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They just won’t go away… the Iona Institute opines on cohabitation. October 30, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Religion, Social Policy.
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I want to write about Education and the Budget, a subject close to my heart, but I haven’t had the time to do so overnight. In the meantime some may have caught the report in Tuesday’s Irish Times which noted that Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has come under fire for arguing that the tax and social welfare laws unfairly discriminated against cohabiting couples in the Republic.

Never a group to be slow to respond the Iona Institute swung into action:

David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, has responded that “cohabitation must not be made equivalent to marriage” and that it would be a “serious mistake” to make cohabitation equivalent to marriage in our tax code.

Why so?

“Research shows that cohabiting relationships are much shorter-lived than marriage and this is particularly bad for children. British data from the Millennium Cohort Study shows that one in four children of cohabiting parents suffer family breakdown before they start school at the age of five. This compares with one in 10 children with married parents.”

It meant “that for the sake of children we need to encourage marriage by providing incentives to get married. In turn, that means giving it advantageous treatment in the tax and welfare codes.”

Indeed.

He added: “Cohabiting couples are not being discriminated against because they can exercise the choice to marry if they wish. In addition, according to one Irish study, three out of four cohabiting couples either marry or break up within the first seven years of the relationship forming.

“This is similar to overseas findings. Cohabitation is rarely seen by couples as a permanent alternative to marriage and the State should not treat it as such.”

Yet it’s odd, isn’t it? Because there is a logical counter-argument that runs like so… if the state were to implement supports or equivalency in the taxation code wouldn’t that have a solidifying effect upon cohabiting couples? In other words the benefits that would accrue from such recognition would itself incentivise those couples to move towards marriage, or would at the very least disincentivise them to break up? After all, if they don’t work to support marriage why on earth have them at all?

After all, such a pseudo-utilitarian argument is implicitly made by Quinn himself when he argues:

“that for the sake of children we need to encourage marriage by providing incentives to get married. In turn, that means giving it advantageous treatment in the tax and welfare codes.”

Where is the distinction? Sure, as with marriage given the availability of divorce, some couples would break up, but it would hardly be beyond the wit of a state to build in processes which would very subtly nudge people to see the benefits of sticking together.

Now on an accompanying blog on the Iona website [apologies, there aren't individual url's] he somewhat expands on the quotes

Now intriguingly he avoids the statistics and data about cohabitation and moves onto trickier conceptual terrain. He suggests that:

It’s a pity in its consideration of this issue that The Irish Times did not go beyond a mere assertion of prejudice (itself the result of a prejudice?) and ask itself whether there is a rational, fact-based reason to treat marriage and cohabitation differently.

Which is fair enough. His answer?

There is such a reason and that reason is the effect of marriage on children. To repeat what has been said ad nauseam on this blog, marriage is the most pro-child of all social institutions because it provides a child with a mother and a father in a publicly committed relationship. Children benefit from having a mother and a father both present and engaged in their lives and they are much more likely to stay together if married. This is testified to by the evidence.

Hmmmm… I’m not so sure. I’d argue that ‘family’ is the crucial context or indeed ‘social institution’ if you prefer. And since families come in all shapes and sizes – with marriage being but an element (albeit the majority) of many of them – I’d tend to the view that concentration on marriage over family is a mistake. Moreover its reification is both pointless, since we know that society will continue to generate families that have no component of marriage about them, and arguably offensive to those who find themselves in such families without that component.

And more to the point, it is not marriage that provides the child with a mother and a father in a publicly committed relationship, but circumstance. Some people will make that journey, others won’t. But chances are the child, the mother and the father will exist one way or another.

And while it certainly is true that ‘children benefit from having a mother and father both present…and they are much more likely to stay together if married’, I’d drop the much in that sentence and suggest that it is futile to argue perfection when we know it cannot be achieved.

But the argument takes an odder turn when he suggests:

It is because marriage is so pro-child that we give it special protection, special benefits, as well as special social recognition.

Here we see a curious inversion where the institution of marriage becomes more important than the actuality of the relationships. Something he is almost explicit in noting when he says:

It attacks it as a social institution by stripping it of its distinctive and special social, legal and financial character. It demotes it by saying there is nothing special or socially advantageous about this institution.

That would seem to ignore both religious and cultural aspects of marriage that imbue it with a character, either in the secular or religious versions, which has sustained it as the most popular expression of public relationship amongst people. That’s not going to disappear simply because the state affords similar or the same rights to cohabiting couples. Arguably it will increase the distinctiveness of secular/religious marriage, and after all it’s up to Quinn and the Iona Institute to make that case.

Yet curiously, for an institution that the Iona Institute champions so strongly, they’re strangely pessimistic about marriage itself. A glance at their press releases (2007 – natch – not updated) reveals reports about ‘marriage breakdown in Ireland’ of the problems of childcare and so on, to the point that one might query why anyone would wish to enter such a union and deal with its effects (although I was entertained somewhat to see that they quote Amanda Platell as an authority on cohabitation – wow, not the first person who I’d call on for such advice). Such supposed frailty would in many generate questions as to whether it was the best possible familiar structure, but not them, not them (incidentally I think marriage as an institution is fairly robust and for all the alarmism it seems to be surviving well into this new century).

Of course… that presupposes that this is an argument based in non-religious arguments about social stability. But I fear that may not be the case, since as the Irish Times notes:

The Iona Institute describes itself as “a pro-religion and pro-marriage organisation”.

And yet, and yet, I have the strangest suspicion that the real source of discomfort here is not so much co-habiting couples as another cohort represented in unexpected numbers in the webpages of the Instititute, those who seek same-sex unions. For after all, if Emily O’Reilly is correct, as I’d hazard a guess she is, and there is an injustice in not giving co-habitees taxation rights, then surely the next step must be the extension of same to those seeking same-sex unions.

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1. Eoin - October 30, 2008

“Here we see a curious inversion where the institution of marriage becomes more important than the actuality of the relationships.” Exactly WBS.

I have to say too, I find the notion that people marrying for tax purposes, rather than out of romance, a bit depressing.

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2. Hugh Green - October 30, 2008

I don’t understand what it means to be pro-religion in general. Can one be simultaneously pro-Christian and Pro-Satanist? Perhaps there is a narrower meaning of religion being deployed here.

And don’t the likes of David Quinn ever read the gospels? Luke 14:26 springs to mind here.

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3. Starkadder - October 31, 2008

Quinn is a cretin.A few years ago, he was lamenting Ireland wasn’t joining the USA and UK in the second Gulf War as well.

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4. saoirsi - October 31, 2008

“… if the state were to implement supports or equivalency in the taxation code wouldn’t that have a solidifying effect upon cohabiting couples?”

Not necessarily. How is that set-up different from marriage, which already exists?

It’s different because marriage is both a legal and social commitment in a way that free cohabitation simply is not. If I incorporate a business to take advantage of tax breaks, I can’t simply walk away from it after running up large personal expenses (except if I’m a bankster, of course).

“…the benefits that would accrue from such recognition would itself incentivise those couples to move towards marriage, or would at the very least disincentivise them to break up?”

But if they both have essentially the same benefits, by definition there is no incentive to move. The incentive to move only exists if there is something different about the institution of marriage.

There is a valid objection that people who are willing to undertake such a lifelong commitment – with regard to establishing and maintaining a family, which is what fundamentally marriage is for – should not be placed in the same category as people who can walk away with far fewer constraints (especially when the welfare system displaces the traditional responsiblity of the father, and externalises the cost onto the rest of society). The tax and other benefits are a recognition of society of the huge long-term personal investment (costs) internalised by both people.

“…‘family’ is the crucial context or indeed ’social institution’ if you prefer. And since families come in all shapes and sizes – with marriage being but an element (albeit the majority) of many of them – I’d tend to the view that concentration on marriage over family is a mistake.”

Family is more important than marriage as social institution; many family’s have marriages, but not all; therefore family is more important than marriage.

In a strictly abstract, formalist construction of things, this hierarchy of sets may be true – if you choose to define it that way. It’s not value free, in other words. We are not talking about squares being automatically a subset of rectangles, but rather of what institutions tend to foster certain behaviours – and what those institutions were evolved for.

“…it is not marriage that provides the child with a mother and a father in a publicly committed relationship, but circumstance. Some people will make that journey, others won’t. But chances are the child, the mother and the father will exist one way or another.”

There is a danger of confusion here: in one sense, family is a set of given biological relationships; whereas as a social institution, family is a set of social relationships, which can be chosen to a degree. The discussion is over the choice of marriage as the best set of social relationships to contain the biological ones.

“…it certainly is true that ‘children benefit from having a mother and father both present…and they are much more likely to stay together if married’, I’d drop the much in that sentence…”

But this still concedes one of the main points of marriage…

“…and suggest that it is futile to argue perfection when we know it cannot be achieved.”

But to reach perfection is not necessary, when simply attempting something better. This is equivalent to saying that if perfection cannot be reached, we shouldn’t even try to do better. And perfection is not being argued for – certainly not in the qualifier “much”.

“…a curious inversion where the institution of marriage becomes more important than the actuality of the relationships.”

Marriage itself does not exist passively and independently outside, but as an institution seeks to sustain, fortify, and shape certain social and personal relationships. It is a set of relationships as ongoing implicit and explicit commitments.

“…religious and cultural aspects of marriage… imbue it with a character, either in the secular or religious versions, which has sustained it as the most popular expression of public relationship amongst people.”

First of all, secular and religious versions of marriage are not equivalent culturally and historically; it’s arguable whether secular states such as the Soviet Union, produced more long-term stable marriages compared to more traditional societies; this is part of the debate about marriage as an constructive, historic, cultural institution, not simply a set of recent laws.

“That’s not going to disappear simply because the state affords similar or the same rights to cohabiting couples. Arguably it will increase the distinctiveness of secular/religious marriage…”

Hopefully it won’t disappear altogether – it may be heavily displaced as though a primitive tribe, however, as inexperienced or even less responsible people choose the state-sanctioned easy option of no long-term commitment, with easier escape, and costs/burdens significantly externalised onto the rest of society.

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5. saoirsi - October 31, 2008

Sorry – I left out a comment about the last line: it can’t – by definition – increase the distinctiveness of marriage, if it removes the differences from it. The main difference left – that marriage entails a public, cultural and legal commitment, whereas free cohabitation does not, is not simply a personal life-style choice, but has an effect on the rest of society.

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6. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

Nice commentary, appreciate it saoirsi.

Just some quick responses, firstly note I said that ‘or would at the very least disincentivise them to break up’. My point is that if the second factor operates it is possible the first ‘move people to marriage’ may come into play, if only to accord with societal standards in terms of relationships, and funnily enough those I know who married who said over years they wouldn’t tended to do so because they wanted to – couldn’t see a reason not to – more often than because of taxation policy. Anecdotal, surely.

As regards your thoughts on ‘family’, I see nothing that contradicts what I said. What I do see though in your thoughts is a belief that the state should ‘foster certain behaviours’ over others. Fair enough up to a point, but what is the evidence that in supporting marriage as an institution it is doing so? Or let’s put it a different way what evidence is there that by extending tax breaks to cohabitees this will diminish marriage..? Moreover you then try to elide all commitment relationships into marriage and ignore the commitment element, often unstated but there nonetheless, in ‘family’ as a construct.

I find it intriguing that a libertarian would have any particular concern about this matter whatsoever? Surely the state, however big or small, should as best is possible deal with people on an individual basis? No?

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7. Mawage « An Saoirsí - The Libertista - October 31, 2008

[...] Some of my ramblings in response to a post at Cedar Lounge Revolution: [...]

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8. Niall - November 12, 2008

“In other words the benefits that would accrue from such recognition would itself incentivise those couples to move towards marriage, or would at the very least disincentivise them to break up?”

I’m not entirely certain why people think it’d be such a great thing to stop these relationships breaking apart. If a couple in a failed marriage/civil union/whatever only stick together for the sake of a few euro, how exactly does that benefit a child? The benefits associated with marriage only really manifest themselves when a child’s parents are in a relatively happy and stable relationship.

Of course it’s possible that there are married people out there who are happily married now but whose relationships might have failed had they gone a slightly worse financial difficulties than the one’s they experienced in the past, but I imagine these couples are pretty rare.

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9. WorldbyStorm - November 13, 2008

Difficult to know but fair point. I guess I’m trying to argue on the same terrain as the Iona Institute use.

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