By now you have probably heard from the most overweight person at your place of employment that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are disengaged again. I don’t want to make any judgments,* but it seems like Levi may be responsible for this one, given that A) he confessed that he “may have” conceived a child with another woman and B) according to Bristol, he recently flew “to Hollywood for what he told me was to see some hunting show but come to find out it was that music video mocking my family.” Tactical error, homey. It’s possible, amid the stress that followed impregnating the governor’s daughter immediately before her mom entered a national presidential election, Levi Johnston was not thinking clearly. In that mental state, the decision to get married might not have been wisely considered. Of course, within a broader paradigm, it probably made perfect sense.
This news happens to coincide with a series of protests in Iowa against gay marriage.* On Tuesday, a speaker for the National Organization for Marriage (slogan: NOM NOM NOM) argued that unmarried parents are at least partially responsible for the economic downtown. “It costs you, the taxpayer, as high as $280 billion a year for fragmented families, according to the Family Research Council,” NOM spokeswoman Tamara Scott told the assembled crowd.
Exactly how the Family Research Council arrived at this number was not explained. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they made it up, on the principle that convincing people—but not gay people—to get married is a cause sufficiently important as to be worth lying about. A segment of the American populace seems to regard marriage as a panacea and rising divorce rates as the cause, not a symptom, of an unhappy and destabilized culture. If people like Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin would only get/stay married, they argue, violent crime and welfare burdens and psychological illness and whatever else they totaled up to $280 billion would go away.
I submit that this thesis is akin to addressing your termite problem by re-siding your house. Let us consider the sequence of events in Levi and Bristol’s relationship:
1) Levi and Bristol have unprotected sex.
2) Bristol gets pregnant.
3) Levi and Bristol get engaged.
4) Tripp is born and named for a type of accident.
5) L&B get married.*
6) L&B remain married until one of them dies.*
There are several points at which this chain can be broken. The marriage activist is likely to argue that Step 1 should have been avoided entirely or placed between Steps 5 and 6. You can also argue that Steps 2 through 6 can be obviated with the modification “Levi spends 89 cents on a damn rubber,” and when you think about it, that’s an equally great way to avoid the “fragmented families” that NOM claims are costing us a quarter trillion dollars every year.
Interestingly, though, the same people who argue passionately against teen pregnancy and single parenthood oppose that solution. Because it is likely to eliminate Step 5 entirely while preserving the substance of Step 1, it is perceived as a counterargument to marriage. If people can bang each other senseless without having to worry about raising a child, then why would anybody get married? The answer, of course, is “because they love each other.” That is precisely the consideration treated as moot by the argument that people like Levi and Bristol should get married.
There are plenty of reasons to get married besides human affection, but really only one reason to not do so. When you argue for marriage as the solution to sexual desire, unplanned pregnancy, single parenthood and widespread divorce, you are also arguing for a lot of marriages between people who do not love each other. It’s an argument from collective expedience: individual choice, and by extension individual happiness, is less important than the broader good of society.
The validity of that reasoning is open to debate. It’s worth noting, though, that it has been roundly rejected by marriage activists in the areas of abortion rights and made-up aspects of health care reform—viz. Sarah Palin’s own pull-the-plug-on-Grandma bogeyman. If your opinion is that we should legally and culturally compel people to marry because social good is more important than individual happiness, you should probably also by that logic support birth control and euthanasia.
That is generally not the case, obviously, and here we have committed a classic poker player’s fallacy. As Sklansky reminds us, DAI: Don’t Assume Intelligence. The marriage activist position is not predicated on a coherent system of values or socio-political logic; it’s predicated on the sense that things weren’t so bad back when people were getting married all the time.
That’s true of other people. I suspect, though, that if you go to Levi Johnston’s studio apartment and get him to pause his Xbox long enough to ask whether things were better last week, when he was thinking about spending the next sixty years with his high school girlfriend and Sarah Goddamn Palin, he’ll tell you that he is much happier now. I bet, if you sat Levi down and probed his views on marriage, single parenthood, abortion and teenage condom use, he’d disagree with his kid’s grandmother on virtually every issue. He might also be against putting it to a vote.