Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Note on Policy Debates

At its roots, the debate over Proposition 8 is a policy debate. The question is whether passing Proposition 8 is better than not passing it. Therefore, some observations about policy debates seem warranted.

Policy is implemented in the real world. While this statement may seem obvious, experience shows that it is a point worth making. Too often, those in favor of a change in policy focus too much on the unacceptability of the status quo to question whether the alternative will be better, while those against a policy compare the imagined harm to a utopian alternative rather than the reality of the status quo. As academic debaters have often noted, the key to winning debates is found within the simple description of how the world is.

In the case of Proposition 8, we have to compare the status quo of same-sex marriage with the alternative under California law: a world with the same anti-discrimination laws, the same adoption laws, and domestic partnership laws that provide same-sex couples with an institution that only differs from marriage by its name.

The second important observation about the real world is that homosexuals exist, that same-sex couples exist, that same-sex couples have children, and none of that will change if Prop 8 is passed. Even without marriage, homosexuals will still live in society and affect it in any number of ways. The question then becomes not whether same-sex marriages are good for marriage, but whether same-sex relationships are better for society inside or outside of the boundaries of marriage.

As this debate unfolds, we need to remember to keep in mind what the real consequences of each course of action are, rather than analyzing one option against an idealized alternative that doesn't actually exist. Only when we do that can we accurately judge the merits of the policy alternatives.

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