maggie gallagher at volokh.comThe volokh conspiracy was the first blog I ever read consistently, for reasons having to do in part with being a math major at UCLA around 1980. The more interesting discussions have (for me) long since been diluted, and many of the more interesting conspirators have left. The detour into war-blogging left the lingering impression of a group that simultaneously sought to have their words influence the world (even to the point of starting wars) and to claim an academic privilege to conduct thought experiments without regard to the consequences, as if the discussions were merely "academic." Or maybe the basic premise of my visits (that through intelligent discussion, we could find common ground) fractured in the face of unrelenting ideology.
In any case, while I no longer read frequently, I do visit occasionally and today I happened across Maggie Gallagher's defense of opposition to gay marriage (many more articles than might be reasonably linked, but if you're curious and can't find it, start here). I'm sure there are others who have taken on her arguments point by point, others who probably have the time and interest to do a much better job than I. There are, however, a few broad points that seem worth making.
While I concede the point that there may be people whose opposition to gay marriage is driven primarily by concerns over the deep structure of society, and while I am for the purposes of civil discussion willing to assume that Maggie is one of them, I don't for a moment believe the social movement to oppose gay marriage is primarily driven by such concerns. The people and groups who today oppose gay marriage while claiming no animus against gays are the same ones who have opposed every advance in gay rights and recognition. Mrs. Gallagher asks that we not ignore the radicals on the left who seek to remake society and would sanction gay marriage on the way, then asks that we ignore the relatively mainstream arguments of those who blame catastophic hurricanes on our society's immoral tolerance of gay behavior. She asks a great deal.
In my experience, there's little point in "debating" a group or person when the real issue isn't on the table. Even if it's possible to win the current debate, to defeat the rationalization of the day, the only result will be to generate a fresh rationalization. Perhaps this is short-sighted of me. Perhaps every time a debate is won, a few minds are changed on the underlying issue. I cannot, however, escape the impression that I could refute every detail Maggie presented, and it only change the ground of the debate, not the debate itself. It seems to me far more effective to focus on the broad moral issue of social animus towards gays and bank on demographic trends to erode opposition to the resulting particulars over time.
Still, portions of her argument were interesting and revealing. At its roots, she argues that without marriage, people would have sex without babies and babies would grow up without fathers. That happens today, of course, so preventing the recognition of gay marriage doesn't actually fix the problem. She even identifies the cause: In non-industrial societies, children are an individual investment in the parent's future. In industrial societies, there are more effective ways to make that investment, and children become a net cost to the parents. All industrial societies are experiencing the effects of this change to a greater or lesser degree, and I've never seen evidence that the recognition of gay marriage plays any role (much less a significant one) in either hastening or delaying its effects.
If the failure of generativity is the problem and it's already happening, then opposition to gay marriage is clearly not the solution. At best, it would appear to be a small part of a wide program that would include the abolition of divorce, the elimination of contraception, and the re-criminalization of pre-marital sex. If we're to guarantee that people have and raise children in the proper way, and seek to harness "Eros" to achieve that goal, there seems little point in doing so piece-meal. If social incentives around children have inverted, if it's no longer in people's best interests to have children and raise children but social health requires that they do so, shouldn't we recast social incentives to achieve those aims. Isn't denying sex to those who do not follow generative forms a natural way to incentivize generative sex and therefore generativity? That is the position of the Catholic Church, after all--it's certainly an argument with which Mrs. Gallagher is familiar--and there are certainly social conservatives of all stripes who argue that contraception, divorce, abortion, and pre-marital sex will all contribute to the downfall of Civlization As We Know It. If a return to traditional sexual mores, in all respects, is what we need to maintain our society, perhaps we should have that debate. Shoring up the part of a levee that still stands only makes sense if you plan to restore the levee and drain the floodwaters.
If we're not willing to restore and enforce pre-industrial sexual mores and we wish to solve the problem of generativity, we will simply need to find other ways. Nowhere does Maggie even attempt to prove that other solutions don't exist, even though all of her other arguments are based implicitly on the premise.
On the other hand, perhaps we should ask whether the problem of generativity really needs a solution. We live on a finite planet. One needn't be a Malthusian to believe that exponential population growth can't be sustained forever. If industrialization reduces the incentives for individual procreation, that may be a very good thing. Most long-term population control efforts in the developing world depend on precisely that effect. Unless one believes that population control is itself a social evil, the argument that procreation must be universally maintained seems unfounded.
But perhaps the argument isn't that procreation needs to be universally maintained. Maybe the argument is demographic. As Maggie puts it
I’m quite confident that 200 years from now, we’re not going to be living in a world where gay marriage is the norm.If we don't procreate sufficiently, others will and we'll lose the race. We'll still be rich, our society will still be industrial and stable (otherwise the disincentives she fears would evaporate), but we'll be overwhelmed by teeming pre-industrial masses, no doubt the same masses that today assault our southern border, the same masses that in previous decades crossed the seas to enter our seaports and airports.
I’m just not sure of the place of Western civilization in that future world.