In 2010, I posted “On Thought Control and Same Sex Marriage“, discussing the gay marriage debate. In that article, I took the position that a.) marriage is not a matter for the federal government and b.) although the states do have power to regulate marriage, it is ethically wrong that they exercise it. Marriage, like any other contract, should be left to the private parties involved in the agreement. Government’s only legitimate role in marriage is enforcing the contract when it is in dispute.
With the recent Chik-Fil-A dust-up, same sex marriage has been in my thoughts again. As a liberty advocate, this is an issue that is particularly vexing to me on a personal level. You see, to me, marriage is a committed relationship between a man and a woman. It’s not ethics. It’s language. From my perspective, a marriage will always be a man and a woman, no matter what the government tries to dictate. The word means what it means. Anyone trying to force me to change my definition is attempting to dictate my thoughts. When government does it, this is one of the most unreasonable uses of force that I can imagine.
On the other hand, I certainly believe that gay people are entitled to the same rights as anyone else. Both of these propositions, to me, are indisputably true, but they seem to be in conflict. That’s a problem. I don’t like it when my thoughts are conflicted.
So how do I resolve the conflict? One of the two propositions must be wrong. Either marriage cannot mean what I think it means or marriage is not a right (of anyone, straight or gay). I believe I have made some progress down the path to resolution, first by examining the two propositions, and second by reframing the debate.
Resolving the Contradiction
So we have two propositions: a.) I believe that a marriage is a committed, contractual, relationship between a man and a woman; and b.) I believe that everyone, gay or straight, is entitled to the same rights. We must examine them more carefully.
First, does my personal understanding of the word “marriage” refer exclusively to a man and a woman? I can’t reach this proposition through logic. I can only say that it is self evidently true and use a comparison. To me, a car is an automotive vehicle with four wheels, a hood, and a trunk. Someone might call a Dodge Durango a car and someone else might call a Ford F-150 a car, but to me, a Durango is an SUV and an F-150 is a pickup truck. I have no objection to others using a different classification scheme, but that’s the one I use. If Uncle Sam were to come along and tell me that a Durango is a car, I wouldn’t be inclined to agree with him and I would be offended at his presumption. Just like I am offended when people demand that I be forced to change my classification for who’s married and who isn’t.
Next, is marriage a right? The answer to this is almost immediately no, because it involves consent from another party. If I can’t find someone who will agree to marry me, I cannot get married. If it were a right, I could exercise it without permission from someone else. Saying that marriage is a right, for the person who hasn’t found an agreeable spouse, is like saying we have a right to buy a time machine. It’s nonsensical. You can’t have a right to do something that can’t be done.
In fact, the supposed right to marriage is actually comprised of a number of claims. We will see in the next section that there are at least 4 claims being made by the two sides under the catch-all slogan, “gay marriage”. At this point, we have established that there is, in fact, no inherent conflict between viewing marriage in the traditional sense and believing that all people have the same rights.
Reframing the Debate
Often, when you are faced with a difficult problem, one way to solve it is to reframe it – to break things down to their components and rearrange those components. In order to make progress towards a consistent belief system, we can attempt to do this for the gay marriage debate.
When a person advocates for gay marriage, they are demanding the right for gay people to enter into a legally recognized committed relationship; They are demanding access to subsidies that are set aside for people in committed relationships; They are demanding the right to call their relationship a marriage; And they are demanding that I be forced to call their relationship a marriage.
When a person advocates for traditional marriage, they are demanding that gay people in committed relationships be denied legal recognition; They are demanding that access to subsidies set aside for people in committed relationships should be reserved to those in so-called straight relationships; They are demanding that gay people be denied the ability to describe their relationship as a marriage; and they are demanding that I be forcibly prevented from saying that a gay, committed relationship is a marriage.
So let’s look at these four points. First, should gay people be allowed to be in a legally recognized, committed relationship? This seems obvious. Gay people have the same right as anyone else to legal recognition of their committed relationship. In my opinion, such recognition (for gay and straight marriages) should be limited to recognition of a legally valid contract.
Next, should gay people get access to subsidies which are set aside for people in a committed relationship? Well, if subsidies are being set aside, then I suppose they should. The fact is that both sides are wrong on this one. The reality is that subsidies should not be set aside for married people, either gay or straight. Equal treatment under the law demands that single people should not be plundered in order to benefit married people, whether the married people are gay or straight.
Third, should gay people be allowed to refer to their committed relationships as “marriages”? Most assuredly. I should hope that I would not presume to dictate anyone else’s thoughts any more than I would allow them to dictate mine. The traditional family side gets this one wrong.
Finally, should I be forced to refer to a gay committed relationship as a marriage? Under the same ethical principle that allows gay people to call their relationship a marriage, I cannot be required to do so. The gay marriage advocates get this one wrong.
By going through this exercise, we can clearly see the roots of the apparent contradiction in the idea that a person can believe that a marriage is between a man and a woman and also believe that gay people have the same rights as anyone else. In fact, the question, ‘gay marriage: yes or no?’ is one of those famous “false choices” we so often hear about.
When broken down to its components, both sides of the gay marriage debate contain propositions that are objectionable from the perspective of Liberty. Gay people do have the right to be in legally recognized, committed relationships, and they do have the right to call those relationships “marriages”. However, they do not have the right to plunder single people to subsidize those relationships and they don’t have the right to force other people to use the word “marriage” to describe their relationship.
If we are ever to reach agreement on this question, as a society, I believe that the debate needs to be taken to a deeper level than just “gay marriage: yes or no?”. At this level of debate, neither answer is satisfactory.
By going through this exercise, it also becomes clear that the disagreement over gay marriage is made worse by government’s continued meddling in marriage. The first marriage licenses were established to prevent interracial marriage. From these racist roots, marriage licenses and the associated system of legal plunder which has evolved from them, continue to be divisive influences on our society.
As Bastiat observed in, The Law, whenever government force is allowed to extend itself beyond its legitimate sphere of influence, competing bands of rent seekers will seek to use government force to profit at the expense of others. This is true of people who claim subsidies and benefits on behalf of the traditional family, and of those who seek to extend the class of married people:
But if the fatal principle should come to be introduced, that, under pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law may take from one party in order to give to another, help itself to the wealth acquired by all the classes that it may increase that of one class, whether that of the agriculturists, the manufacturers, the ship owners, or artists and comedians; then certainly, in this case, there is no class which may not try, and with reason, to place its hand upon the law, that would not demand with fury its right of election and eligibility, and that would overturn society rather than not obtain it.