Thursday, June 30, 2005

Same-Sex Marriage And The Goals Of The State: The Canadian Frame

I like the Toronto Globe and Mail's summary of this week's vote to make same-sex marriage legal Canada-wide: "It is rare that a law can be both momentous and anticlimactic..." Anticlimactic, of course, because court rulings had already extended same-sex marriage rights to some 28 million of Canada's 30 million citizens - with a notable lack of the civilization-crumbling effects predicted by foes of gay marriage in the United States. (No one in Canada has petitioned to marry their dog, to give just one example.) But momentous, also of course, because it's a strong affirmation of dignity and equality for all families. Marriage rights are now granted to GLBT Canadians, not just because the courts compel it, but because it's the will of the majority. That's momentous.

My favorite Canadian, Idealistic Pragmatist, sent me a link to an excellent analysis of how the same-sex marriage debate is framed in light of differing concepts of the purpose of the state. The post, at Crawl Across the Ocean, is framed in terms of Canadian politics and the Canadian blogosphere - but I think there's a lot there that Americans can learn from. It draws on a Joseph Heath book called The Efficient Society, which contrasts two models of government:
[T]hroughout time most societies have viewed the pursuit of good (virtuous) living as the goal of society. Whether in the world of Islam, Europe in the middle ages, or Communism in the Soviet Union, society functioned by requiring everyone to buy into the same set of moral values. Of course this required getting agreement on what actions are virtuous and which are vices - here religion traditionally (although not always, as the Communist example shows) plays a big role in determining which actions are good (those which please God) and which are bad (those which offend God).

The (potentially) fatal flaw in this type of arrangement is pretty clear - it only works if there is near unanimous agreement about what is virtuous and what is bad. [...]

Heath argues that the combination of advancing technology (which made disagreements much more lethal) and the Reformation which split the church in Europe and caused numerous civil wars led people to reconsider whether this was a sustainable model for society. He suggests that it was the 'social contract' theorists, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke et al, who developed a new set of values for society. In this new model, the state would no longer seek to impose values on society but would only use the powers which society agreed (contracted) that it should have, most notably a monopoly over the use of force to enforce contracts and prevent disagreements over values from getting out of hand and causing more civil warfare.

Heath calls this new model 'the efficient society' because, with the state's role reduced to enforcing contracts rather than values, legitimacy is shifted to those transactions which both parties enter into voluntarily.
Both the blogger at Crawl Across the Ocean and Heath appear to agree that Canada has a national consensus for the values of the efficient society, rather than the virtuous society. I think we'd all probably agree that the two models are in much greater tension in the United States. What's interesting to me is that I don't think the split falls along party lines. The division within the Republican Party is pretty clear; it's easy enough to arrange libertarians and free market conservatives on the "efficient society" side of the debate and religious conservatives on the "virtuous society" side. But I'd argue that Democrats aren't of one philosophy, either. The kinds of Democrats who win elections may be substantially less inclined to moralize - or at least more diffident about asserting their moral values - than their equivalents across the aisle. But within the liberal activist wing of the Democratic Party is a strong current of belief that the purpose of government should be to make people good. Heck, sometimes I lean that way myself.

Crawl Across the Ocean brings these philosophical points back to concrete political issues with a discussion of how arguments about same-sex marriage can be framed within the context of these differing models of society. It's an interesting perspective on framing, from a refreshingly different direction than the American blogger's must-quote, George Lakoff. Give it a look.