You can’t mandate marriage, even if it’s good for society

Marriage may not matter as much as it once did to young couples. But it matters a lot to society at large.

You can't mandate marriage, even if it's good for society

Chris Wattie/CP

Marriage may not matter as much as it once did to young couples. But it matters a lot to society at large.

Married couples are a foundation of the economy. They earn, save and spend more than their unmarried counterparts. They are happier. And a mountain of evidence shows stable two-parent families are good for kids. Children who grow up in a married family are far more likely to succeed in school, find employment and avoid problems later in life than those raised in other situations, however loving.

But despite all this, the future of marriage as a continuing social institution often looks quite grim. This week saw the release of a sobering international report detailing the decline in significance and prevalence of marriage, and the impact this is having on fertility rates, social cohesion and economic growth worldwide.

“On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children, many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable two-parent home—of lonely seniors living on meagre public support, of cultural and economic stagnation,” warns the report, sponsored by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada and other family values think tanks around the world.

The report The Sustainable Demographic Dividend: What do marriage & fertility have to do with the economy? makes a convincing case regarding the societal value of marriage. But from that common sense point the authors then argue, as think tankers are wont to do, that governments must get involved to fix the problem.

To revive interest in marriage and fertility, it recommends promoting family-owned businesses over large corporations through tax breaks and aggressive antitrust legislation. Social programs should be enhanced for young couples of marrying age. Mass transit is touted as a way to make the suburbs more attractive to new families. Television, music and movies should be encouraged (or perhaps forced) to portray more appealing family-friendly role models. And governments ought to orchestrate a massive advertising campaign to promote marriage in the same way smoking has been discouraged. It’s not a particularly compelling list of prescriptions.

Aside from the call for public service announcements touting marriage, most of the proposals seem likely to create more problems than they solve. Do we really want governments boosting mom-and-pop pizza joints at the expense of franchisees? And all the alleged solutions ignore the one essential factor that makes marriage a virtue in the first place.

Marriage is a good thing for society because it requires introspection, planning and sacrifice on the part of the couple themselves. It is this significant personal commitment that activates all the virtuous attributes.

Recall that home ownership provides many of the same benefits as marriage in terms of social cohesion, stability and economic growth. However, we mustn’t forget the lessons from the U.S. housing meltdown of 2008 when government policy deliberately set out to encourage greater home ownership among people ill-prepared to accept the substantial obligations it entailed.

By all means, governments ought to remove actual impediments to marriage where they exist. The occasional ad plumping the advantages of getting hitched might even have a salutary effect on a small minority of fence-sitters. But the aggressive promotion of marriage as a public policy imperative is in no one’s best interest.

Marriage may be a virtue, but it is a virtue shared between two people. Government policy has nothing to do with it. You can’t mandate love.


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