Over at his L.A. Liberty blog, a libertarian responds to my quotation of Steve Horwitz’s argument about federal recognition of same-sex marriage by doubling down on a love of liberty:
Being against the government’s involvement in marriage isn’t really about being “against federal recognition of same-sex marriage,” much less “limiting someone’s liberty”; it’s about recognizing that the solution isn’t to demand the state “approve” or “sanction” a relationship but to affirm that the state is illegitimate in such a role. Demanding such a thing requires implicit acknowledgement of the state’s authority over the relationships of consenting individuals. How individuals wish to peaceably associate and live their lives should not be subject to majority opinion nor permission from “superiors.” In this case, practicing ”pragmatism” only entrenches the state’s dominion over our lives.
Believe me, I get the argument. I understand how in our less-than-ideal reality, liberty for some may be restored through the state’s participation. As I said with regards to Prop 8’s passage:
I am very pleased that the ruling has restored more liberty to some residents of California: there is absolutely no rational reason for the government to treat homosexual couples differently than heterosexual couples. None. We are, after all, only as free as the least free among us.
But as I stated above, using the state in this manner only entrenches its dominion, and is counter-productive in the long-run. Yes it would help, but there is a better solution. And this is our argument, which in no way whatsoever is one of “limiting someone’s liberty.”
Leaving aside that the author believes I’m somehow always being disingenuous when I post anything that touches on libertarianism, what I want to say is that the argument he makes seems to simply play right into Horwitz’s hands. I fully recognize the libertarian position that it would be better if the government had nothing whatsoever to do with marriage. That’s just fine. But this is where Horwitz begins and so it’s also where I began my quotation of his post. Indeed, Horwitz’s challenge is directed at precisely the argument made by the libertarian blogger. I’ll quote it again, in case you missed it the first time:
For my libertarian friends who argue that federal recognition from the Supreme Court would mean more state power or overturn federalism, and that we should only insist on a world where the state is out of the marriage business, I pose the following challenge:
Suppose we had a Social Security system in which all residents of the US paid FICA but only white ones received the benefits. Would you argue that the libertarian position is to continue to deny people of color access to Social Security benefits on the grounds that giving the benefits to them would “extend federal power?” Would you continue to insist that the only libertarian position is to argue for the elimination of Social Security even though it continues to benefit only whites?
It seems to me that the principle of equality before the law, which is fundamental to classical liberalism, demands that the state treat all citizens equally and that libertarians ought to be outraged if such a system existed.
What Horwitz is saying is that, sure, libertarians would prefer no governmental authority with regard to marriage. But since governmental authority with regard to marriage exists right now, libertarian principles require support for federal recognition of same-sex marriage just as liberatarian principles require that Social Security benefits should be extended to everyone who pays into the program, despite a continued opposition to Social Security.
Maybe Horwitz is tilting at straw men here; I admit that I don’t know. Maybe libertarians all think that marriage equality is a no-brainer.
Now, my friend Jeff Miller tells me that this might be a quirky issue of old and new libertarians or academic and non-academic libertarians. He believes that most new — or young or non-academic — libertarians are perfectly open-minded about same-sex marriage and that this is an instance of the old guard hashing out something that the new folks have already figured out. If so, that’s terrific; it means that, as Horwitz want to see, libertarians are getting out from under the weighty problem of always making the perfect the enemy of the good (or, as they are sometimes accused, of insisting upon living in a fantasy world). Miller might very well be right, as so many of the comments on Horwitz’s post are tackling questions of religious freedom and not fighting out whether or not same-sex marriage should be recognized. (This, of course, raises a new question — about who precisely would be in the business of recognizing marriages if the government had nothing to do with it — but I’ll save that for another time.)
But, interestingly, the libertarian blogger I quoted above seems to maintain an interest in this fantasy world, at least to some extent. He writes that “there is absolutely no rational reason for the government to treat homosexual couples differently than heterosexual couples. None. We are, after all, only as free as the least free among us.” So perhaps he is, as Miller believes, amongst the new breed of libertarians. But his main point is effectively to double down on his love of liberty, to continue to insist that so much of our government is simply illegitimate, and to argue that this is the best possible response to the question of whether or not the government should recognize same-sex marriage. Of course it shouldn’t, he says, because the federal government shouldn’t recognize any marriages.
In his words, “using the state in this manner only entrenches its dominion, and is counter-productive in the long-run. Yes it would help, but there is a better solution.”
When the state does recognize some marriages and not others, to say that “there is a better solution” is likely cold comfort to those who are facing the discrimination. It amounts to recognition that a policy is discriminatory — and is thus infringing on the rights and liberty of some citizens, precisely the point that Horwitz was making with his challenge — but to focus more energy and attention on the fantasy of doing away with government than on the practical possibility of simply ending the discriminatory policy.
That a libertarian believes it would be better to have less government is clear, but in the meantime Horwitz insists that libertarians embrace a policy position that doesn’t allow for discrimination and infringement on the rights of some group or other.
Your condescension aside, I think that on substance we are probably close in agreement. My objection was to your statement that someone who wants the state out of the marriage business altogether is somehow “in favor of limiting someone’s liberty.” This is a profound misrepresentation, which is why I singled out that sentence and only that sentence in my reply.
Now perhaps this misrepresentation stems from your take of Horwitz’s “state’s rights” fallacy and his own misrepresentations of the anti-statists, like myself, who champion removal of the state’s claws from our consensual associations. We do not condone, approve, or would otherwise be comfortable with a state curbing liberty so long as the federal government isn’t. States, of course, do not have rights - only individuals do. The point is that libertarian non-interventionist ideals aren’t merely for foreign policy. Just as people in the United States have no right in dictating how the people in, say, Russia peaceably live their lives; neither do the people in Alabama have any right dictating how the people in Oregon peaceably live their lives. The idea is to continue this trend of non-aggression to be as localized as possible, until we recognize that no individual has any right to interfere with how another individual peaceably lives his life.
Further, the Constitutional federalism that many libertarians promote is based on the understanding that because the Constitution is the reason the federal government ostensibly has any authority to begin with, and the Constitution is clear that the states which compose the union have only bestowed limited authority to the federal government, then we must at the very least recognize those limitations in power or conclude that the Constitution, and thus the federal government itself, is illegitimate.
In any case, allow me to offer a perhaps crude analogy. Imagine two slaves and a master. One slave has benefits, days off, the ability to make personal choices about his clothing and food, earns a decent wage, and is allowed many other comforts. The other slave works long hours, suffers beatings, receives no pay, is malnourished, and is treated deplorably. It would be unquestionably right and good for the slave-owner to be made to treat the second slave as well as the first. And if this can be achieved, it would be foolish to not capitalize on the opportunity to offer the second slave a better life. But however well the slave-owner treats them, both would remain slaves. To only advocate for equal and fair treatment of slaves would be preposterous because the slavery itself is what should be advocated against - especially if achieving better treatment of the second slave requires the slaves to implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of their master’s superiority over their lives.
And it was not long ago that those who fancied a world free of chattel slavery were considered “living in a fantasy world.”
Requiring individuals to obtain permission from some third party or group to peaceably and consensually associate means that we do not own ourselves. This is unacceptable.
This is not making the perfect the enemy of the good (although there is no compromise when it comes to self-ownership: “[M]y self-ownership is absolute - in decisions large and small… There is no finite number of objections I am willing to raise when government meddles.”). This also is not shunning “the good.” This is pointing out that, yes, what is “less morally wrong” is better, but it is still not “morally right” - and it is also denying that what is “morally right” is simply fantasy.
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- jeffmiller said: I agree with his points, and think that most libertarians do too.
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