Marriage and the free society

There are two current ideas about marriage, says author, researcher,
mother and wife Jennifer Roback Morse. One view is that it is a natural
institution preceding the state. The other idea, behind recent changes
in the West, is that marriage is a bundle of legally defined benefits
bestowed by the state. The second view appears to increase liberty — by
such steps as legalising gay marriage — but it’s the first that
protects real freedom.

Dr Morse is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Lifelong Love in a Hook-up World (2005), and Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work (2001). She has a PhD in economics and has held academic posts at Yale,
George Mason and Cornell Universities as well as serving as an adviser
to the Acton Institute and other groups concerned with public policy.
Her articles have appeared in a number of scholarly journals, and she
has been a guest on many radio talk shows.

In 1996 she moved with her family to California where she pursues her
primary vocation as a wife and mother, combined with writing and
lecturing. She and her husband Robert have two children and (usually)
two foster children. Morse also hosts the internet site: In this interview with MercatorNet, Jennifer Roback Morse explains why a free society needs the social institution of marriage.

MercatorNet: You describe yourself as a libertarian—what does that mean?

Morse: It means that I want a society of free and responsible
individuals, governed by a constitutionally limited state. The drive
towards a legalistic view of marriage is part of the relentless march
towards politicising every aspect of society, which squeezes out both
freedom and responsibility.

MercatorNet: What is your definition of marriage and how does it differ from other notions abroad today?

Morse: I define marriage as society’s normative institution for both
sexual activity and the rearing of children. It is a natural
institution that emerges spontaneously from society and that society
supports with its cultural and legal machinery. Marriage as an
institution necessarily excludes some kinds of behaviour and endorses

The modern alternative idea is that society does not need such an
institution—no particular arrangement should be legally or culturally
privileged as the ideal context for sex or childbearing. Marriage is
just a contract among mutually consenting adults. The movement for gay
marriage is fuelled by this idea but at the same time contradicts it by
claiming legitimacy from the state. The state, on this view, becomes
the source of the institution of marriage. Some libertarians and
conservatives hold this contradictory position.

MercatorNet: Tell us more about the natural institution of marriage.

Morse: It’s what we see around us every day. People of the opposite sex
are attracted to one another, couple with each other, co-create
children, and raise those children. The little society of the family
replenishes and sustains itself. Our natural sociability expresses
itself most vibrantly within the family. A libertarian who truly
desires minimum government can view this self-sustaining system with

At another level, in every known society, communities around the couple
develop customs and norms about acceptable sexual, spousal and parental
behaviour. This culture around marriage may have some governmental
elements, but that machinery is far more informal than legal: We do
things this way because our parents did. Our friends and neighbours
look at us funny if we go too far outside the norm.

But the new idea about marriage sweeps away these informal controls.
Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to
the accepted norms because there are no socially accepted norms. The
modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance enforces a code of
silence, ruthlessly banishing anything remotely critical of personal
choice. In other words, the supposedly libertarian approach to sex
severely limits the freedom of a parent, or even a peer, who tries to
tell a young person he or she is about to do something incredibly

MercatorNet: Since we have a pluralistic society, shouldn’t the state remain impartial towards marriage and its alternatives?

Morse: Even if it wanted to, it can’t. Just as in the economic sphere
of life the state needs to protect the sanctity of private contracts,
so it may need to protect, encourage or support permanence in
procreational couplings, especially since children are involved. And,
just as a particular state cannot support two different types of
economy equally, so it cannot protect two types of sexual coupling
equally. It has to prefer one, and, as we have discovered from the
failure of centrally planned economies, it should take care to choose
the one that most reflects the truth about human nature.

MercatorNet: Why does a free society need to limit sex to the natural institution of marriage?

Morse: The answer to this becomes clear when we look at the
alternative. Non-committal sexual activity results in absent fathers,
and mothers and children who require massive expenditures and
interventions by powerful government through the family court and other

A radical individualist might argue that the state should get out of
the family business and leave these people to sink or swim. In reality,
the political pressures for the state to intervene are overwhelming.
The vast majority of people in western societies believe these mothers
and children are entitled to social support. Or at least, most people
consider that support to be a done deal, too deeply entrenched to
dislodge at this late date.

In the same way, unlimited sexual activity is now an entitlement. It is
considered an unacceptable infringement on the modern person’s liberty
to insist that the necessary context of sexual activity is marriage
with rights and responsibilities. It is equally unacceptable to argue
that having children outside of marriage is irresponsible. Choosing to
have a child is enough to be entitled to have one.

Yet the rest of society has to subsidise these choices, and the cost
goes beyond the family court, welfare and tracking down “deadbeat
dads”. The children of unmarried and divorced parents are more likely
to have emotional, behavioural and health problems which absorb public
resources. As they mature, they are more likely to get into trouble
with the law and end up in jail.

So the demand that government be neutral among family forms is
unreasonable. Libertarians recognise that a free market needs a culture
of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts. In the
same way, a free society needs a culture that supports and sustains
marriage as the normative institution for the begetting, bearing and
rearing of children.

MercatorNet: Most Western governments have, however, already endorsed
“diversity” in sexual relationships and family life and are passing
laws to this effect. What are the consequences for personal freedom?

Morse: The idea that marriage is a creation of the state is the de
facto view behind these laws and was formally spelled out by the
Supreme Court of Massachusetts in legalising gay marriage. The
consequences of this are very stark: the natural unit of society of
society is not the family; it is not even the libertarian individual
embedded in a web of family and social relationships. Rather, the
natural unit of society is the naked individual, the isolated
individual standing alone before the state, beholden to the state,
dependent on the state. The freedom of such an individual is very

The fact is we are not born alone. If we are lucky enough to be born
into a family that includes an adult married couple, they sustain us
through our years of dependence, not because they are paid for it but
because they love us. Their love for each other keeps them working
together as a team with whatever division of labour works for them. We
grow up and do the same. And when we are at the peak of our strength
and earning power, we help those who helped us in our youth. In this
way the family looks after itself with minimal need for social support.
But without some social support, it will be hard for the natural family
to flourish.

MercatorNet: What happens if the natural family is completely relativised, losing all its privileges?

Morse: With no social norms, and essentially no legal structure
surrounding marriage, the institution formerly known as marriage will
be replaced by a series of ad hoc contracts, individually enforced by
the courts. Each couple will be on its own to find a way through the
thicket of disputes that naturally occur in the course of a family’s
life. When they go to have their disputes resolved, they will have
little idea of what to expect of the family court.

This is the situation with many divorced and never-married couples
today. The family courts adjudicate their disputes in an almost random
fashion, and the subject matter of those disputes is truly
mind-boggling. Couples argue over who gets to see the children on
Christmas, who picks them up from school, whether the non-custodial
parent is allowed to show up at soccer games, and which parent gets to
see the report card. This is not a minimum government situation, nor is
it one in which the government respects people’s privacy. Yet this is
where we are headed if we completely deconstruct marriage.

MercatorNet: A groundswell of support of marriage and the family is
increasingly evident, particularly where homosexual unions have been
given legal recognition. Is it possible that the gay marriage issue has
woken people up to these values in a way that nothing else could?

Morse: I think you are correct that the gay marriage movement has
alarmed people who are normally inclined to be complacent. But one
other factor has increased support for lifelong married love: the
children of divorce are coming of age, and sometimes they have been
through more than one divorce. They are determined to protect their own
children from that experience. They are very open to learning more
about preserving their own marriages and about supporting the
institution in general. I am hopeful about the future of marriage
because of these young adults who are beginning to form their own


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  • Sheila Liaugminas