Conservatives care about marriage. Libertarians should too.


A resentment for the state has made conservatives and libertarians bed fellows. It’s an uncomfortable relationship; a marriage of convenience. They can both bang on about cutting faster and deeper, debate, or wait at least, for ‘tantric’ referendums over the EU, and sometimes conservatives even forget who they are, and call themselves libertarians too. I’m looking at you, Farage.

But marriage has always been seen as a conservative issue. It’s always uncomfortable. Libertarian’s try to leave the room. At least before it all ends in divorce.

Many libertarians will tell you that the state has no business being in marriage. Conservatives will tell you the state has every business being involved. But it’s not, and shouldn’t be, black and white.

When it comes to children, libertarian’s choke on their cereal. Who owns children? How is a child defined? What individual rights do children have, if any? Should children receive state funded education? It’s all a bit awkward.

This is why libertarians and conservatives should agree on marriage. Considering parents choose to bring their children into the world, they are the best people to decide how their child should be brought up, within reason. Indeed, marriage is the best mechanism to ensure that both parents take responsibility. The abject failure of the care system shows that the parents themselves should step up, because when the state takes ownership, catastrophe follows.

It’s no coincidence that children from divorced families are almost nine times more likely to commit crime. It’s a disgrace that only 30% of young offenders grew up with both parents. And, at £100 billion a year cost, the state is paying for it.*

I’ve heard the argument time and time again from libertarians that that there are great parents who aren’t married, and incentivising marriage won’t improve children’s lives. Surely, marriage is an outdated, religious institution that the state should keep away from?

The reality of the situation, however, is that 27% of couples that were cohabiting when their child was born have separated by the time the child is aged 5, compared with 9% of married couples.** The formal entry and exit of marriage, public expression of unity and horizons, helps provide a more hospitable environment to long term relationships.

The benefit is that children are given a more structured upbringing. Greater dialogue between parents in marriages means children have a less obfuscated picture of morality. In stepfamilies, with four parental actors, it can difficult to sustain consistency. More difficult to define acceptable behaviour.

What is worse is that the state actually incentivises divorce and family breakdown. Indeed, it’s estimated that 1.8 million low-earning couples are £1,336 per year worse off. This is because two single claimants are given a greater amount in benefits than is saved by cohabiting in the current system, according to the TPA.***

If the state should be involved in children’s lives, perhaps the best role it could provide is to support the institution of marriage, for heterosexual and homosexual couples and parents alike. To Mr Clegg, £3 a week may not be the reason he got married, but to lots of people an extra £150 a year could make all the difference.

Especially to tomorrow’s generation.

*  Being tough on the causes of crime:  Tackling family breakdown  to prevent youth crime; Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith; Chairman of the Social Justice Policy Group. February 2007. Page 7

** H. Benson, Married and Unmarried Family Breakdown: Key Statistics Explained, Bristol Community Family Trust (2009)



Ruairidh is a conservative with libertarian sympathies. Follow him @rufergu


  1. Libertarians can support the idea of two people voluntarily deciding to formalize their relationship. I don’t see any issue there.
    For me, the issue comes when marriage is given a special position, and held up to the what we should all aspire too, and that any other arrangement is somehow secondary or inferior.

    That, to me, smacks of social conservatism.
    A loving and nuturing home enviroment is what we should be after, but that isn’t a monopoly of married couples. I was brought up by my single mother after the divorce. I got to see my dad every week and there all parties got on very well. I was very happy. That was better that if my mum and dad had stayed together and been at each others throats throughout the whole of my childhood.
    I think the author needs to make a distinction between happy households and married ones. Because they sure as hell aren’t the same thing.

  2. As a libertarian myself, absolutely none of the arguments in this article make sense. You’re essentially saying all libertarians believe in the state, which is a basic, basic political error.


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