Monday, May 07, 2012

Fusionism, Subsidiarity, Ammendment One and Me

The vast majority of my Social Networking friends are either Liberals, Libertarians, or Conservatives of a non-theoretical sort. I am none of the above. I am what the late Frank Meyer styled a Fusionist -- a conservative/libertarian chimera with the head of a libertarian, the heart of a conservative and no spleen to speak of.

Frequently, when I wander into a Facebook thread on a political issue, I find that I disagree with the general direction the discussion is heading. Often I will make a comment containing a single word, "Harrumph", to remind my friend that not everyone reading the thread agrees. That way if they want to know they can ask. This posting concerns one such topic. Many best friends (and some family members) feel very strongly about the issue so I am posting my dissent on my opinion blog which nobody reads so I can be on record without frightening the horses.

Ammendment One

The North Carolina legislature has passed a bill to put a resolution on the ballot in an upcoming election which, if passed, would, in effect, copy the language of an existing state law -- designating the marriage of one man and one woman to be the only domestic union recognized by the State of North Carolina -- into the state constitution. North Carolina is the only state in the Southeastern US that does not have such language in its constitution and I plan to vote for the resolution. I am almost the only person I know who admits to an intention to do so.

To explain why will require that I cover a bit of tedious background forces and principles. I will try to be as brief as possible but please feel free to stop reading and delete me from your friends list at any point if you feel you must.


Marriage is an institution that is universal in all human societies. There are a few differences in details from culture to culture but they are generally minor things that only serve to emphasize the underlying similarities. Marriage answers the same societal needs everywhere and the most urgent of these is to form the basis of multi-generational families which can provide for the care and training of children. The institution of marriage is a scaffolding that society erects around the procreative potential of intimate male-female relations to provide an environment in which any resulting offspring can be reared in a socially-beneficial way.

One hears the argument that the widespread use of contraception and the concurrent "sexual revolution" have changed everything, and there is some truth to that: The social norms around marriage have shifted a bit -- people in first-world countries delay marriage until later in life and there is less social stigma associated with sex outside of marriage. Couples tend to live together until such time as they are ready to have children and only then marry. This is a reasonable-seeming adjustment to the rules and would be unobjectionable if people were more conscientious with their contraception. The fact that illegitimacy rates have gone up instead of down since the introduction of the pill does raise the question of whether the simpler old-fashioned cultural norms worked better, but that is a topic for another day.


As a Fusionist I seek to maximize individual freedom (as do Libertarians) but I also believe that, in the real world, freedom and civic virtue are entangled concepts (like mass and weight in a gravity field) and that attempts to promote the one will succeed only if due consideration is given to the other.

I should quickly point out here that by civic virtue I am not talking about any particular list of Sunday School admonitions and that I am not leading up to an argument that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. Instead, by "civic virtue" I refer to a general sense among the members of a society that all of the following conditions apply:

1) There are shared standards of behavior (whatever they might be) and one ought to observe them;

2) It is sensible to expect that other people will try to follow the rules too;

3) The self-imposed restraints one incurs in following the rules are offset by the mutual confidence in interaction that comes from shared values;

4) When everyone makes a good-faith effort to follow the rules a tolerable degree of order can be expected.

These culturally-dependent rule sets accrete over time by logical induction as people observe the results of behavior and try to codify rules to describe which actions work out well, and which badly. Generally, any rules so derived are claimed to be part of God's divine plan for the world -- an attribution which, if an omnipotent God exists, is fairer than you might at first assume. But even if He does not exist it doesn't follow that the rules are void: The life-experiences from which they were induced are real enough even if the good or bad outcomes had nothing to with God's blessings or displeasure. As I used to tell my son when he was a teenager and was fighting with his mom -- "The fact that you mother told you to do your homework is not a sensible reason not to do it." By the same token, advice one gets from one's Sunday-school teacher is quite possibly good advice, despite its claimed origin in doubtful theology.

I mention all this because I am arguing for a traditional view of marriage and our cultural ideas on the subject are woven through with threads of religious doctrine that are difficult to tease out. I contend that there are sound secular derivations for those threads of reasoning and that one cannot dismiss the whole cloth by an expression of religious disbelief.

Subsidiarity and the Libertarian Ideal

Per Wikipedia, Subsidiarity is an organizing principle stating that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The concept is applicable in the fields of government, political science, cybernetics, management, military (Mission Command) and, metaphorically, in the distribution of software module responsibilities in object-oriented programming. Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism, where it asserts the rights of the parts over the whole.

There are a number of ways to lay out the details but for the US, where sovereignty originates with the individual, the usual idea is that the delegation of authority looks something like this if subsidiarity is to be achieved.

A moment's inspection shows that while not necessarily a libertarian idea it has libertarian tendencies. Here is the diagram adjusted to express an American libertarian idea.

That is 'an' American libertarian idea, not 'the' American libertarian idea because you have to leave room for those libertarians whose philosophy arises from misanthropy. They might draw the diagram thusly:

But I am not talking about them ... or to them, I expect. Nor am I talking about Liberals/Progressives who believe that problems can be solved by giving power to a few really, really smart people at the top who will straighten the rest of us out.

Only by the centralization of power can Liberals achieve the uniformity they crave. Local differences offend them. If different states have different laws then the a Liberal will assume that all but one are wrong somehow, and quite possibly all of them are wrong since the laws were codified at the local level, far away from the top where the really smart people must be. How much better, they imagine, to put the best brains on the problem, come up with the most sensible law, and drive it in everywhere from the top.

I suspect you have guessed from the previous paragraph that I am more attuned to the (non-misanthropic) libertarian version than the Liberal one. That is true. But, I think the libertarian view has a problem, too. Here is their diagram with one of the boxes re-labeled:

The problem I am trying to point out is that a simple libertarian model that envisions only atomized individuals vs the state doesn't work for all individuals. None of us are born able to make our own decisions, and some of us lose that capacity with advancing age. Without strong multi-generational families, and without a well-supported institution of marriage as the basis of such families, the concept of radical individualism becomes absurd.

When I said "Too much is required" above I was not just thinking about things that the recipients would recognize as aid, but of other government programs that would inevitably follow. In the section on Fusionism above I said that civic virtue is a prerequisite for a minimal state. Or, putting it another way, people will only put up with so much and past a certain point they will demand that the government do something. Among the things that people won't put up with are feral youth and neglected old people. Single parents tend to find taming their kids a challenge. Boys, in particular, who grow up without a male role model find themselves disproportionately in trouble. It's not a problem of their instruction -- they learn. If there is no male role model, generally what is missing is not the model, it is the male role in the family. Part of the expense of dealing with poorly-socialized young males is building jails to put them in.

Doctrinaire libertarians will say that without the prospect of redistributive government aid for their children, or for their aged grannies, people will spontaneously gravitate to social structures that allow their needs to be provided for, and there is some truth to that. But, I contend that the most effective such institutions, and the institutions that people recognize as such and gravitate toward, are marriage as currently understood and the multi-generational families that strong marriages create. I am certainly in accordance with the libertarian goal of cutting entitlements, and particularly in avoiding the perverse incentives offered to fragmentary families where the more disconnected they are, the more money they get.

People think that marriage is in decline everywhere but it is not. Among the more affluent, marriages remain common and strong. It is among the less-well-off, where those perverse incentives have disintegrated families like a Duck Dodgers Martian ray gun, that marriage is rare, and families are fragmentary and powerless.

Here's my model of a libertarian delegation of authority model that interposes the idea of an multi-generational family to deal with the problem that children and the elderly offer to the more typical model. It will not, I'm afraid, appeal to the misanthropist libertarians whose ideology arises from daddy issues. But it makes sense to me.

I plan to vote for Amendment One tomorrow because I think that the purpose of marriage is to facilitate the creation of multi-generational families which serve as intermediaries between children and the elderly on the one hand and society at large on the other. Because gay and lesbian unions do not produce children who must be cared for and trained when young, or who can make decisions for their parents when the parents are in decline, such unions do not serve what I see as the primary purposes of marriage.

I further contend that the "libertarian" case for gay marriage is bogus. While it is perhaps regrettable that our culture has allowed the government to co-opt the definition of what constitutes a "marriage" -- being all about marriage licenses, justices of the peace, documents filed in the courthouse etc. -- it is an accomplished thing. If the legal definition of marriage is changed then the popular notion will change as well and those few hold-outs will be targeted by anti-discrimination litigation. Marriage, as an institution, will be weakened in terms of its social role and since that social role is a necessary precursor to a stable minimal role for government we will all be less free.

Update: I found this short piece on the National Review Online Blog: The Corner. In it Ryan Anderson makes some similar points, only with an ease and clarity that I envy.