Libertarians, in my experience, have a hard time getting a handle on marriage. If you’re the sort of person who likes to maximize individual freedoms and minimize imposed social forms, then marriage is a strange beast. By getting married, we voluntarily sacrifice many personal freedoms, and we effectively ask society to pressure us into keeping our marital commitments. It’s not quite the infamous slave contract, but it’s close. It is counterintuitive for a libertarian to warm to this sort of arrangement. And yet, the fact remains that where marriage fails, the role of government inevitably grows, and individual liberties accordingly diminish. Apparently, the ball and chain helps make us free.
I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible for a libertarian to work through these oddities, but it’s complicated. Marriage is a classic case of an area of life in which imposed discipline yields great rewards. The methods of imposition are complex, but generally involve the subtle interaction of social, religious and, yes, legal forms that work together to encourage people to maintain this most critical of human bonds. Since every human society in known history has had some such arrangement, there is no shortage of data to sort through, but we can make little sense of it without dealing in the sort of substantial normative claims that make libertarians uncomfortable. They prefer their public policy normativity-lite.
All this is to say that I perfectly understand why so many libertarians come down in favor of homosexual marriage. In fact, the marriage debate provides a great opportunity for squeamish libertarians to distance themselves from the cranky and emotional religious right. Abortion violates the harm principle in a pretty obvious way: it leaves a human being dead. Expanding marriage, by contrast, doesn’t appear to harm anyone. By supporting homosexual marriage, libertarians can prove that they legitimately do not wish to impose a particular Judeo-Christian-inspired lifestyle on everyone, and that they will stand by their live-and-let-live principles even when this puts them at odds with some of their conservative allies. This is a very attractive opportunity for many libertarians. They love the feeling of standing above the fray of others’ messy emotions and biases.
Thus, a common libertarian take on marriage is something like the following: homosexual couples should be able to marry legally, but other people should not be required to recognize or celebrate that marriage on a social or professional level. If you don’t support homosexual marriage, decline the wedding invitation, don’t send presents, and don’t invite the couple to dinner. Everyone should just mind his own business.
It sounds reasonable. Here’s the thing, though. Marriage has nothing to do with minding one’s own business. If a couple merely wants to mind their own business, what need for the chaplain, the certificate, or the rented reception hall? People aren’t marching in pride parades to win the right to mind their own business. What they want is widespread social acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their relationships. They want homosexual couplings to be afforded the same social standing as heterosexual ones.
Given this goal, lobbying for marriage makes sense. Marriage is the gold standard of relationship legitimacy. The fact is that many Americans don’t see marriage as the sort of thing homosexuals can do, and homosexuals are not wrong to conclude that their coupling is widely regarded as irregular and less than respectable. I’ve heard homosexual friends, in their dreamier moments, fantasize about the peaceful, love-tolerant society that they one day hope to achieve. In this society, James and Bob will be able to hold hands in a public park without causing offense, and no one will blink at the photo of Janet and Linda in their bridal gowns.
It’s like those snakes with the fangs that only pop out when they’re preparing to strike. Everything’s love and acceptance until you realize that what they really want is the obliteration of the Judeo-Christian view of marriage.
Sorry to be dramatic, but that's simply where we are. There really is nothing let-live about this vision. Millennia of human societies have understood marriage to be a particular sort of thing. That view has to die before the love-tolerant society can emerge. Some people want it to die, which, given a certain agenda, makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is supporting homosexual marriage as a means to a more tolerant, more free society. Liberals want to legalize homosexual marriage because they want a stronger position from which to pressure conservatives to abandon their traditional view of marriage in favor of something that makes them (liberals generally, not just homosexuals) more comfortable. If there is any other reason for favoring homosexual marriage over and above a civil union-type arrangement, I cannot see it.
I do appreciate, of course, that supporters of homosexual marriage favor different methods for bringing about the desired end. Some are happy to employ aggressive tactics, suing and firing those who do not speedily fall into line with the new customs and mores of the love-tolerant society. Others prefer a softer approach, such as introducing new curricula into public schools. And then, there are some (libertarians often among them) who hope to see a kind of velvet revolution in sexual morals, as the more-tolerant young grow up and replace their stodgier elders. In this last view, co-opting the word “marriage” and some of the more formal trappings may be enough to keep things moving in the right direction.
Personally, I doubt that the velvet revolution will happen. It’s like the frog in the pot of hot water; if you turn up the heat very gradually, it will let itself be boiled to death, but if you heat things up too quickly, it will jump out. For a religious country like the United States, liberals moved too quickly. People are actually thinking about marriage now, and that’s bad news for the homosexual marriage agenda. As with the abortion issue, the marriage arguments are going to become more sophisticated and more familiar, the issue will become entrenched in American society, and our children’s moral sensibilities will be shaped by it to a significant degree, for better or worse. (Of course, I could be wrong about all this, though I hope not. My husband and I have a long-standing bet going concerning homosexual marriage, and if it isn’t legal in all 50 states by the year 2030, I’ll be getting a very nice bottle of cognac.)
My central point, though, is this. A person who truly cares about individual liberties should not support homosexual marriage. A person who relishes pluralism, and takes pride in a society that enables people of widely divergent beliefs to flourish, should not support homosexual marriage. A person who wants us all to “mind our own business” should not support homosexual marriage. Insofar as homosexual persons truly want to live undisturbed, peaceful lives (and some, I believe, really do) they should be content with a substantially similar legal arrangement such as a civil union. Mind your own business by leaving marriage alone.