We live in a weird world. Imagine you’re an alien, and you decide to visit earth. You want to learn about human social and political institutions – how we interact with one another and by what rules. You’ve overheard that human behavior is strongly influenced by people in Washington DC, so you decide to visit and observe.
Apparently, you’ve arrived at an exciting time. What do you see? Thousands of people eagerly awaiting something.
The event begins immediately: nine humans in black robes exchange words with each other, then with some other humans, then again with each other. They look upset and retreat from their seats. Spectators wait with bated breath.
Then they emerge, share some more words, written and oral, and then hundreds of millions of people erupt in applause or anguish. Their lives change immediately. Some cry with joy; some cry with sadness. Things will be different. Every policemen and political leader now demands new behavior from every citizen, whether they like it or not.
Five robed humans raised their hands, and four did not.
The humans call this “voting”, and the robed ones are called “judges”. The judges create the rules for hundreds of millions of other humans who aren’t judges. Nor will they ever meet the judges. They have to obey the rules, whether they like them or not, under penalty of imprisonment or death.
Mind you, had one judge – one human – changed his vote, the lives of hundreds of millions would be dramatically different.
And why do hundreds of millions defer to nine strangers? At this point, it’s unclear; your best guess is that they believe the judges have a “right to rule” – that their words should be treated as rules for the entire society, while regular people’s words should not.
OK, enough with the alien stuff. Do you get my point? We live in an extremely peculiar political system when you think about it, and it causes an extremely unnecessary amount of sadness and division.
The Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a Constitutional right to all Americans by a 5-4 vote. Think about that for a minute. One vote made the difference. One fellow human controlling hundreds of millions of lives they’ve never met? Why would anyone think that’s a sensible political system?
As a libertarian, it is tempting to praise the ruling. Legalizing gay marriage extends liberty and equality to more people than before. However, I am deeply worried about the principle behind the ruling – the strings attached – and I foresee an even greater diminishing of freedom in the future because of it.
To be straightforward: I know the exact problem with gay marriage in the United States (and everywhere else), and I know the perfect solution which satisfies all parties involved. But before I share the solution, we need to have a clear understanding of the problem.
In a nutshell: politics and morality don’t mix well. In the non-political world, when two people disagree with each other – especially on religious or moral issues – they might share some tense words, perhaps they won’t communicate at all, or they might sit down and try to work out their differences. If an agreement cannot be met, the world doesn’t end; they just might not associate with one another.
But when politics gets involved, everything changes. Politics rules out the possibility for peaceful disagreement – now if one party loses the debate, they might be forcefully coerced by ideas they disagree with.
Take the gay marriage debate. Say you support the right for anyone to get married, regardless of sexual orientation. Now, because it’s a political issue, losing the debate results in institutionalized oppression. Meaning, couples are legally forced to be discriminated against – they are prevented from enjoying the same benefits as other couples with the “approved” sexual orientation.
The same is true in reverse. Imagine you are a Catholic priest who has a religious objection to gay marriage. Losing the political debate could result in you being legally obligated – forced – to perform gay weddings – a complete affront to your entire worldview.
The situation is an inescapable win-lose. The freedom one side gains, the other loses. And this is true for every political issue. By virtue of the nature of politics, winners and losers are inevitable. And the losers, in all cases, are losers by law – the force of government is on the opposing side.
The Source of the Problem
Thus, we’ve found the ultimate problem: marriage has become a political issue – it’s a function of government – which necessarily means some group of people will lose their freedom (or won’t gain it in the first place).
Of course, this stands in stark contrast to non-political areas. Take the disagreements between sports fans. Which NFL team is best? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get very different – and very strong – answers. Cowboys and Eagles fans are arch enemies, and they act like it. But, it’s not a political issue; government isn’t giving any special privileges to the “legally best” NFL team. Imagine the chaos which would result by such a declaration! NFL fans can strongly, peacefully disagree, and even agree not to associate with one another.
Or take religious disagreements about meat-eating. What are the Christian and Muslim to do about pork at the dinner table? Can they ever eat together? Well, not if one side is physically forcing their moral judgments on the other. The Christian is stupid to think, “Well, my religious ideas say eating pork is OK. Therefore, you will eat pork at my table!” And the Muslim is stupid to think, “Well, my religious ideas say eating pork is not OK. Therefore, you will not eat pork at your table!”
But, such a disaster would be inevitable if the government got involved. You’d have lobbying, lawyers quacking at each other, and lofty judges ruling what shall and shall not be eaten for dinner. When there’s one obvious solution staring you in the face: if you don’t like pork, don’t eat pork. If you do, then eat it. But don’t force other people to behave in ways you’d prefer. And don’t give special perks to the “non-pork-eaters” or penalties to the “pork-eaters”.
Somehow, this solution allows the Christian and Muslim to eat together, even at the same table. In peace. Without fear of being coerced by ideas they disagree with.
This is why it’s tempting, but mistaken, to fully endorse the Supreme Court ruling. Yes, freedom might expand now, but the principle is in place for it to contract in the future. The judges say “Gay marriage is legal” today, but twenty years from now they might say “Gay marriage is illegal. And so is homosexuality, as it used to be.” The same governing principle is the same.
Think about it: even a monarch might make declarations you agree with sometimes. He might expand freedom. But should we really celebrate when he does? If the king declares, “Such and such behavior shall no longer be met with imprisonment!”, my reaction wouldn’t immediately be joy. Rather than celebrating, I’d prefer if people thought, “Well, who is this schmuck to determine what is and isn’t legal behavior in the first place?”
So, I am afraid by endorsing the Supreme Court ruling, we’re giving a stamp of legitimacy to an irrational political system – one that is likely to restrict our freedom in the future. This worry is easy to understand when you imagine a monarch making the decision, but it’s also true in a democratic system.
I also worry at the inevitable future court cases, when churches refuse to marry gay couples and bakers refuse to make their cakes. Given the legal precedent, I can imagine a world where all churches are legally obligated to perform gay weddings, for example – a massive blow to human freedom.
Thus, we arrive at the perfect solution: get the government out of marriage altogether. Remove the politics, and remove all winning and losing. This would satisfy both the gay community and the religious.
What Would It Look Like?
In a libertarian world, marriage would be a social and/or religious celebration. A public declaration of commitment. Could it be between a man and another man? Between two men and two women? Well, it would depend on the community you’re in.
Gay people could associate with groups tolerant towards homosexuality; their churches and communities would celebrate their wedding. Religious folks could participate in their own communities; their churches wouldn’t be obligated to recognize nor perform gay marriages. And crucially: nobody would be forced into either community. They would associate voluntarily.
If a group of Catholics do not recognize a gay couple’s marriage, who cares? Just like if they don’t associate with Eagles fans – who cares? Their beliefs wouldn’t be coupled with the force of government.
Without government involvement, it would be like judging whether or not two people are best friends. Who cares? You can say they are, I can say they aren’t. Maybe they won’t be in the future. If they want to declare themselves permanent partners, it doesn’t really affect anybody else.
You might think gay marriage is a right; you might think it’s a sin. You might think pork is delicious or an abomination. In the libertarian world, you are entitled to your opinion. But your opinion is impotent; it cannot coerce anybody else.
In this scenario, can you spot any winners and losers? No. There are none. Gay people are allowed to marry. So are polygamists, and every other voluntary assortment of adults. Objectors are free to object. Nobody’s rights are violated.
True freedom, of course, entails the right to your own opinion – and the right to act as you please, as long as it’s peaceful. This means Christian bakers are free to refuse baking a cake for a gay couple – just like a black baker is free to refuse baking a KKK cake. The Klansman is free to hold his ignorant opinions, as long as he doesn’t act violently on them, and we are free to judge his ignorance and refuse to associate with him.
Freedom of speech is not only applicable when you say pleasant things. It permits you to say inflammatory things which lots of people hate. The same is true of the freedom of thought and association – you are free to think politically incorrect thoughts and associate with unpopular groups. Just because most people think racial/sexual/etc discrimination is distasteful, doesn’t mean it should be illegal.
I would go even farther and say the libertarian solution is the only peaceful one. It’s the only civilized one. Literally. Civilization is built on the peaceful resolution to disagreements. Governments are built on the forceful resolution of disagreements. So, if we want to preserve civility, we must get the government far away from marriage, and return it to its proper place: as a social institution.
Marriage should be about people’s commitment to each other – like a grand declaration of permanent best-friendship. We don’t need governments involved in determining who can and cannot be best-friends-for-life. We don’t need any politicians, lawyers, or judges quacking away about the topic. We don’t need a small group of robed humans to tell us what is and isn’t permissible. And we don’t need marital freedom by force. All we need is political silence: an absence of government altogether.