Government Should Get Out of Personal Lives

This month, the Bush administration asked Congress to approve $1.5 billion for a "marriage promotion" package (search).

This comes after a similar $300 million marriage incentive program (search) they attempted to tack on to the welfare reform reauthorization bill (search) last year. Conservatives, you see, believe one man-one woman marriages to be the best setup for a happy and prosperous society.

They may just be right, but so what if they are? Really, isn’t that the set up most of us are likely to choose anyway? Why force everyone else to pay for programs designed to persuade us to make decisions most of us would make anyway?

If leftists (search) were smart, they’d point out the hypocrisy of conservatives on the issue of marriage incentives. They’d ask why conservatives (search) trust people to make smart decisions without state intervention about how they spend and invest their money, but can’t muster a similar trust when it comes to how people live their personal lives. They’d ask why conservatives -- who claim to be skeptical of government and its power of coercion -- insist on bringing that same state and those same powers of coercion into the most personal, intimate and important decision we make in our lives -- the decision to commit to another person.

But leftists aren’t all that smart. Instead, they want to expand the power of the state to grant its imprimatur and blessing on our relationships: state sanctioning of same-sex marriages (search).

The political right cites high divorce and illegitimacy rates, and the recent trend among young people to delay marriage, in justifying their taxpayer-funded marriage incentives.

But are these trends really signs that the institution of marriage is in trouble?

For example, most young people today put off marriage because women today are more self-sufficient, and no longer need to marry for security or financial stability. They can, in other words, afford to wait to marry for love. If there are fewer marriages today than 50 years ago, but those marriages happen for the right reasons, is marriage on the whole stronger or weaker?

As for divorce, I suppose it’s possible that more people divorce today because our society places less emphasis on commitment. But conservatives can’t have it both ways. You can’t goad young people into marriage at an early age, and then expect them to stay in marriages that don’t work because they happened too early.

There are other possible explanations for divorce, too. For example, both men and women today are less likely today to tolerate abusive relationships. Again, the question looms: Is the institution of marriage really better off because two unhappy people stay together? Is society? Are those two particular people?

And what of those skyrocketing illegitimacy rates? I’d submit that they’re the result of   government meddling. They’re the product of a welfare system that for decades incentive-ized single motherhood. They’re the product of a tax code that for years penalized people for getting married. And they’re the result of mandates handed down by prudish legislators demanding that kids not be taught about contraception (search), despite 10,000 years of human experience proving that teenagers are prone to have sex at just about the precise moment they’re physically able.

Compelling single mothers and reluctant dads into marriage may solve the problem of kids without fathers, but it will spawn a spate of new maladies we’ll need to worry about.

Despite all of this, activists on the left and right still want to invite the state deeper into our relationships. They’re both wrong. It’s time to get the state out of our relationships.

Marriage is a contract. It’s an agreement between two people to love and support one another, to share resources and to perhaps share in the responsibility of raising children. Let’s start treating it that way. Hospitals, employers and insurers should be free to choose to respect and extend “marriage” benefits as they see fit.

Self-interest and the profit motive tell markets how to properly allocate resources. Self-interest and the desire for happiness, I think, also motivate how we navigate our personal lives. If man-woman-baby is best, then most of us will choose man-woman-baby, and man-woman-baby will be (and is) the norm. But for some, man-woman-baby just isn’t the path to happiness. Is it really the state’s responsibility to scold them? To punish them with tax disincentives?

And just as some of us make mistakes in our business or professional lives -- pensioners who risked their entire retirement fund in Enron (search), corporations that foolishly risked investor confidence on shoddy dot-com deals -- some of us are bound to make mistakes in our personal lives, too.

But it isn’t government’s responsibility to bale us out of bad business decisions. And it isn’t government’s responsibility to dictate who we sleep, cohabitate, commit or raise children with, either.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at

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