Filed under: Netherlands, United States | Tags: Add new tag, gay marriage, Scandinavia
In the context of this discussion on Megan McArdle’s blog (actually about the argument that recognizing gay marriage logically necessitates recognizing polygamy, which is in fact ludicrous, but I’ll leave that alone), it occurred to me that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the ways the gay marriage issue plays out in Scandinavia and the Netherlands vs. the US. Scandinavian countries have had gay domestic partnership arrangements largely equivalent to marriage since the early ’90s; the Netherlands has had gay marriage since 2001. However, the issue plays out differently in those countries than in the US because marriage itself is an institution of relatively low prestige, at least among the young. Most young Scandinavians do not recognize much of a difference between formal marriage and informal long-term domestic partnership.
This means that the issue of gay marriage, as opposed to civil unions, is perversely more important in the US, where the distinction between marriage and long-term partnership is strongly recognized, both legally and culturally. In principle one could erase the legal issues by establishing civil unions, but the cultural issue remains significant here because there is this state-sanctioned institution that has strong ethical value. Libertarians I think tend to believe that state intervention in social ethics should be held to a minimum, and many libertarians feel the solution to the problem is to get the state out of the marriage business entirely and have it recognize only civil unions, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Liberals would rather simply extend the institution to cover gays. But the reason the Scandinavian solution doesn’t appeal to many gays in the US is in part that it does entail a looser attitude towards the moral valence of marriage, and it’s because the US is a more conservative and religious society that the institution of marriage has stronger social value and is thus an institution that American gays refuse to be shut out of.
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