New York’s new gay marriage law is supported by the vast majority of libertarians. Libertarians do not believe in state regulation of private behavior, and they see regulating marriage as the government interfering in private behavior. One of my personal new-found heroes, Ron Paul, has said many times: “the government should not be involved in the marriage business.”
I don’t agree, mostly for what I consider to be libertarian reasons. Read on to find out why.
First, some terms.
1)A just government is meant to be a voluntary compact to protect the natural rights of life, liberty and property (see D&C 134:2). Natural rights are rights that you have simply by being born; they are inalienable. New rights cannot be created that interfere with other peoples’ natural rights.
2)The US federal government should stay out of the marriage business (and in this sense I agree with Ron Paul). Marriage and family law is the purview of state and local laws.
3)People should be tolerant of other behaviors, even if they run afowl of our personal morals. Laws regulating the personal behavior of others violate their natural rights, and in this sense government should not tell people what to do as long as they don’t harm other people. Laws against sodomy and other personal sexual behaviors are and should be unconstitutional nationwide.
4)People should be able to make voluntary contracts with each other, including contracts that may include some rights that are generally promoted through marriage. For example, there is no reason why one man should not be able to leave his Social Security or private pension benefits to another man with whom he has been living, as long as that contract is consensual. There is no reason why one woman should not be able to visit at the hospital another woman with whom she has been living. There is no reason to prevent some employers from deciding to offer health benefits to domestic partners.
5)The worthiness of people to be parents is a separate issue than their sexuality. There are extremely worthy gay couples and extremely unworthy married straight couples. Adoption and other issues should be considered based on the individual merits of the people involved and not on sexuality.
So, it should be obvious to anybody who has read 1-5 above, that when I discuss “marriage,” I am discussing something different than a “voluntary civil union” or a “partnership.” Marriage has an objective meaning. In general, I favor local governments promoting same-sex civil unions rather than marriage.
Well, actually, “marriage” has two objective meanings. One is religious and one is civil or secular. The religious meaning is: “the uniting of one woman and one man before God.” The civil meaning is: “the uniting of one woman and one man in a public ceremony in which the community participates with the purpose of supporting the formation of a new family unit.”
I would like all readers to imagine they live in a small town on the American frontier in, say, 1800 (about the time of Joseph Smith’s parents). This town is far away from other government and must adopt rules to govern itself. What is “marriage” to this town?
Marriage is a way of helping people govern themselves so society does not have to get involved. Marriage supports and promotes the primary purpose of just government, which is to protect the three natural rights. Marriage is voluntary civil government at its most basic level.
Marriage supports the right to life because it is intended to help form and nourish new life and to keep the community growing and prospering. It supports the right to liberty because it helps protect the liberty of the town’s inhabitants against foreign elements (think of Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty) and the liberty to pursue happiness. It supports the right to property because family units usually develop some kind of property and then pass that property on to their heirs.
Why am I going back to 1800? Because we have forgotten what marriage is. Virtually every major society in the history of the world has accepted a stable definition of marriage, which is: “the uniting of one woman and one man in a public ceremony in which the community participates with the purpose of supporting the formation of a new family unit.” Even societies that have had wide tolerance of sexual behavior (such as ancient Greece and Rome, for example) have also accepted this definition of marriage.
Marriage helps keep societies chaos-free. A public marriage announces to past boyfriends and girlfriends: these people are married now, leave them alone and go find another mate. The public ceremony asks the community to participate in maintaining the marriage for the good of society. “Breaking up a marriage” has negative consequences for a community because it involves more than just the two people who are married. It involves breaking a public compact.
Marriage is definitely *not* a private affair. If it were, people would get together privately in their living rooms and exchange rings and call themselves married. But this is not what happens in a marriage: the family, friends and community members participate because it is a public commitment ceremony.
Everybody reading this right now does not believe that anybody should be able to marry anybody else. You do not believe that a lecherous 30-year-old man should be able to marry a six-year-old girl. You do not believe that a greedy 30-year-old man should be able to marry a rich, mentally incompetent woman confined to a mental institution so he can get her money. Most people reading this do not believe that a man or woman who is already married should be able to marry another person until he or she is divorced.
My purpose here is to convince you that “marriage” has a different definition than anything else. It exists as a specialized concept with clearly defined connotations, and it has since the beginning of human interaction.
By adopting state-sponsored same-sex marriage, even by the preferable means of the legislative process, the government is engaging in social engineering. It is taking a time-tested definition of an institution that has existed in one form for millennia and creating a new definition. Libertarians should recoil from such state-sponsored action.
There is nothing wrong with creating a new institution — a civil union, for example — and using it to address the obvious inequities of the current situation. This is the easier and simpler approach: billions of people throughout time have known what a marriage is. Now, people will be introduced to the new concept of a civil union that is intended to help provide an alternative approach.
Libertarians should be extremely leery of adopting new definitions for words with objective meanings. Life, liberty and property have objective meanings that need to be maintained. Big government types have been trying (and succeeding) to change the meanings of words for decades. Thus, “liberty” becomes “freedom from want, the freedom to take from one person and give to another based on need.” No, liberty means the exact opposite of that. Liberty means you have the freedom to do what you want with your life and the state cannot interfere.
It is exactly the redefinition of objective words that libertarians should fear. We have redefined the words “national defense” to justify foreign wars of aggression against sovereign nations. We have redefined “police force” so that it means, “SWAT teams breaking into your homes and killing innocents.” National defense means defending the country against foreign invaders who attack first. Police are intended to protect and serve the taxpayers who pay their salaries.
As mentioned above, the U.S. Constitution leaves family law to the states and localities, just as it leaves police and fire protection and local courts to states and localities. Marriage is an extension of family law and is intended to build up a stable society and also protect the family unit from state meddling. The Cato Institute earlier this year printed an important paper called “Marriage Against the State” that pointed out the importance of marriage in protecting your personal life. The paper points out that “getting the government out of the marriage business” is not the solution.
Government has been and always will be involved in the marriage business at the local level. People want public ceremonies where they express their commitment to each other. These ceremonies have important societal purposes, as outlined above.
One last point for the libertarians reading this: the libertarian movement is at its best when fighting against conventional wisdom and elite opinion. American elites overwhelmingly favor gay marriage. Think back of all of the things that American elites have overwhelmingly favored over the years (Medicare, Social Security, the drug war, the war on terror and on and on). How often does history prove them right?
Let me conclude by saying that the gay marriage movement appears unstoppable. The younger generation has no clue that marriage has a different meaning than a voluntary civil union. So if you are reading this and are offended, please consider that you have probably won the battle. Most states will have gay marriage in the next decade. Time will tell if it will truly involve the promotion of liberty or not.