TCS Daily

Contentious Issues That Dissolve

By Uriah Kriegel - June 14, 2006 12:00 AM

As awareness of the war on terror recedes -- unfortunately -- into the background, social issues have once again started dominating our political landscape. Two issues in particular have captured the nation's attention over the past few weeks: gay marriage and immigration.

Both issues threaten to create, or perhaps just reveal, wedges within the Republican coalition. That coalition is often characterized as consisting of two main forces: social conservatives, who are concerned primarily with moral and religious issues, and economic conservatives, whose primary inspiration is an ideology of small government and the free market.

This division is somewhat artificial. The religious right is often sympathetic to small-government ideology. There is a tradition of religious thought, dating back at least to Tolstoy's religious anarchism, which takes the modern state, in some respects, to have supplanted God. The basic idea is that faith in God, rather than fear of the state should guide the citizenry -- and thus indirectly ensure law, order, and civil rectitude.

Conversely, small-government conservatism and libertarianism is more than a platform of cutting taxes. It is a much more general outlook with a moral and social dimension. Arguably, the economic platform of small-government ideology has its philosophical underpinnings in certain social and moral doctrines about human nature -- freedom and responsibility, the proper relationship between individual and community, etc. In particular, there is a clear small-government position on both aforementioned issues of the day.

On gay marriage, the small government approach is basically this: Marriage is a religious institution. Government never had any business meddling in it in the first place. It should get out of that business and leave it to its proper authorities: churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.

On this view of things, once your local church has agreed to marry two people, there is no call for further government certification of the bond thus sanctified by the church. When it comes to marriage, the government's role should be restricted to the bundle of legal privileges and duties associated with marriage, that is, to civil unions. The government's role is simply to certify civil unions, and to protect associated contracts (like pre-nups) and privileges (like tax uniformity). Anything beyond that sphere belongs to religious authorities in their institutions.

What this means in practice is that there isn't really -- or shouldn't be --- a general issue of gay marriage at all.

If your local church wants to marry two people of the same sex, that's its own business. If it refuses to do so, and/or refuses to recognize another church's marriage, that its own business, as well. And you can register your approval or disapproval with your feet or in any other way you see fit. The central point is that there is no highest authority determining who is married and who isn't. If you don't want to consider two people as married, even though the two were married by a church in town, nobody can force you to; and if you want to consider them married -- even though a church in town refuses to recognize their far-flung marriage -- nobody can force your dissent. The government has no say in it whatever. And more generally, there should be no "objective" fact of the matter as to whether the two are married or not. The fact that must be established de jure is the fact of civil union.

The small government approach to immigration is slightly more complicated. It is more complicated by the fact that the immigration issue brings together two distinct types of issue. The first is security: people who enter the country may not all harbor good intentions. Some may wish to enter the country so as to inflict harm on its residents. On this matter, proponents of small government are as hard-nosed as anybody on the political spectrum, and perhaps more so, inasmuch as according to the proponents of small government, ensuring the security of the governed is the only truly and incontestably legitimate function of government.

But the small government approach to immigration is relaxed about the aspect of immigration that does not have to do with security. Make no mistake about it: there is certainly such an aspect. Everybody believes that we cannot allow into the country every well-intentioned person who wishes to come here. Suppose we came up with a flawless procedure for telling the terrorists from the non-terrorists. Nobody on the sane political spectrum believes that we should let in all the non-terrorists. But the proponent of small government comes close to that.

Small-government conservatives and libertarians believe in the free movement of goods and the annihilation of trade barriers - at least in the state of small-government utopia. This attitude is most naturally coupled with belief in the free movement of labor and the annihilation of national barriers -- again, at least in a utopian state. In our sub-utopian world, it is not practically feasible to annihilate national barriers to the same extent that trade barriers can be annihilated. But it would be disingenuous, to some degree inconsistent, for the pro-trade, pro-free-market conservative or libertarian to hold a completely orthogonal position on immigration. The spirit that animates commitment to trade liberalization should also inspire an accepting and welcoming attitude to immigration.

For the proponent of small government, then, as far as practical considerations permit, there is no reason not to let people in. In particular, as long as there are benefits, economic or others, for admitting new immigrants, they should be admitted.

The small government approach to gay marriage and immigration has the added virtue of folding both issues under a coherent overarching governing philosophy. The issues arise, on this view, primarily because of a misunderstanding of the proper role and scope of government. Once that role and scope are clarified, the issues effectively dissolve.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.



With all due respect, what a crock

So the govt should get out of defining what marriage is and leave it to however a particular religon may define marriage. By that logic my neighbor could marry his mother, sister, dog, daughter, son or barcalounger. Polygamy and polyamory would become "marriages".

Wait a second the author might say, the govt would still be there to "certify civil unions" and their attendent legal benefits. Maybe the govt would not certify the marriage to the barcalounger as getting the benefits of a civil union, no matter how much my neighbor loved that chair.

If that is the case, then how is that different from today in having the govt state what is a legal marriage and what is not??

In addition, the whole article omits the THOUSANDS of years of history on marriage being between men and women. Granted, polygamy was a part of that history, but Western society has done pretty darn good by having the definition of marriage be one man and one woman.

I think a little more thought ought to go into whether we should now, at this point in history, jettison what has worked for so long. Why don't we see if Holland and Sweden collapse or not before we decide to go down that path?


A nation-state has the right to determine who can enter their country and who can not. Who can legally reside there and who can not. It is not a divide between small and a large govt philosophy. It is whether citizens of a nation can rightfully determine who else in the world can join their nation.

Using the analogy of the free movement of goods and services (which I support) is silly. Goods and services can not
1) change the culture of a country
2) demand special rights based on skin color
3) change the language (or add a language) to a country

LEGAL immigration usually is a wonderful thing. It gives those LEGAL immigrants from Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and Europe time to ASSIMILATE to our culture and not OVERWHELM it with the faults of the originating country.

The Best Reader Post Ever
Is yours Mr. Johnson.

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