When Rowan Williams praises marriage, everyone assumes that this is because he is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it’s the Christian thing to do. Well, it is a Christian thing to do, but no one could claim that it was the only Christian tradition about sex: there is a great deal in praise of celibacy, and the OT is clear abut the benefits of polygamy. Even the statement that a bishop shall be the husband of one wife is ambiguous. Perhaps it comes instead from his socialist roots. Because marriage, it seems to me, is a profoundly socialist institution or a egalitarian one: what Sam Bowles would call a means of reproductive levelling.
What marriage — or institutionalised monogamy — does, compared to the doctrine that consenting adults may do whatever they consent to, and with whoever consents, is to interfere with the market. Under the “consenting adult” regime, everyone, in effect, is constantly present in a sexual marketplace, where they trade various forms of attractiveness. Like all markets, this tends to unequal results. As Jesus remarked, to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And if we are talking about she that hath not, even more is taken away.
Socially demanded monogamy is an egalitarian tax on this market. Like all taxes, it can be evaded or avoided, but only at a price. It ensures that almost everyone gets something from the market place, because no minority can monopolise the goods and then rig the rules in their own favour, as the winners in markets tend to do.
In favour of this idea is the fact that monogamy tends to be enforced (and regarded as desirable) in communities where there is a lot of feedback and social control while the wholly untrammelled market (and seen as the summit of human felicity) flourishes in cities where there is much less policing by reputation, since anyone can always “emigrate” to a new social circle.
It follows, that if the market is badly regulated, or rigged by the winners, there will always be more losers. So how does it persist? One answer, I think is that here, just as in the American economic system, far more people suppose themselves to be among the winners than actually are. But this supposition is obviously going to be corrected by reality. And perhaps it should be rephrased to say that almost everyone is afraid of finding themselves among the losers, since the penalties for that are so much higher under a system where attractiveness can be freely traded.
I might work some of this up for the Graun. Thoughts?