The news today is full of controversies having religious and cultural overtones, especially gay marriage and insurer coverage of contraception. Historians, philosophers, jurists, and theologians all make different and important contributions to the national discussion. Free-market economists also have something to add: these conflicts are greatly exacerbated by the huge and growing role of the state in our lives, and these issues will never be resolved so long as the government displaces other institutions.

Consider the issue of gay marriage. When pressed for justifications, its supporters make an “equal treatment” argument with reference to historical racial segregation, but then they also typically offer practical arguments about unfair tax treatment, life-insurance benefits, child custody, and so forth. None of today’s supporters of gay marriage go so far as to say, “And this is why the government should imprison any religious official who refuses to marry a gay couple.”

In other words, most of the supporters of gay marriage today don’t directly challenge others’ religious views. Instead, they argue that those religious views should not, through the coercive mechanism of the state, end up causing demonstrable harm to a citizen because of his or her sexual orientation. Cast in this light, the arguments do seem compelling, leading even many religious believers to say, “If the government is going to be defining marriage, then it doesn’t seem fair to enforce my own religious viewpoint…”

That the “if” clause is crucial in this formulation. There are many theists in the United States who simultaneously a.) think the government shouldn’t forbid homosexual marriages as performed in a secular, legal context but b.) think it is entirely proper for their own church officials to perform only God-sanctioned marriage ceremonies between heterosexuals.

My point in this discussion isn’t to praise or condemn this typical attitude; my point is simply that the whole reason we are having this public argument is that the government plays such a large role in our lives. If it weren’t for the punitive federal income tax, then a major justification for government-sanctioned homosexual marriage would be moot. If the government didn’t arrogate to itself the power to award children to households it deemed fit, then yet another major “practical” consideration would vanish.

In other words, part of the reason people care so much about whether the government agrees on who can get married, is that the government exercises so much power over the rest of our lives. If the federal government were a minor institution in society — charged with repelling foreign armies, negotiating treaties, and not much else — then nobody would much care what the president of the United States thought about gay marriage. The reason President Obama’s recent “evolution” on the issue so energized his supporters is that the federal government sticks its nose into all areas of our lives. If federal officials think the globe is warming too quickly, that women aren’t paid enough, that speculators are pushing up the price of oil, that Americans are too obese, that a foreign ruler isn’t treating his dissidents properly, or a million other thing, then find your kids and hang on to your wallet. Infused with vast power over us, the opinions of federal officials come to be tremendously important to everyone. If Obama came out and said he doesn’t permit his daughters to listen to country music because of its historical ties to the Confederacy, that would cause a national uproar, not because anybody looks to Obama as a model parent or music critic, but because they’d worry that his administration might go ahead and ban music they consider offensive.

Many religious people have strong views on marriage, yet that per se isn’t what’s driving the political controversy. After all, Christians also argue over doctrinal issues such as predestination, where one’s eternal soul is at stake. Yet we don’t see predestination covered on the 6 o’clock news, and that’s because neither side in today’s purely doctrinal disputes runs to the government to use its apparatus of coercion to force views on dissenters.

Marriage is not simply a religious affair, but also a contractual, legal relationship. It is understandable that historically the government has played a role in defining these affairs in a distinctly secular, civil context. Even so, we can imagine an idealized society where all institutions are voluntary associations, and certain authorities recognize marriages conforming to various criteria, with everyone else free to accept or reject those proclamations. There is a rich tradition of contract enforcement and dispute resolution through private-sector arbitration, in reaction to the sluggishness and expense of government courts. We could imagine something analogous for marriage in a freer society. We currently have style manuals and dictionaries for the English language, with no coercive power enforcing the rules of grammar or spelling. Social customs and precedent could likewise lead to a commonly understood notion of who constitute legally married couples without nearly the same bitterness we currently endure.

There are no perfect solutions to these controversies, and I am not claiming that the voluntary private sector would make everyone happy. But government involvement has exacerbated social conflict. Even if we are practical and acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, the government will ultimately be in charge of the legal definition of marriage, nonetheless its decisions on this issue are far more devastating because of the scope of its power in other areas of our lives.

We see a similar pattern with health insurance. Catholic institutions are understandably suing the government, claiming that it violates their faith to be forced to pay for contraception. Besides the constitutional and ethical issues the controversy raises, it underscores the fact that if the government starts meddling in healthcare, it will necessarily have to take sides on controversial issues.

The problem isn’t limited to contraception, or even to euthanasia and abortion. As the federal government takes control of more and more of the healthcare sector — and it most certainly will, given the logic of state intervention — it will have to make decisions on the allocation of scarce resources. There necessarily will be tradeoffs between prolonging an elderly person’s life versus caring for premature babies. The government will have to decide whether to steer research towards diseases that are largely determined by one’s behavior (such as lung cancer) or diseases that are due to genetic disorders. Government involvement in healthcare has already been the pretext to mandate helmets for motorcyclists, and it will be the pretext for each new round of meddling in how much salt or sugar Americans can consume in their diet.

Economists are particularly sensitive to these problems because they recognize the interconnectedness of the “political” and the “economic.” For example, Ludwig von Mises observed that it was impossible to have a socialist government and maintain any semblance of freedom of the press. For one thing, the government would own all of the newspapers and radio stations. They couldn’t literally air every opinion because of space and time constraints. Thus the government owners would have to exercise “censorship” every day, and it was naïve to expect that a government would be more open to criticism under socialism than in a capitalist society. At bottom, the socialist government could always take troublemakers and assign them to work camps in Siberia — after all, a truly socialist government must be in charge of allocating the labor force in the interests of the nation.

Mises also pointed out that in a country with several linguistic communities, the fight over educational curricula would be bitter indeed. Depending on which language was the common one of instruction, one group could dominate the others. Decades ago Mises’s writings may have seemed irrelevant to an American audience, but they seem prescient now that larger Spanish-speaking communities are developing in certain areas of the country.

The simple fact is that there are no solutions to these conflicts, so long as the government is involved. For example, most Americans — whether deeply religious or skeptical — would agree that a government-run school should permit a child to close his eyes and say a prayer in his head before lunch, but that it would be wildly inappropriate for the history teacher at a government school to have sixth graders write essays on why the Protestants rescued the Christian faith from Catholic heresy. The problem is, there is no principled dividing line between these two extremes. As we move from one end of the spectrum to the other, more Americans would change their mind from “that’s OK” to “no way, that’s government taking sides!” Yet any rule we try to establish, to guide employees at government-run schools, would be largely arbitrary. The only real solution is to privatize schooling altogether and let families, churches, and secular institutions voluntarily come up with their own curricula and rules for student behavior.

The expansion of government into all areas of our lives has carried with it great economic inefficiency. Yet more insidious is that it inevitably pits citizens against each other. Disagreements that would lie dormant and benign as a private matter of conscience suddenly become causes for bitter strife when injected into the coercive political realm.

Robert P. Murphy is author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism. His blog is Free Advice.