Marriage and democracy

The Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the state one year ago last month. At the time, state legislatures talked about passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling, which would have to be approved by popular vote. Despite calls from opponents of the ruling to put the issue on the ballot, the 2010 legislative session came and went without any action from the Legislature.

What began as a debate about marriage has become a debate about democracy. I think that’s a good thing, because the concept of majority rule is so ingrained in everyone’s political philosophy that it is rarely questioned. You often hear people repeat Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” It may be true that democracy is the best form of government, but voting is not the only way to make decisions.

Think about all the decisions you make in your life. You decide what groceries to buy at the grocery store. You decide what car to drive and what house to live in. All of those decisions are made by you. I don’t have any control over you when it comes to those decisions. No matter how much I want you to drive a Honda, I can’t force you to buy a car you don’t want. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person in the world who wants to drive a Pinto, you have the freedom to own one.

When we stop to examine our own lives, we see that most of our decisions are individual choices and do not necessarily reflect the will of our neighbors. And thank the good Lord for that! A person knows his own tastes and his own circumstances better than anyone else, so it makes sense for him to be the one to make decisions that affect him. There is no reason to give other people power over his decision if they have no stake in the matter.

We could easily imagine a world in which more decisions are made by majority vote instead of individual choice. Instead of allowing each person to purchase the car of his choice, each person could vote on the model he likes best, and then we all have to buy the model that won the most votes. I think most people can see that this would not be an improvement over the current state of affairs, even though in some sense it would be more “democratic.”

That brings us to the issue of marriage contracts. Under the present Iowa law, any two people can enter into a marriage contract. The decision to enter into a contract is left to the individual and is not subject to majority veto. The opponents of gay marriage are now arguing that contracts between adults should be a group decision. But if it is good to allow each person to select the car of his choosing, on the theory that he knows what’s best for him, I don’t see why selecting a marriage partner would be any different. In both instances, the decision affects only the people involved in the transaction, and those people have a better idea of what is best for them than anyone else.

The current law allows each individual to get what they want. Heterosexuals can marry other heterosexuals, which is what they want, and gays and lesbians can marry other gays and lesbians, which is what they want. How can you improve upon that?

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2 Responses to “Marriage and democracy”

  1. David Says:

    How if at all could we modify the state or national constitution to take care of all cases like this?

    Do any cases come to mind where the court has ruled against the majority, and the result has been a loss in terms of utility? Are there any cases where popular opinion would give people more freedom than the law allows?

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    How if at all could we modify the state or national constitution to take care of all cases like this?

    The Iowa Supreme Court held that there was no important governmental interest in denying citizens marriage licenses based on their sexual orientation.

    For my taste, if you don’t like an activity, you need more than “an important governmental interest” to ban it. As a first pass, I think you need to show two things: 1) That the activity produces negative externalities; and 2) banning the activity would result in fewer costs to all parties, where the harm caused by the government is counted as a cost.

    I’m not sure how you would codify that in a constitution. Could we write this John Stuart Mill quotation into the constitution?

    John Stuart Mill: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

    That wouldn’t get rid of all bad laws, but it would be a good start.

    Do any cases come to mind where the court has ruled against the majority, and the result has been a loss in terms of utility? Are there any cases where popular opinion would give people more freedom than the law allows?

    While I think public opinion lags far behind what it should be, governments have done really bad things throughout history, so it shouldn’t be hard to think of instances where the law was even worse than public opinion. By the mid-1800s, I think slavery had become pretty unpopular in the US, although I think it still enjoyed majority support in the South. I really question if a majority of Soviet citizens supported Stalin’s purges, in which an average of 1,000 people were assassinated every day for two years!

    On the other hand, I watched a documentary about Chairman Mao Zedong the other day, and it looked like he had a lot of popular support during the Cultural Revolution.

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