Most social liberals are enthusiastic supporters of same sex marriage. Now that they’ve largely won that battle, might we see them support marriage more generally?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Richard Reeves (of the impeccably liberal Brookings Institution) argues that they should:

“Liberals are running out of reasons to be against marriage. Over time, we’ve had at least three reasons to be against, or at least ambivalent about, marriage: First, marriage is hetero-sexist. Second, marriage is sexist. Third, marriage is irrelevant to the quality of family life. But all three seem less plausible by the day.”

With same sex marriage on the statute books almost everywhere in the western world, the first excuse no longer applies:

“The marriage gap that matters most in the future will be between rich and poor, not between gay and straight. And ending discrimination on the grounds of sexuality frees liberals to be unambiguously in favor of marriage.” 

So marriage is no longer “hetero-sexist” – but what about it being a “patriarchal institution”? Reeves tells his fellow “self-respecting egalitarians” to look again:

“…marriage… is being fashioned into an egalitarian form, especially by the most educated women and men. Women have become the sole or main breadwinner in 40% of American households with children, Pew found last year. Of course many of these are single-headed homes, but even among married couples one in four wives makes more money than her husband. Men have hugely increased their share of domestic labor.”

“We’re not at the utopia of a ‘symmetrical family,’ but many couples are getting close.”

That still leaves millions of less educated and presumably asymmetrical families – is marriage any good for them? On balance, Reeves thinks that it is:

“…the evidence is growing that marriage does matter for children’s well-being and prospects. It is far from conclusive, and the causal relationships are difficult to get at. People who are more committed to their kids are more likely to commit to each other. I’ve argued elsewhere that marriage acts as an effective commitment device for ‘high-investment parents.’ So while it is trite to claim that marriage in itself makes for better families, it would be equally trite, in light of the evidence, to claim that it is irrelevant–at least in the U.S.”

There are those who’d say that far from being “far from conclusive”, the evidence that marriage drives positive social outcomes is overwhelming. Still, let’s not quibble – if as prominent a liberal as Richard Reeves is more-or-less persuaded, we can surely look forward to a broad-based consensus in favour of marriage, right?

Sadly not.

Most liberals aren’t really interested in marriage as a social institution. Rather, it’s just one among many lifestyle choices. Extending that option to same sex couples was about liberal values like equality and self-expression, not about support for marriage itself.

Within the liberal worldview, marriage is all about what you want to do, not what you ought to do.

But perhaps that’s just as well. You see, when liberals get it into their heads that you ought to do something, they usually pass a law to make you do it.