Marriage, The Institutional Man, and The Sovereign Individual

Nov 24, 03 | 1:06 am by John T. Kennedy & Lynette Warren

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These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ‘em. That’s “institutionalized.”
- Red, in The Shawshank Redemption

David Brooks has written a piece extolling the virtues of marriage:

Marriage joins two people in a sacred bond. It demands that they make an exclusive commitment to each other and thereby takes two discrete individuals and turns them into kin.

Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other’s lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: “Love you? I am you.”

To say marriage makes us “better than we deserve to be” goes too far since we can only be what we deserve to be, but his heart is in the right place. Surely marriage helps some be better than they expected to be and “I am you” can be taken as an expression of the sense of identity that accompanies deeply shared understanding.

Some take issue with this:

Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.

Brooks is really describing flight from self and not selfishness. He is essentially agreeing with Ayn Rand that one’s love life ought properly be an expression of one’s highest values.

However, he makes his categorical error here:

Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity - except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a “partner,” a word that reeks of contingency.

This is how an “Institutional Man” thinks, as Red explains in The Shawshank Redemption when he speaks of his difficulty in coming to grips with freedom upon his release from prison:

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Thirty years I’ve been asking permission to piss. I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so. There is a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside.

You can hear the same complaint from gays who, like Brooks, assume that one cannot marry without the permission of the state. If marriage is truly a sacred bond, as Brooks claims then what power can the state have over it? Why would you go to the state for the sacred? Why not simply marry your beloved and introduce him as your husband, the state be damned? Or else recognize that you are an Institutional Man.

Brooks complains:

When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote. Marriage is not voting. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination.

But what does the state have to offer aside from benefits? The state has nothing sacred or even moral to impart. The state has only carrots and sticks and any carrot it might offer you was taken from someone else by way of a stick. You can only defile that which is sacred or intimate in your marriage by inviting the state to take part in it.

It’s a core belief that dwells in the hearts of collectivists, liberal and conservative alike, that if they can, by force of law, dabble here and tweak there, then goodness and morality can be dispensed from the floors of state assemblies, legislatures, and city halls everywhere. Working from such a premise makes it nearly impossible to realize that there is nothing by way of grace or moral legitimacy that the state can bestow on anything.

Inviting the state into your marriage affords you no sanctity that you wouldn’t otherwise have in a private, non-state recognized marriage. Brooks bemoans the omission of a moral argument in favor of state sanctioned gay marriage, but no moral argument can be made because the state cannot produce or dispense morality. Government only dispenses incentives and penalties, so the left is quite strategically correct in limiting its arguments for government gay marriages to the realm of discussing it as a benefits plan. That’s all state marriage can ever be.

Advocates of state-marriage for gays argue correctly that it is not fair or moral for the state to grant heterosexual couples benefits that are denied homosexual couples. Yet, in doing so, these same advocates insist that homosexual couples be granted benefits that would be denied single individuals: They don’t object to social engineering, they just want to be the social engineers.

Some libertarians, like Wendy McElroy and Radley Balko, correctly argue that marriage is not properly a matter of public policy. The only problem is that they tend to argue this as a matter of public policy: The remedies they seek are remedies of public policy.

The Sovereign Individual argues instead, that one must simply evict the state from one’s own marriage. Your marriage is not properly a matter of public debate so don’t treat it as one. Take and keep private what ought to be private. And all of your life is your private affair.

Leave the institution of marriage to the Institutional Man.

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Sovereign Individuals are the Makers of Manners:

You and I cannot be confined
within the weak list of a country’s fashion
we are the makers of manners,
and the liberty that follows our places
stops the mouth of all find-faults

32 Responses to “Marriage, The Institutional Man, and The Sovereign Individual”

  1. shonk Says:

    Hella.

  2. Jonathan Wilde Says:

    Good stuff.

    An article about marriage by “John T. Kennedy & Lynette Warren” - hmmmm.

    I don’t intend to let the state have any role in my marriage if and when I get married. However, let’s say that two people get married in their own private way and make up a contract. Later, they decide to go their separate ways.

    Will the specific terms of the contract be enforced? For example, if the contract says, “In the event of a divorce, husband gets custody of the kids” will the state actually give custody to the husband? If the contract says, “husband gets 90% of assets” will the state actually give 90% to the husband?

  3. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Jonathan,

    I don’t look to the state to support or enforce private marriage. In a free society such contracts would not be difficult to work out, right now they are highly problematic. But living with the state will always be problematic. That’s fundamentally independent of my marriage and what Brooks finds most important in marriage.

  4. shonk::selling waves Says:

    Weird Sex and Marriage.
    In the wake of Michael Jackson’s latest run-in with the law, I’m sure many people have discovered this gallery of horrors which I ran across a couple of years ago. We all know that Mike’s appearance has changed drastically for…

  5. Wild Pegasus Says:


    Will the specific terms of the contract be enforced? For example, if the contract says, “In the event of a divorce, husband gets custody of the kids” will the state actually give custody to the husband? If the contract says, “husband gets 90% of assets” will the state actually give 90% to the husband?

    Typically, contracts have an unwritten “unconscionability” clause, which says that the terms of the contract must not be impossible or unconscionable (that is, enforcing the contract will be a miscarriage of justice). There are instances where the state courts and probably even private courts will not enforce a 90-10 split in a contract. For instance, if there’s a 90-10 contract between a rich man and a middle-class woman and he divorces her, it’s unlikely that the 90-10 rule will be enforced unless she was adulterous.

    I find the idea of having a private marriage contract in the future intriguing, but unless my future wife is libertarian (unlikely - I’m attracted to theater types), it will probably be a regular state-licensed marriage. Love means compromise. =)

    - Josh

  6. Andy Stedman Says:

    Nice one, guys. It’d funny, a lesbian couple at church this Sunday announced that they were going to go to Canada to get legally married, and how upsetting it was that they couldn’t do it right here in Illinois. I wanted to make this exact point to them, but it didn’t seem appropriate at the time to do so.

  7. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Do I understand this correctly? It sounds like they weren’t moving to Canada, just having some sort of ceremony there. And when they come back they are no more or less married than if they’d exchanged vows here, right?

    I’ll give them this much - at least they got a second opinion.

  8. Andy Stedman Says:

    That’s the way I understand it, Kennedy. The states and the fedgov recognize the legality of Canadian legal marriages, regardless of whether that marriage could take place locally.

    I think people do similar shopping to marry close cousins and 17-year-olds.

  9. John T. Kennedy Says:

    “That’s the way I understand it, Kennedy. The states and the fedgov recognize the legality of Canadian legal marriages, regardless of whether that marriage could take place locally. “

    We’re saying different things because I don’t think that’s true, though I could be wrong.

  10. The Serpent Says:

    Andy Stedman: That’s the way I understand it, Kennedy. The states and the fedgov recognize the legality of Canadian legal marriages, regardless of whether that marriage could take place locally.

    So what if you travel to a country where polygamy is legal and get married to two or more women there and then come back to the U.S.?

    In other words, say you are a Muslim and you have 4 wives and you immigrate to the U.S. Are you forced to give up at least 3 of your wives, or can you keep them all?

  11. Andy Stedman Says:

    Ok, it seems that the marriage may not be legally recognized for all legal purposes, but people are doing this and then using the legal marriage to get benefits promised by employers to married couples. That’s kind of a mixed bag, I think.

  12. Andy Stedman Says:

    The Serpent: So what if you travel to a country where polygamy is legal and get married to two or more women there and then come back to the U.S.?

    See above. It seems I was mistaken.

    The Serpent: In other words, say you are a Muslim and you have 4 wives and you immigrate to the U.S. Are you forced to give up at least 3 of your wives, or can you keep them all?

    Why would he have to be forced? It sounds like an opportunity to me.

  13. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Andy,

    Thanks for the clarification, that makes more sense to me. I don’t have any problem with them angling for benefits (democratically demanding benefits is another matter). The important thing is that they didn’t let the state stop them.

  14. The Serpent Says:

    John Kennedy: I don’t have any problem with them angling for benefits (democratically demanding benefits is another matter).

    Ahhh-ha. I think I understand it now Mr. Kennedy. When someone robs from you, you prefer if they pretend that they are not robbing you. That makes it �better�?

  15. John T. Kennedy Says:

    “Ahhh-ha. I think I understand it now Mr. Kennedy. When someone robs from you, you prefer if they pretend that they are not robbing you.”

    Quite the contrary.

  16. Andy Stedman Says:

    The Serpent: When someone robs from you, you prefer if they pretend that they are not robbing you.

    Spot the robbery:

    Employer: We will provide health insurance for your legal spouse.

    Bill: Thanks. I just married my husband, Frank.

    Employer: You can’t be legally married to a man.

    Bill: We were legally married in Canada. You didn’t specify in the contract that I had to marry someone of the opposite gender.

    Employer: We don’t recognize Canadian legal marriages.

    Bill: You’re paying insurance for Jean-Claude’s wife, Yvette. They were married in Canada. Should we go to arbitration, as allowed by the employment contract?

    Employer: Well, if you put it that way…

  17. The Serpent Says:

    John Kennedy: Quite the contrary.

    So what is the precise difference between people voting for undeserved benefits, or �angling� for undeserved benefits?

    At least when they vote for the undeserved benefits they are being up front about what they want from you and why they think they are entitled to it. At least they are giving you a chance to respond and fight back.

    However when someone is �angling� for an undeserved benefit it would seem to imply that they are doing it covertly and deceptively so that the person paying for the benefit is unaware of what has been done.

    Do you disagree? If so then where do I have it wrong?

  18. The Serpent Says:

    Spot the robbery:

    Employer: We will provide health insurance for your legal spouse.

    Bill: Thanks. I just married my husband, Frank.

    Employer: You can’t be legally married to a man.

    Bill: We were legally married in Canada. You didn’t specify in the contract that I had to marry someone of the opposite gender.

    Employer: Yeah, and I didn�t specify that you couldn�t marry a horse either. You do realize that our company is located in the United States Mr. Bill, and not in Canada, and certainly not in Fantasy-land? We don’t recognize homosexual marriages.

    Bill: You’re paying insurance for Jean-Claude’s wife, Yvette. They were married in Canada.

    Employer: Jean-Claude is a Man and his wife Yvette is a Woman. Do you see the difference Mr. Bill?

    Bill: Should we go to arbitration, as allowed by the employment contract?

    Employer: There no need for arbitration. Do you want the job or not?

  19. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Serpent,

    “So what is the precise difference between people voting for undeserved benefits, or �angling� for undeserved benefits? “

    What’s the problem with the benefits the couple in question are angling for? Their empolyers and insurance companies are free to recognize their marrige or not as they see fit.

    But even in the public sector using a benefit that has been stolen from someone else and will not be returned is different from demanding such benefits.

  20. John T. Kennedy Says:

    “Spot the robbery”

    I see none in the example. The employer is free to decline to offer the benefit to Bill and spouse.

  21. The Serpent Says:

    John Kennedy: What’s the problem with the benefits the couple in question are angling for?

    Well, I would say there is only a �problem� if you or I are supposed to be (playing the role of) either the �employer� or the �employee�. If neither You or I are engaged in this entanglement than there is no problem for us. However if I am the employer or the employee in this situation than I can see a potential problem.

    The employee (Bill) is asking for more money but only offering the same compensation (services/labor/effort). That leaves it up to the employer to decide whether or not this person�s services are worth the extra money.

    John Kennedy: Their employers and insurance companies are free to recognize their marriage or not as they see fit.

    I agree. From the employers point of view it is simply a matter of is this person worth that much money? Whether the �salary� is paid out in terms of cash, or benefits (such as insurance), or in gold makes no difference. Ultimately it all boils down to A for B and ultimately it is up to the two parties concerned to decide if the scale is tilting in their favor (or at least balanced).

    John Kennedy: But even in the public sector using a benefit that has been stolen from someone else and will not be returned is different from demanding such benefits.

    I agree; however, as I pointed out in one case there is subterfuge (angling), and in the other case there is not (voting). From your last few posts it would appear that you favor subterfuge.

  22. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Subterfuge can be entirely appropriate in some moral contexts. In The Shawshank Redemption the sovereign individual Andy Dufresne employed considerable subterfuge to secure his liberty.

    But where is the subterfuge in saying “We got legally married in Canada”?

  23. The Serpent Says:

    John Kennedy: Subterfuge can be entirely appropriate in some moral contexts. In The Shawshank Redemption the sovereign individual Andy Dufresne employed considerable subterfuge to secure his liberty.

    You may want to note that the only reason that subterfuge worked in the Shawshank Redemption was because it was a fictitious liberal Hollywood account of reality. In the real reality if Andy Dufresne was so damn clever he would have avoided being falsely imprisoned (and sodomized) to begin with.

    John Kennedy: But where is the subterfuge in saying “We got legally married in Canada”?

    If you and I make an agreement and you deliberately and clandestinely attempt to avoid your part of that agreement I�d call it subterfuge.

    Now I can already hear that little Anarchist in your head screaming BUT THEY DIDN�T MAKE AN AGREEMENT WITH THE U.S. REGARDING MARRIAGE!

    But if that is true then why are they living in the United States instead of living in Canada?

    Perhaps you can explain why it is morally acceptable to steal money from your fellow citizens (i.e. the �government�), yet it is unacceptable to just tell your fellow citizens you want their money and why you think you are entitled to it (i.e. voting)?

  24. John T. Kennedy Says:

    “If you and I make an agreement and you deliberately and clandestinely attempt to avoid your part of that agreement I�d call it subterfuge.”

    What agreement are you referring to in this case?

    “Perhaps you can explain why it is morally acceptable to steal money from your fellow citizens…”

    It’s not. I don’t know why you so consistently read things precisely backwards.

  25. The Serpent Says:

    John Kennedy: What agreement are you referring to in this case?

    Between You and I???

    Well � if we aren�t going to be honest with each other than I really don�t see why either of us would be having this conversation to begin with?

    Unless you have some ulterior motives for running this site?

    Serpent (previously): Perhaps you can explain why it is morally acceptable to steal money from your fellow citizens (i.e. the �government�), yet it is unacceptable to just tell your fellow citizens you want their money and why you think you are entitled to it (i.e. voting)?

    John Kennedy: It’s not. I don’t know why you so consistently read things precisely backwards.

    John Kennedy: I don’t have any problem with them angling for benefits[i.e. Stealing] (democratically demanding [i.e. Voting] benefits is another matter).

  26. No Treason! Says:

    …Man

    Posted by: John T. Kennedy

    on Nov 24, 03 | 4:38 pm | Profile

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  27. John T. Kennedy Says:

    Serpent,

    At this point I have no clue as to what you’re talking about.

  28. shonk Says:

    But if that is true then why are they living in the United States instead of living in Canada?

    Because they don’t like socialized medicine?

  29. John Lopez Says:

    “The state has nothing sacred or even moral to impart. The state has only carrots and sticks and any carrot it might offer you was taken from someone else by way of a stick.”

    Exactly right.

  30. No Treason! Says:

    ……

  31. No Treason! Says:

    ……

  32. No Treason » Blog Archive » Missing The Big Love Boat Says:

    […] Forget policy, polygamists are demonstrating that individuals can and do take their marriages private, as well they should. […]

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