The Supreme Court is hearing two cases over the next two days on the issue of same sex marriage, and the reporting will no doubt last for weeks to come until the decisions are made this summer. The popular debate that gets repeated over and over typically rests on an argument of fairness and rights versus morality. One aspect of the contentious position over whether to legalize same-sex marriage rests in a much broader realm. What are the unintended consequences of such policy and the subsequent cultural impact?
One example in terms of marriage policy is the consequences of no-fault divorce law. Initially seen as policy that would help and protect women stuck in difficult or abusive marriages, the resulting culture of inequality and child poverty was not anticipated (yet is well documented).
A similar debate over same-sex marriage rings true today. Proponents argue that love and rights are the obvious benefits of these marriages and the broader cultural impact is often ignored (or deemed irrelevant). The economist Friedrich Hayek famously wrote that markets, via prices, convey and aggregate information that no individual or group could ever possibly do even with the most sophisticated technology. Similarly, Jonathan Rauch points out that Hayek as a social philosopher parallels this use of information in the broader societal context. He notes, “that human societies’ complicated web of culture, traditions, and institutions embodies far more cultural knowledge than any one person could master.”
The point is that using policy to change the deeply rooted cultural traditions that we hold will have consequences that are unanticipated and far-reaching. Thus, the debate before the Supreme Court is far more important than simply the rights of certain individuals. Changing how we define marriage will dramatically impact the broader culture. This is not a left versus right issue. The thousands of French who protested in Paris last week over the definition of marriage remind us that a deep rooted cultural change is at stake and not simply a policy difference between conservative religious groups and progressives.