Jonathan, you bring up an interesting point: “If your libertarian instincts tell you that it’s none of your business if two men or two women marry each other, then why is it the state’s business if one man marries two, three, or four women, so long as they are all consenting adults?”
Properly construed, the subject of homosexual marriage is awkward for ardent libertarians because it insidiously suggests another question to which their doctrine provides no comfortable answer: Should marriage of any form, even the traditional, be within the domain of state regulation?
In as far as the relationships, duties, and privileges of marriage are confined in their reach and consequences to the adult spouses, libertarians see no reason for the state to treat marriage any differently from ordinary contracts. From this point of view, traditional marriage too is just a contractual union not to be accorded special treatment or “social subsidies” by the state. Conversely, seen as yet another contract, any domestic union that wants to call itself marriage should be allowed to take place. The finer point is that libertarians, even in their laissez-faire attitude toward marriage, neither dispute nor defend the virtues of transgressive unions. What they advocate, while professing moral agnosticism on the matter, is that marriage be divested of its social mystique and institutional protections—that it shrink to a merely appellative label for an open-ended category of contractual domestic relationships.
Whatever its merits, this radical position fails on practical grounds. The obvious enormity of polygamy is often cited to make the point—the same could be said for other far more aberrant though contractually sound unions.
By contrast, most so-called progressive liberals do not champion homosexual unions in the context of fully deregulated marriage. Whatever libertarian instincts they might be endowed with, their prevailing instincts are statist. Unlike confused libertarians, they are not prone to fall down the rabbit hole of “if homosexual marriage, then why not polygamy?” because they have no reservations about wielding the Leviathan’s scepter against unions they themselves find distasteful or destructive. Of course they see marriage as a public good: a vital institution worthy of state sanction, societal approval, and “social subsidies.” This also means they must defend, on its moral merits, whatever union they deem worthy of calling marriage, so as to justify the latter’s high standing.
To this effect they are advancing the argument that marriage is—essentially—monogamy. In this context, same-sex monogamous unions are seen as normative. Cultural conservatives insist that, rather, marriage is essentially the union between man and woman. The conservatives’ argument carries the authoritative weight of thousands of years of continuity in human customs. Marriage has always been between men and women, even in societies most tolerant of homosexuality. Ironically, it has only occasionally been monogamous, even in Abrahamic religions.
But being made by man, marriage could also be changed, improved by man. And it has. Indeed, monogamy is now nearly synonymous with marriage—aberrations from it are seen as barbaric relics from tribal, primitive societies or Islamist theocracies. Perhaps the institution of marriage can withstand further changes productively—but it certainly cannot do so as flimsily as today’s “progressives” propose. Human traditions do matter. In fact, it may be the rites of marriage, the cultural myths surrounding it, its promises of domestic bliss and family adventures, of home and hearth, that homosexual couples covet most of all when they aspire to marriage. But these are the cultural byproducts of a heterosexual tradition, with the peculiar relations it prescribes between men and women, which may or may not scale well across same-sex unions. In the debate to define marriage, it would take a very powerful argument to compete with the force of tradition, especially when that tradition partly accounts for the very allure of marriage to those who seek to redefine it.
Could the virtues of monogamy-above-all-else trump the fitness between man and woman as the truest essence of marriage, thus conveniently extending marriage to homosexual couples while banishing polygamy? Perhaps so, but liberal progressives are not the best advocates for an argument that elevates marital exclusivity as the cornerstone of marriage, given their own distaste for and attacks against traditional culture. For that’s where the sentiment that monogamy and fidelity are the ideal form of marriage is grounded.