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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Lurking Urge to Applaud Gay Marriage

Mixed feelings.

Two recent headlines clashed on the subject of State-sanctioned and regulated marriage: the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s “N.Y. Parade Cheers the Right to Marry” and the New York Times“Polygamist, Under Scrutiny in Utah, Plans Suit to Challenge Law.”

The “right to marry” being celebrated is the right of gays to place their intimate relationships under State control and so reap the legally mandated benefits offered to married people. The lawsuit being denies that the State has any right to participate in a private sexual arrangement between consenting adults and so attempts to avoid the legally mandated penalties imposed on “unacceptable” arrangements.

The first embraces marriage as a State-run institution and expands its scope; the second seeks to define marriage as a private matter. Logically, libertarians should reject gay marriage and applaud the polygamist’s stand.

But rejecting gay marriage is not that simple … as the division among libertarians reveals. Some fully endorse the “right” of gay marriage, and even those of us with reservations applaud the sight of gays weeping with joy as they are pronounced “married.” I find myself muttering “it is about damned time” even though I oppose State involvement in marriage.

Why I Oppose the Expansion of Marriage

Both polygamists and gays should enjoy every right I do as a monogamous heterosexual human being. But I have no right to be married by the State, only the legal ability. To the extent anyone has a natural right to marry, it is as an extension of the right to contract. State marriage denies the freedom of contract by imposing its own terms for marriage and divorce, as well as through laws dictating how families may function. The State then rewards those who accept its jurisdiction by offering them tax-funded and legally mandated benefits; an estimated 1,100 federal benefits are currently available to heterosexual spouses. State jurisdiction over marriage should be denied not expanded.

So why the lurking urge to applaud gay marriage?

What Gay Marriage Seeks

The reason for my confused reaction is that gay marriage has three different objectives — two of which I accept, one of which I reject on principle. These objectives are:

  1. The achievement of equal status in society. Gay people have such a deep, brutal history of being repressed that it is nothing but justice for them to announce themselves to society and do so with dignity. If this is what legal marriage means to gay couples, then it is largely symbolic and I have no interest in critiquing how people symbolize or express their love.
  2. The ability to access the proper freedoms enjoyed by married couples. Gay couples seek State sanction in order to secure freedoms, such as the unquestioned ability to visit a hospitalized partner. Again these freedoms are best secured privately through such mechanisms as living wills and powers of attorney, as well as by changing social attitudes. But other than the amorphous harm of legitimizing the State, the freedoms sought harm no one.
  3. The ability to demand entitlements. Such entitlements include welfare benefits, mandated health benefits from a working spouse’s employer, and state pension benefits. No one – heterosexual or gay – has the right to impose the cost of their personal choices on unconsenting third parties. And yet fully half the articles and commentaries I’ve read on gay marriage laud the extension of marriage benefits.” This means a heavier burden on taxpayers and especially on individuals (such as employers) who must directly extend benefits. Libertarians should oppose expanding the injustice of entitlements and agitate instead for the end of entitlements to heterosexual couples.

To Legally Marry or Not

I did. I married into a deeply conservative family to whom a common-law relationship was anathema; nothing short of legal marriage could make me a family member. Thus I understand the craving many gay couples have to be publicly acknowledged rather than despised or dismissed. If they choose marriage as the only form of union that our society fully respects, then I cannot criticize them for a choice I made myself.

Again, however, marriage loses the status of a personal choice and becomes a political one whenever the cost of that decision is imposed on third parties. Thus my husband and I eschew all tax-funded benefits and urge others to do the same.

Any gay marriage that does not involve an entitlement grab deserves a congratulatory handful of rice. But the expansion of entitlements is the expansion of injustice and a step in the wrong direction.

If I  strictly follow libertarian principle, I think gay-marriage advocates should heed the example of polygamists; heterosexuals should as well. But if I follow my heart, I can only wish gay couples well.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.