How your book club and gay marriage will save America

Richard Lorenc Cofounder, Liberty Markets LLC
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Imagine being invited to assume a new job in a city you’ve never visited and where you don’t know another living soul. It’s an exciting opportunity, so you accept the offer and pack your bags.

Following a long flight, you check into your hotel and begin settling in. You find a church and join a gym. A few weeks later, you and your spouse enjoy dinner with a coworker and his wife. Not long afterward, you start volunteering at a charity whose mission you appreciate, and join a classic books club.

Something very important is happening as you make yourself at home: you’re identifying yourself as a member of particular social institutions — marriage, organized religion, a book club, etc. Unlike, for example, universities (“institutions of higher learning”), social institutions don’t have to be formally incorporated, and most aren’t. They develop spontaneously and allow people to relate to each other based on common interests or values. Eventually, these choices become traditions within families and communities, where individuals identify with many simultaneously.

Taken together and paired opposite government, social institutions constitute civil society. Where government necessarily uses force to ensure compliance, civil society is the sum of individuals who associate voluntarily. You might imagine civil society being comprised of many independent governments, each with its own laws, membership, and goals.

Remarkably, despite its constituent institutions’ many differences, civil society hums along regardless of who serves as president or controls Congress. It is the decentralized counterweight to centralized government’s excesses, abuses, and power.

America’s social stability is due to its strong civil society, to the plurality of social institutions that have emerged dynamically and bind people together in unexpected ways.

The protests over public-sector unions in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, are an example of civil society at work. There, opposing protestors may belong to the same fraternity, volunteer at the same homeless shelter, or have kids in the same playgroup. Although there are occasional scuffles, civil society’s intricate network of individuals precludes deadly violence from even being an option despite strong views on both sides.

Thank your book club for the absence of Molotov cocktails in Madison.

Conversely, the ongoing protests in the Arab world demonstrate the perilous fragility present in a nation where civil society has been marginalized by government. Regimes in Egypt and Libya spent decades using legislation to drive underground institutions they believed were immoral or threatened their power, such as a free press. Thus civil society in protest-ridden Arab countries ranges from being weak to absent and is one reason many remain pessimistic on the prospects for a freer region.

The backdrop of these two very different protest cultures can inform debate on one particularly contentious social institution in the United States: gay marriage.

Although there are constitutional bans on gay marriage in 29 states and non-constitutional legal restrictions in 14 others, gay couples live together nationwide and are considered by their friends to be married. Some states allow civil unions, which are marriages in all but name. In states where adoption of children by gay couples is allowed, extra-legal marriages provide stability to families. Gay parents’ social circles expect them to make good decisions in raising their children.

Despite many legal impediments, gay marriage persists. Government can merely regulate the public expression of social institutions, not destroy them. Because it is so well established, removing legal restrictions on gay marriage can only enhance America’s exceptionally strong civil society.

Those who contend gay marriage would destroy the institution of marriage between a man and a woman regard social institutions as zero-sum. However, the emergence of a newer institution does not necessarily mean another will disappear, and although some institutions compete — religious faith and atheism, for example — marriage and gay marriage do not.

It would be simplistic to argue more institutions necessarily lead to stronger civil societies. Institutions — like traditions — exist only inasmuch as they provide useful social functions. If there exist “too many” independent social institutions, too few people will occupy the intersections between them, leading to a more fragmented society. However, there is no way to quantify the optimal number of institutions, so the process of institutional creative destruction must remain unplanned.

Government, of course, is the ultimate planner. Dropping legislative and judicial attempts to curtail the institution of gay marriage would further improve America’s record on the rule of law and strengthen the bonds between Americans of all sorts. Importantly, it would move the debate over the desirability and morality of gay marriage from the halls of Congress and courthouses to the coffee shop and church potluck, where individuals can speak their minds directly and influence those around them.

Society needs strong links between its disparate members to prevent chaos and steward social and political change. Building a civil society is a constant process of individuals forging the relationships that best suit their needs and desires, not having government choose for them.

Gay marriage is a social institution in the fabric of civil society to which someone you know might already or someday belong. Americans need a truce on this social issue, particularly now. Its benefits within a home are many, but it also has the important side effect of improving our nation’s chances of tackling shared challenges civilly and successfully in the years to come.

Richard Lorenc is cofounder of Liberty Markets LLC, a Chicago-based firm that connects donors with entrepreneurial, free market nonprofits.