This isn’t news because it’s novel for a Paul to be saying such things — his dad once called for getting the government out of marriage on a GOP presidential primary debate stage — but because of Paul’s growing prominence in the GOP. If he could rally a hawkish party to oppose the president’s power to use drones against terrorists in certain circumstances, can he rally a socially conservative party to find an accommodation on gay marriage?
Paul says foreign policy is an instrumental way to expand the GOP, but it’s not the only way. Social issues are another area where he thinks Republicans can make a better argument to independents and centrists without departing from their principles. Gay marriage, for instance, is one issue on which Paul would like to shake up the Republican position. “I’m an old-fashioned traditionalist. I believe in the historic and religious definition of marriage,” he says. “That being said, I’m not for eliminating contracts between adults. I think there are ways to make the tax code more neutral, so it doesn’t mention marriage. Then we don’t have to redefine what marriage is; we just don’t have marriage in the tax code.”
I assume that’s part of a broader ambition to make marriage a wholly private function, which is vintage Paul insofar as it’s a clever attempt to sell libertarian wine in conservative bottles. He does the same thing vis-a-vis foreign aid to Israel: Cutting aid will actually lead to more robust Israeli self-defense because Israel will no longer feel obliged to seek American approval when responding to Hamas. I’ve seen other libertarians and paleocons argue for cutting aid to Tel Aviv and, needless to say, the idea that it might make Israel more aggressive towards its enemies was … not a key factor in their reasoning, to put it mildly. Likewise here, most libertarians support making marriage a matter of private contract not because they feel angst about “redefining marriage” — the ones I know are all perfectly fine with, if not enthusiastic about, states legalizing SSM — but because it’s a move towards smaller government, especially on moral issues. Paul, however, is pitching this as a sort of escape hatch for social conservatives who don’t want to see blue states or the Supreme Court lend the imprimatur of American government to gays marrying. He supports traditional marriage; he doesn’t want to see marriage redefined. So … why not eliminate state sanction from marriage entirely? Indeed, why not, says Jen Rubin:
If we were starting a system from scratch, I suspect that would be an easier sell. But getting the federal government out of the marriage business, deferring to the states and allowing individuals to, as he says, enter into contracts with one another, can be the way out of the gay marriage thicket for the GOP, I would argue.
The Supreme Court, depending on its ruling in the same-sex marriage cases, may assist this process by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the biggest aggrandizement of federal power on marriage in my lifetime (maybe ever).
Conservatives understand that there is a realm of conduct left to churches, synagogues, families, localities and individuals. The essence of Burkean conservatism is a healthy regard for and respect for those realms and for the customs, habits and beliefs that flow from those free associations. Whatever the methodology, conservatives at the national level need to extract themselves from a losing battle that should not be within the purview of the federal government.
That bit at the end is another reason this is newsworthy: The timing is propitious. Ten years ago, social cons laughed at libertarians for suggesting that marriage go completely private. Ten years later, with several states having legalized gay marriage, poll trends among young voters promising more legalization, and the Supreme Court poised to extend marriage rights to gays as a matter of equal protection, maybe they’ll consider it the lesser of two evils. See, e.g., Frank Fleming’s piece at PJM arguing that marriage is, after all, a religious custom and the state has no business trying to reconfigure religious customs. Better to leave marriage entirely within the private realm so that churches can protect their traditions. The timing’s propitious too in that the GOP’s desperate for ways to build goodwill with younger voters and Paul’s ploy is one likely way of doing it. It’s similar to what Mitch Daniels said about pot a few months ago: The GOP doesn’t need to endorse legalization, all it needs to do is let the power to decide devolve to a more local level of government. In the case of marijuana, Daniels pushed federalism as a solution. In the case of marriage, Paul’s pushing private contract, i.e. self-government at the individual level, as the answer. In both cases, the GOP gets to punt on a hot-button issue in a way that, maybe hopefully, won’t alienate social conservatives. They’re not backing weed and SSM; they’re merely striking a blow for limited government by letting people decide for themselves.
All that said, and as someone who supports legalizing gay marriage, I’ve never understood why social cons would go for this. At the core of the anti-SSM argument, as I understand it, is the belief that man/woman marriage is qualitatively different from gay unions; barring gays from marrying under state law is a way to recognize that difference. It’s not that state sanction operates as some sort of “benediction” for straights, it’s that it a mechanism of differentiation with all other types of unions. If you move to Paul’s paradigm where everything’s a matter of contract, there’s no longer any such mechanism. Every couple with a private agreement is effectively equal; the state will enforce an agreement between gays just as it will an agreement between straights. How does that satisfy the social-con objection to SSM? Likewise, some conservatives support state sanction of marriage because they believe the state has a role in promoting marriage as a social good and domesticating force. I’ve always thought that was a good argument for gay marriage too, but we needn’t argue about that; the point is, if the state gets out the marriage business it’s no longer officially promoting anything. And finally, if you’re worried about gay marriage for fear that it’s another step down the cultural slippery slope towards polygamy, why on earth would you favor a paradigm of private contract? A multi-party contract would place polygamous groups on the same legal footing as couples. If polygamy’s your chief concern, you’re probably much better off sticking with state-sanctioned marriage and taking your chances with the Supreme Court. Exit question: What am I missing here? Any social conservatives want to make the case for why Paul’s right?