not forgo tax revenues and grant special privileges only to see its investment squandered: It must defend it robustly, for its own sake and for the sake of the people who are hurt by infidelity.
This policy would change incentives around marriage. People will think more carefully about entering it in the first place, and reflect on their ability to commit to their partner — Vegas marriages might disappear outright, and there will be fewer marriages solely for money. Drunk businessmen will be more careful not to let a night in a faraway city turn into a criminal nightmare. If the penalty is severe enough, even people who think they have no chance of getting caught will err on the side of caution. Marriages will be more meaningful when they become state-guaranteed sanctuaries of fidelity and loyalty.
The battle over gay marriage provides us with more than the opportunity to analyze concepts like equality and rights. It’s the perfect chance to reignite a societal discussion about obligations — why they are good for the collective, and how that collective can enforce them. In a world obsessed with maximizing personal freedom — emphasis on personal — we would do well to think about what exactly it means to be married.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .