Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Is marriage state business?

Yes, marriage is a matter for government, though many libertarians would argue against that.

To me it's less a question of if the state has any business in the relationships between individuals, but how much.

Does the state have any real business in the day-to-day emotional aspects of my marriage? No, not really. Should the state tell me to pick up my clothes from the bedroom floor or tell my husband to clean the toothpaste splatter off the bathroom mirror? (A definite no to the former and a grudging principled no to the latter.)

But the state does have a role in establishing reasonable terms for a marriage contract and enforcing that contract should either of us become unreasonable.

In most marriages, the state gets no more involved than at the beginning - ensuring it's a valid, exclusive contract, and at the end - establishing probate on the death of one of the partners. The state oversees privileges (state pensions, etc) and enforces responsibilities. In case of divorce, the state steps in to enforce common law principles of equity where parties cannot agree over the dissolution of the partnership contract.

People enter into contracts all the time. Where parties are reasonable, the state doesn't get involved, e.g. I hire somebody to do some work, they do it, I pay them, that's it. Where we can't agree, we turn to the state in the form of the courts to seek resolution.

Now some would say that's an intrusion of the state. Maybe. But how else would you like to enforce contracts? Do we reward the sneaky, the corrupt or the brutal by allowing them to enforce or break their own contracts? Should the distribution of property after a marriage ends rely on who's willing to act the worst, hiding or taking assets, threatening physical violence? Clearly, it's better if people behave reasonably, but we have evolved institutions such as marriage, the law or the courts because we recognise that people don't always behave reasonably and don't always keep their word.
Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld

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