When the subject of same-sex marriage is raised, why does the burden of proof fall on defenders of traditional marriage, rather than on the proponents of change in established custom?
Wednesday, I attended the “Whither Conservatism?” conference sponsored by National Review Institute and Hillsdale College, and was struck by Maggie Gallagher’s comments:
“Ideas have consequences,” Gallagher said, noting that the essential argument of gay radicals is that “Christianity is a form of bigotry,” so that the result of the gay rights agenda will be the elimination of Christian moral arguments from the public square. Gallagher called attention to the August decision in the Benitez case in California, requiring physicians to provide insemination services to lesbians, as an example of the impact of the gay-rights doctrine.
In other words, the same court that requires the state to recognize gay marriage also resorts to the coercion of private physicians. One is reminded of the sign that appeared in a shop window in Berkeley, shortly after that city’s government was taken over by radicals in the early 1970s: “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.”
The long-term consequences of any particular policy change may be unimagined at the time of the change, but it stands to reason that the more radical the change, the more numerous and disruptive the consequences. Edmund Burke did not prophesy every consequence of the French Revolution, but was wise enough to see that a terrible precedent was being established, and it is only in retrospect that we can trace the straight line from Liberté, égalité, fraternité to the killing fields of Cambodia. As I mused yesterday:
The burden of proof in policy disputes ought always to rest with the advocates of innovation. The Burkean insight is that established law and social custom are presumed legitimate, and that revolutionaries who would overthrow the established order must first demonstrate (a) the necessity of the change to remedy existing evil and (b) some reasonable assurance that the new order would be a genuine improvement on that order which is to be destroyed. (Or, to quote Lord Acton: “Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”)
Conservatives ought not let themselves be intimidated into retreat or cowed into silence by radicals who angrily demand a justification for the preservation of the established order — justifications that the radicals will never accept.