Privatize Marriage

Stephanie Coontz, a historian, suggests in the New York Times that government get out of the marriage business. Why, she asks, “do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry?”

For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

So, she says, “Let churches decide which marriages they deem ‘licit.’ But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.”

It’s a great idea. Indeed, it’s such a good idea that I proposed it in Slate back in 1997:

So why not privatize marriage? Make it a private contract between two individuals. If they wanted to contract for a traditional breadwinner/homemaker setup, with specified rules for property and alimony in the event of divorce, they could do so. Less traditional couples could keep their assets separate and agree to share specified expenses. Those with assets to protect could sign prenuptial agreements that courts would respect. Marriage contracts could be as individually tailored as other contracts are in our diverse capitalist world. For those who wanted a standard one-size-fits-all contract, that would still be easy to obtain. Wal-Mart could sell books of marriage forms next to the standard rental forms. Couples would then be spared the surprise discovery that outsiders had changed their contract without warning. Individual churches, synagogues, and temples could make their own rules about which marriages they would bless.

One of the problems with this whole idea is that, as usual, the state has entangled itself in our lives. There are 1049 federal laws that mention marital status, most of them dealing with taxes or transfer payments. If marriage becomes a matter of private contract, the federal government will still have to decide whether to recognize all such contracts for the purpose of handing out marital benefits. And that doesn’t even get into custody, inheritance, property, next-of-kin, hospital visitation and other sorts of laws usually handled at the state level. Just another example of how the intrusion of the state into every corner of society makes it difficult to privatize any aspect of life. But it’s good to see the idea getting some discussion.

This Week at the Supreme Court

Notwithstanding last week’s agreement to hear the D.C. guns case – the announcement of which managed to be both later than originally expected and earlier than expected after the decision’s postponement – the Court has gone back to putting itself out of business by reducing its workload to nothingness.  (How’s that for judicial restraint?) 

The Court has granted review to 51 cases this term, putting it about at the same pace as last year, when only 68 cases were decided after argument.  This is down from the 70-low-80s of the previous 15 years (except 92 in 1997-98), which itself is down from the 100-110 pace before that (and, for example, 129 in 1973).

But forgetting the numbers game, this week the Court is hearing four arguments, in cases involving: 1) private causes of action under ERISA (Larue v. DeWolff); 2) the deductibility of financial advisers’ fees from trust/estate taxes (Knight v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue); 3) whether New Jersey may construct a natural gas facility on the Delaware River over Delaware’s objection (New Jersey v. Delaware); and 4) the federal preemption of a (Maine) state law that blocks the delivery of Internet-bought tobacco to teenagers (Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Assn.).  Not too exciting, other than that case 3 comes in under the Court’s rare original jurisdiction (meaning no state or lower federal court first ruled on the matter).

On Friday, the justices are scheduled to hold a private conference to discuss more pending cert petitions, with orders on those expected next Monday.  The safe bet is that they’ll deny them all – though there is one interesting case (McDermott v. Boehner) where one sitting congressman is suing another over the latter’s disclosure to reporters of an illegally taped (and embarrassing) phone conversation.  Stay tuned.

Are 35 Million Americans Going Hungry?

A news story and op-ed in the Washington Post recently noted that about 35 million Americans, or more than 10% of the population, are “food insecure.” It sounds like there is a massive underclass of people in the nation who are so poor that they can’t get enough to eat and are going hungry. No doubt that is the idea that many articles want to put across on the reader.

But is the hunger problem really that big? Let’s go to the official definitions and data at the Department of Agriculture:

Definitions: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/measurement.htm 

Data: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/howoften.htm 

It seems to me that it’s only the “very food insecure” folks who might be sometimes going hungry. Less than 3% of the population is very food insecure at any time during a given month, and that drops to less than 1% on any given day.

Douglas Besharov has argued that the main food-related health problem today is obesity, not hunger. Poor Americans are generally suffering not from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food. 

According to federal data, about two-thirds of American adults are “overweight” and about half of those are “obese.” Those rates are actually higher for adults below the poverty level. Similarly, children below the poverty line are more likely to be overweight than other children.

Despite these modern realities, food subsidy programs continue to support an out-of-date model of increasing the caloric intake of low-income Americans. It’s time to cut them. See further discussion here.

More on Bulgaria Flat Tax

Adding to Dan’s note, here is today’s story from Tax Notes International (no link):

The Bulgarian parliament passed a new flat tax on income on November 16, making Bulgaria the seventh EU member state to adopt a flat tax regime …

The new flat tax will replace Bulgaria’s progressive, three-bracket income tax, with a flat 10 percent tax on income starting in 2008. Bulgaria had already slashed the corporate tax from 15 percent to 10 percent in 2006 … 

Bulgaria is the latest in a number of Central and Eastern European countries that have replaced progressive systems with flat tax regimes. The flat tax revolution was pioneered by Estonia in 1994, and since then about 20 countries in Central and Eastern Europe have followed suit.

In this country, many pundits and presidential candidates would reverse President Bush’s modest reduction in the top income tax rate from 40% to 35%. Those rates are more than three times higher than the new flat tax rate in Bulgaria, a former communist country.  

Bulgaria Takes Big Step to Flat Tax

In the first test vote, the 10 percent flat tax was approved in Bulgaria by an overwhelming margin. If the Bulgarian experience matches what happened in other nations, the low-rate flat tax will be adopted, the economy will grow faster, and the government will collect more revenue. But just to show that there are some things that remain constant, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund will continue to urge countries not to adopt this simple and fair tax system. The Sofia Echo reports:

Parliament approved on November 23, in first reading, amendments to the Income Tax for Natural Persons Act, which will introduce a 10 per cent flat tax rate starting from January 2008. The amendments were supported with 152 against 36 votes, with four abstentions, Bulgarian news agency (BTA) said. The flat tax rate will replace the current progressive tax system.

The Big UK Data Breach

I’ve testified and written several times about how such things as REAL ID and “electronic employment eligibility verification” are threats to our identity system. Collecting identity information in one place is the creation of new security risks. Now the UK has proven it - so we don’t have to!

The sensitive personal details of 25 million Britons could have fallen into the hands of identity fraudsters after a government agency lost the entire child benefit database in the post.A major police investigation is being conducted after Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, admitted yesterday that names, addresses, birth dates, national insurance numbers and bank account details of every child benefit claimant in the country had gone missing.

Most likely, this data is just lost, but in the wrong hands it would provide criminals all they need to impersonate any of these 25 million people.

The persons responsible have been sacked. Specifically, Paul Gray, chairman of HM Revenue & Customs office.

Ron Paul and the Reaction against Big Government

Kudos to Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch for dominating the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section the way Ron Paul supporters dominate online polls.  And kudos to the Post for running an article on the Ron Paul phenomenon by writers who actually sympathize with it. Gillespie and Welch write about “a new and potentially transformative force . . . in American politics”:

That force is less about Paul than about the movement that has erupted around him – and the much larger subset of Americans who are increasingly disillusioned with the two major political parties’ soft consensus on making government ever more intrusive at all levels, whether it’s listening to phone calls without a warrant, imposing fines of half a million dollars for broadcast “obscenities” or jailing grandmothers for buying prescribed marijuana from legal dispensaries.

Paul, who entered Congress in 1976, has been dubbed “Dr. No” by his colleagues because of his consistent nay votes on federal spending, military intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, and virtually all expansions of federal power (he cast one of three GOP votes against the original USA Patriot Act). But his philosophy of principled libertarianism is anything but negative: It’s predicated on the fundamental notion that a smaller government allows individuals the freedom to pursue happiness as they see fit. …

Paul’s “freedom message” is the direct descendant of Barry Goldwater’s once-dominant GOP philosophy of libertarianism (which Ronald Reagan described in a 1975 Reason magazine interview as “the very heart and soul of conservatism”). But that tradition has been under a decade-long assault by religious-right moralists, neoconservative interventionists and a governing coalition that has learned to love Medicare expansion and appropriations pork.

The Reason editors cite a 2006 Pew Research Center poll that found 9 percent of Americans holding basically libertarian values. I’m sorry that out of all such calculations they picked the one that found the smallest number of libertarians. As David Kirby and I pointed out in “The Libertarian Vote,” Gallup found 21 percent. Using somewhat more restrictive criteria, Kirby and I found that libertarians were 13 percent in the Gallup and American National Election Studies surveys, 14 percent in a different Pew survey, 15 percent of actual voters in the ANES survey, and 15 percent in a Zogby survey of 2006 voters.

Of course, some of the Ron Paul supporters wouldn’t show up in any of those estimates. They’re conservatives who are fed up with Republican spending, liberals who want to stop the war, and previously apolitical folks who are attracted to straight talk. Gillespie and Welch do a good job of describing the quintessentially American spirit that draws them together.