Friday, April 17, 2009

When Gays Marry: A Zero-Sum Game

Sen. McCain's former campaign strategist Steve Schmidt joined a growing chorus of voices on the right (including Sen. McCain's daughter Meghan) advocating a shift in party policy concerning gay marriage. 

The crux of Mr. Schmidt's pro-gay marriage argument is as follows:
"It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un American or threatens the rights of others," he says in the speech. "On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence — liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"That, I believe, gives the argument of same sex marriage proponents its moral force," Schmidt will say.

The point is an interesting one. Assuming conservatives truly support limited government, then it would be logically anathema to support a big brother (or little sister)-type ban on gay marriage.  the argument follows, what bigger government intrusion can there be than for government to tell folks whom they can, and cannot marry?  But the perspective put forward by Mr. Schmidt represents only one side of the debate.  Expanding the definition of marriage to include gays has the net effect of imposing a definitional change on all those who oppose the practice, and on those who oppose homosexuality in general.  This intolerance is no less striking than the other.   

As the debate has played out, the matter is a zero-sum proposition.  If the definition of marriage is changed, then members of faith communities opposed to the gay marriage will have their basic religious liberties infringed upon by a government that is supposed to have a wall of separation between itself and the church.  On the other hand, if the privilege of marriage is denied to gay couples, then the argument put forward by Mr. Schmidt comes to the fore. 

But does gay marriage really need to be a zero-sum game?  The problem of such matters is one of framing.  When civil unions first came on the scene in the late 1990s in Vermont, they sparked the same debate that gay marriage does now.  But the substantive difference is that civil unions were an overt attempt to mollify both parties, and arrive at some sort of policy compromise.  The basic idea was that while civil unions would afford gay couples the same privileges as marriage, it would confer the privileges using a different term to satisfy those concered about expanding marriage's definition.  But the Vermont compromise (a term first coined by Dartmouth Music Professor Steve Swayne; explained in more detail here) quickly degenerated into a clash of the extremes.  What we have now is a policy death match to the finish that will surely leave one side of the argument aghast, and the other side appeased.

My personal view is that Prof. Swayne's Vermont Compromise should be resurrected.  If we are at all concerned about the divisiveness brought on by the political winds, then both sides should be willing to adopt a less than perfect solution that addresses the problem, while fully pleasing no one.  Ironically, such pragmatism was formerly the mark of all good policy. Now pragmatism is tantamount to capitulation. 

Funny how definitions change.

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Christena said...
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