THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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How Britain was lost

What is marriage?

Dreamstime_l_17430269I am reluctant to join in the current brouhaha about the definition of marriage. Firstly, I regard it all as statist agitprop to trap us into conflicting positions that can only be 'resolved' by the very last thing we need; more state interference. Secondly, I suspect it is a ploy to flush out 'homophobia' so as to give a now entirely redundant 'gay rights' campaign a new lease of life.

There is no good reason for the state to be involved in defining marriage legally. It should not be so much a civil right as a civil rite. It is essentially a personal relationship that can only meaningfully be defined by its participants in the context of their own beliefs and values. The state's current involvement achieves, and its proposed future involvement will achieve, precisely nothing that could not be done better by a combination of civil contract (regulating property relations between the parties) and statute law setting out the responsibilities and rights of parents.

It is particularly amusing that gay people demand redefinition of the current legal institution of marriage under a banner of 'equal rights.' Marriage under English Law is a profoundly unequal institution. If people were as diligent about entering into a marriage contract as they are about buying a house, most men would be advised against and most women would be advised for. Not because the rights of a couple during a marriage are unequal but because of the way the law works on exit.

Be that as it may, as a libertarian I am happy for people to enter into personal relationships of whatever kind they like (and using whatever terminology they like) as long as they take responsibility for their offspring (if applicable) and each other and don't expect others to support their lifestyle choices. If 100 humans want to enter into a mass marriage in whatever combination of sexes and sexual orientations they please, that's fine by me. I only expect them to be able to afford a sufficiently large house and matrimonial bed without recourse to the public purse.

Seriously, I don't care how many are involved. Bigamy would be one of the first crimes my libertarian govenment would repeal. I don't care what sex they are. I don't care what sex they have. My only legal requirement would be that they are of legal age and mental capacity to embark upon their adventure.

Let me hastily pacify shocked social conservatives and people of faith among my readers. I am happy for my religious friends to define marriage their way and for their church to teach that any other way is wicked. Provided, that is, they demand no earthly sanctions for breach of their rules. Given what they believe God has in store for sinners, earthly punishments anyway seem a bit de trop. It is the job of churches and the faithful to evangelise sinners and lead them to the right moral path. The law is (or should be) just there to stop us getting in each others' way. It should certainly not be there to tell us how or what to think.

You may protest (and with good reason) that the law needs to define marriage at present because so many laws discriminate between those married and those not. That problem is simply solved. Neither taxes nor 'benefits' nor legal rights should vary by reference to what is, ultimately, a personal choice. All humans should be equal before the law, regardless of their household arrangements.

So let me answer my own question before turning it over to you gentles to answer it better. Marriage is a personal matter which need not concern me unless it's one in which I am participating. Do what you like. Preach what you like. Accept or don't accept other peoples' definitions of marriage or lifestyle choices. Please take responsibility for your partner's (or partners') well-being and welfare, as well as for that of any children you have with anybody inside or outside your marriage. Please don't expect the rest of us to enforce your view on other - or to refrain from ridiculing yours if it strikes us as amusing.

I am finally old enough to know that the more right I feel I am about something, the more likely I am to be wrong. So please feel free to correct me in the comments.


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"...controlled by the environment I am in and the experiences I have had..."

Controlled or affected? If you are gay, do you think you would have been straight in other circumstances then? Or vice versa. It seems to me we are into the old free will vs predestination territory now.

Government can (clumsily and inefficiently) do good if it is attempting to defend the realm, enforce property rights and minimise force or fraud. Every other good it attempts will turn bad, whatever the intentions of the politicians and their cohorts. As for meddling in others personal choices, it's just wrong.


Mark You mention "some people will respond to that and take it as a general mesage." You mean like with generational unemployment?

You say these days the government has a big part to play in the way society is.

There you put the horse behind the cart. Yes the state does influence society in the UK, it is called social engineering. I would not say it has a part to play nor any particular right. It is incompetent and not to be trusted.

You also say there is clearly no such thing as morality in a vacuum. That is basically untrue. Not even if you were the only human on a desert island. Certain basic forms of morality are simply a product of how we are, they give the best overall results.

What the state does is often not moral.

I know you say most people don't agree with Tom, but countless of flies eat dog doo, I am not following their lead.

Mark and Trooper. From what you are saying. I don't think you really undertsand the simple moral rules that underpin real libertarianism.


I take it that you believe that people, even if stupid, actually think about their choices, though.
What is freedom?


Drugs... wow. Can you reccomend any good books on the subject, Tom? I must say I find it very hard to believe that criminalisation has no effect on people's behaviour. Isn't that akin to saying that people do not react to insentives? I thought that was the one thing everyone agreed on...

I think my sexual behaviour is very much controlled by the environment I am in and the experiences I have had.

If the government has so little effect on peoples behaviour, why worry about what they do?
Or is it just the ultra pessimistic view, once again, that the government can only ever do bad?

Trooper Thompson

Sorry to take this back to earlier...

@ Mark,

"Libertarianism only has moral authority to the extent to which people believe other people are perfect decision makers and that allowing them free reign will improve the lot of the majority.."

This is false. There is no belief that other people are perfect decision makers. Indeed, such a notion is preposterous. It is the fact that other people are flawed and susceptible to error and malice, that libertarians do not think it wise to give unlimited power to the state.

You seem to be groping with 'homo economicus', the perfectly rational man, who always buys low and sells high, but this must be understood as a theoretical construct, and one that is really irrelevant since around 1871 and the work of Menger and others.

"allowing them free reign will improve the lot of the majority."

Well, yes, libertarians do stand with Jefferson in preferring the inconveniences of too much liberty than not enough, and we're pretty sure we can prove it rationally and logically with regard to economics.

james higham

I am reluctant to join in the current brouhaha about the definition of marriage.

Quite right, Tom - stay well out of it.


I wish that were true. To the extent their neurons are firing at all, I fear they are right behind you. Those of us who advocate the liberal economics on which the West was built are routinely demonised by those who advocate the statist economics which are in the process of destroying it.

In fairness to you, you are trying to articulate your thoughts and consider other views. Good on you for that.


Thanks Tom,
I'm afraid to say that most people in Britain don't agree with me, though.


Fair point, but the way we behave is determined to a large extent by the society we live in, and in the modern world, the government has a big part to play in that - there is clearly no such thing as morality in a social vacuum.
So if the government says "it's ok to do whatever you like" some people will respond to that and take it as a general mesage. If in this field, why not in others... and why not? Ethical subjectivism won't stay in it's box.
That's what i mean by people loseing self control.
As for coercion, is it possible for us to exhist without cohesion and can cohesion be attained through rational argument alone? I think not, so I take the middle road.


I wouldn't eat fugu in a country where the pass rate for a maths exam is 40% anyway. That kind of cuisine needs chefs who believe in perfection not "that's good enough". I am also prepared to bet that the large French community in Britain is eating as much horse as it wants, although for cultural reasons there's probably little demand from anyone else. Either way, the law's making no appreciable difference.

I am seriously telling you that, although homosexuality has been illegal in our country for most of our history (and is still illegal in many, if not most, countries) the law has had **no** influence on its incidence. Illegality just exposes homosexuals to blackmail and violence while undermining their ability to get good healthcare and preventing them coming healthily to terms with their sexuality. Yes, the law has effects, but they are mostly the wrong ones in such cases. Jeremy Bentham (no libertarian, but a practical man when it came to the application of law) would have said there was no utility in prohibition in such "cases unmeet for punishment" (where there are no victims, because they consent).

How many paedophiles are we preventing from acting on their sexual urges by our very stringent legal restrictions and the strong will of law enforcement to punish? Clearly that's something that has to be illegal, because the sex partners cannot consent, but the fact remains law doesn't - and can't - change hearts, minds or sexual orientations. Making paedophile activity a crime must involve a commitment to take them off the streets into gaols or secure hospitals. You cannot seriously think their sexuality can be modified or repressed. Could yours? Mine certainly couldn't.

I am seriously telling you that everyone who wants drugs in Britain is getting them, but that they are in more danger from poor quality supplies and the necessity to deal with criminals than they would be if they could get their coke or H from Boots.

BTW, you say "punishments have declined" as if there was some golden age when drugs were fully suppressed. In truth it is the illegality that is a novelty, not the supposed lack of enforcement. Queen Victoria was a happy and respected coke-head.

Can I just tell you how delighted I am to have you commenting here? You are doing a wonderful job of presenting the muddled views of the citizens of statist Britain and you are setting the comments pages on fire. If you didn't exist I might just have to invent you now. Welcome!


I am missing any subtlety Moggsy. He's openly and proudly coercive. He thinks society (i.e. people who think like him) has both a right and a duty to guide the actions and thoughts of its members, even in the most private aspects of their lives. It's not like that's unusual (anywhere but on libertarian blogs and fora). He's thinking standard modern British thought. I am glad to have him here to challenge and therefore clarify our thinking.


Mark, "if people are allowed to do whatever they like in the sexual sphere, their ability to control themselves generally will be diminished." You haven't been listening to what you say agsin have you? Tut!

If people are allowed to do whatever they like ? That is talking about some external control, not control of *themselves* So if it is external control how can their own "self control", that I would guess never got a road test in the first place be "diminished"

Honestly anyone could take a truck through the holes in your arguments. ^_^

I do wonder if you really ever bothered to look into the ideas that under pin libertarian though when you critiscise it. You seem subtly coercive to me.


This reminds me of the recent Cameron statement that the "government cannot legislate to change behaviour"...
I don't much about the workings of the law, but I'm pretty sure that the law can influence the way people act with relation to sex, drugs and food. Are you seriously telling me that there is the same amount of homosexuality now as there was in 1950? Or that drug use hasn't increased as punishments have declined?
If we banned people from eating, the law wouldn't be observed, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't be able to ban horse meat or some particular food. When was the last time you ate fugu in Britain?
I don't oppose these changes, but I recognise that the government has a key role to play in the ordering of society.


I pointed out that the issue of responsibility for children should be legally addressed as an independent issue. After all they can only arise from one of many types of "marriage" as now contemplated. As for the rest, good luck with using law to control sexual urges. As a lawyer, I feel you have far too much faith in law. You should watch it being made and get some experience of interpreting, applying and enforcing it before you blithely assume its power. Sex is a far more powerful force, frankly. If all forms of sexual expression were suppressed by law, how much compliance would there be? Think about it. Most sex acts have been illegal somewhere, sometime, with no detectable effect on their prevalence. Criminalising the unsuppressable just degrades respect for all law, including the good stuff. As witness the war on drugs.


that there is something foul about all of us using each others bodies as a way to boost social status, rather than as a pleasure in and of itself.
Just thought of another one - if people are allowed to do whatever they like in the sexual sphere, their ability to control themselves generally will be diminished.

This is true, I don't think voting normally does much good, though perhaps it does at times, I don't think the idea of delegating responsibility is that controversial - almost everyone accepts that it should take place in the realms of law, defence etc.
Hard liberal right - people who believe that the decisions of the market can rarely be improved upon and that peoples right to choose should take precedence even when they aren't really making decisions at all.


Society is a complex concept and I don't have an exact idea of what the word really means, though I would say that most people have a vague, shared idea of what society is.
A group of people, communicating with each other, with some shared interests?

Sex is an important part of life for two reasons. Firstly, children. If you have respect for the rights of children to live in a loving environment, then you should try to encourage people to have sex in a loving relationship. I don't see why the government shouldn't be pa of this - please note, not advocating hanging those who sleep around. How is it possible for us to build a good society without government?
Secondly, sex is a motivator. We all know that sex is not just a physical drive, but also mixed up with status - but I can't help but think


Example..."Society decides(!).....moderates believe that society can ....choose to delegate responsibility to institutions (to) enforce sensible rules upon society"

So "society decides" but then delegates to "institutions to enforce sensible rules upon society". It is complete nonsense, you are saying society decides not to decide but delegate the decision to "institutions". I understand that this is approximately how society exists in yUK at present, but that is surely the clue-it is nonsense and has not worked for decades.

The only thing society presently decides approximately every five years, is who do they think will do the least worst job of governing them (that's for the thinkers in society) others might vote because the of tribal history, blind obediance to class, or who knows what?

Though it is perhaps an example of "moderates" muddled thinking (whatever a moderate is).


The problem is that you throw these words about without any detectable thought. I am not sure you mean by "society" anything other than "Mark and people who think like him". To stick to this particular issue, please give us some good reasons why government (even assuming it for this purpose to be the respectable moral delegate of whatever you may mean by society) needs to "...determine the bounds and adjudicate..." what goes on between you and your chosen life partner(s) in the privacy of your own home.


You crack me up mark....."hard liberal right" what is that except some dictionary defying nonsense?

And of course every degree of political stripe define themselves as moderate-hilarious.

Until we get back to using words in the context of an agreed dictionary then most of these discussions are moot.


Society decides... the big difference is that moderates believe that society can at times choose to delegate responsibility to institutions which will enforce sensible rules upon society, whereas the hard liberal right believe that at all times we must be perfectly rational robots.


This can go on forever. You express a meaningless generalisation like "beneficial for society" and I ask "who decides on that?"


The government would get the moral authority from exactly the same place that evrything does these days - what is beneficial for society. Libertarianism only has moral authority to the extent to which people believe other people are perfect decision makers and that allowing them free reign will improve the lot of the majority...

I'm not sure that the rise of the Nazi party or Stalinism had much to do with encouraging sexually responsible behaviour.
I'd argue that sexual relationships are likely to have as much to do with determining the nature of society as property relationships. If it is legitimate for government to determine the bounds and adjudicate over one, why not the other?


That would come right after the repeal of bigamy in my government's first Queen's Speech.


Of course I don't agree. Where would government get the moral authority to do so (absent Divine Right)? I love your Freudian construction "government must be allowed". An organisation with a monopoly on force needs restraining, not allowing as the history of the 20th Century amply attests.


I do actually agree with regards to gay marriage, but don't you think that to some extent the government must be allowed to determine what is socially beneficial with regards to sexual relationships?
I'm not sure that I agree with legalising bigamy.

Suboptimal Planet

Superb post! I agree with all of it.

Steve Baker has expressed similar views:

The one catch is that properly getting the government out of the marriage business would involve disestablishing the Church of England. But that wouldn't be a bad thing.


I agree.. with the possible exception that there might be some way of telling different sorts of mariage apart. Maybe Civil Marriage, Morganatic Marriage, Common Law, Contact Marriage, and so on.

It is no real busines of the state, except maybe when the state marries people

Trooper Thompson

Good stuff Tom. I don't see why the whole thing can't be handled like any other contract.


Great post, bravo

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