- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Is government presumptuousness boundless?President George Bush is sermonizing for government-sponsored experiments in healthy marriages. The extrapolated wisdom would slash welfare rolls, or so it is hoped. Single-parent households dominate poverty statistics. The president is thus proposing a modest $300 million in federal funds to subsidize state experimentation into happy marriage formulas for the poor.
To marry or not, however, is a watershed decision for all, not just the penurious. If government prospects for discovering the key to happy marriages or happy singleness were rosy, it would be cruel to confine the investigative enterprise to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. If insights can be learned about successful marriages, President Bush's initiative should apply to the entire population.
But it seems quixotic to believe anything useful can be said of marriage to would-be spouses beyond the self-evident. Don't choose drug addicts, philanderers, liars, egomaniacs, the physically or mentally abusive or the narcissistic. And to borrow from Shakespeare, avoid a mate whose chief good and market of his time is but to sleep and feed.
Our greatest philosophers have been baffled by the ingredients of happy marriages, like discovering the philosopher's stone. British sage Sam Johnson scouted second marriages as triumphs of hope over experience. More than a century ago Punch offered the follow advice to persons at the abyss of marriage "Don't." Zorba the Greek characterized his marriage as a full catastrophe. Sir Francis Bacon warned that, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief."
On the other hand, marriage has proven the ultimate in sublimity for many. The warm and loving family life portrayed in television's "Leave It To Beaver" is no rarity.
But the wise man knows both what he doesn't know and what is unknowable. And knowing what will make marriage work between two unique persons with unique aspirations is beyond human understanding, like knowing what would make life itself rewarding to another. Indeed, we all struggle daily between ashes to ashes and dust to dust with our reason for being and personal aspirations. Only those afflicted with extreme hubris would dare to lecture others how to achieve heavenly bliss, either married or single.
It might be said, however, that government-supported investigations of happy marriages in 50 different state laboratories might turn up something startlingly new and useful. The probability, however, approaches zero, like the chances Mr. Micawber might climb his way out of impecuniousness. The private incentive for such research is colossal. Happy marriages are universally craved. Thus, a financial bonanza would greet proven "how to" lectures or publications on marriage or singleness gleaned from experimental research. Consumers would pay for such coveted profundity more readily than for summer vacations. The absence of such private research, accordingly, bespeaks the futility of happy marriage investigations. How many dollars would you invest in a company formed to discover happy marriage formulas?
How many marriage counselors charge contingency fees, i.e., no success, no payment?
The irrational or inexplicable is the hallmark of marital love. It is blind; a subservience of reason to passions; not a crass commercial courtship of destiny. Shakespeare's Romeo repines: "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs; Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes; Being vex'd, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears; what is it else? A madness most discreet, A choking gall and a preserving sweet." Should he and Juliet have been required to complete a prospective marriage impact statement showing a surplus of happiness over pain? Do arranged marriages work better than those driven by the personal passions of the partners?
How little is known or knowable about marriage is exemplified by the absence of persuasive evidence that monogamy is superior to polygamy or polyandry in generating personal happiness. Utah's Mormons were as well balanced and thriving as the rest of the nation before they were "coerced" into theologically renouncing polygamy in the 1890s. Islamic tolerance of four wives has erected no barrier to healthy families in Muslim countries.
In upholding the constitutionality of criminalizing polygamy in Reynolds vs. United States (1879), the United States Supreme Court enlisted dogma, not proof of evils or even intuition. It preached: "Professor Lieber says, polygamy leads to the patriarchal principle, and which, when applied to large communities fetters the people in stationary despotism, while that condition cannot long exist in connection with monogamy." But women living in the monogamous United States were then denied the franchise and excluded from professions like law because told by men, including the Supreme Court in Bradwell vs Illinois (1873), that God had destined the entire sex to docile homemaking.
Wouldn't it be refreshing if politicians humbly confessed that facilitating happy marriages was beyond their ken and vocation? Their personal examples hardly inspire optimism that government knows or ever will know best.

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