Gay Marriage; Libertarian Cause or Government Interference?

I’ve been trying to keep out of the gay marriage business, firstly because I don’t care too much about it and secondly because no one involved in decision-making pays any attention to my opinion anyway, so I feel no responsibility for advancing my own version of the truth. However, I am getting rather bored hearing about it, and somewhat concerned that a particular position on the matter is being trumpeted as ‘The Libertarian Position’.  Like most libertarians, I cede no prerogative to any other, to tell me what my opinion is.

What is bothering me is to see the issue being pushed using the tactics of the so-called liberal left, as have been employed with such things as global warming.  With this latter, we were informed that the discussion had already taken place, all the scientists and experts had decided and nobody better challenge “the consensus”.  That time it was; agree, or be labelled a “denier”, a word chosen for its connotative link to holocaust denial. This time you will be a “gay-hating bigot”.

Besides the ad hominem, I note the same studied manipulation of language, ergo; “equal marriage” – who could be against equality, after all? – and a kind of ‘false memory syndrome’ in which marriage, rather than describing a contract, sealed in the marital bed, between a man and a woman (even in the case of polygamy and polyandry this remains the same) becomes a social institution between any two people, from which gay couples have been unfairly and inexplicably excluded.  This latter may be how it is seen today, but only because the word has been stripped of much of its earthy meaning, and paradoxically given the times we live in, the gay marriage lobby are the ones playing Victorian prude on the subject, wishing to bowdlerise the definition.

Holy Matrimony as it used to be (from ‘La Reine Margot’)

So what is the “correct” libertarian position? Let us distinguish two separate issues; firstly with regard to gay marriage and secondly with regard to the current government’s plans to change the marriage laws. In the first case, it must surely be the case that the libertarian position is thus; it’s a private matter between consenting adults.  It’s nobody else’s business.  If two men or two women, or indeed any other permutation of humanity, wish to join themselves by contract, and become a family, that is their own affair, and no violence – whether of mob or state – should be used to prevent them.

As for the second issue, although many will do so, I see no obligation on a libertarian to actively support or defend the government’s plans.  For one reason, because the Civil Partnerships Act has provided a means for two people of the same sex to be married in all but name, and if they wish to call themselves married, whatever the wording of the law, who’s stopping them?  For another reason, the government’s action does not seem to be advancing the libertarian goal of reducing state power and interference, rather it could be seen as yet another inroad into private matters which are no business of the state.  I may be wrong in this, the plans may be merely removing barriers and interference which the state has in the past erected. In this case, perhaps a libertarian should support it.  But can we have any confidence that the government knows what it is doing, and that it will not, through ignorance and a lack of foresight, leave the law in a worse state than it found it?  The libertarian aim should be to push the state out of all involvement in the private affairs of individuals, whether married or not, heterosexual or not, and it is unclear that the proposals are moving in this direction.  Libertarians should be wary of government solutions to social problems, real or contrived.  The liberals of the 19th century went astray when they ceased pursuing “negative liberty” through reduction of state power, and began pursuing “positive liberty” through redirection (and thus enlargement) of state power.

One final thing must be said, regarding priorities.  As I look at the state of the law in this country, I see a criminal justice system which delivers little justice; victims with no recompense; perpetrators of vile crimes receiving no punishment worthy of the name, the public unprotected and a judiciary who seem to have arrived from another planet. Additionally, there are still the many drug laws, vice laws etc., which need abolition. The civil law is no better. Unless you are wealthy to start with, you may as well forget it. This is, at least, my experience.  If I was in government and had the opportunity, to seek reforms, this gay marriage issue would be a long way down the list.

I shall now retire to my hermitage on the matter.

8 Comments

  1. I am not going to prevent any private ceremony, or stop one man calling another man his wife (as long as they muturally consent).

    However, I object to the state FORCEING “recognision” of such unions (the “anti discrimination” lawyer scam).

    As for government marriages – there were none in England and Wales before the Birth, Marrigages and Deaths (Registration) Act of1835.

    I see no reason why govenrment should be involved in all this.

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  2. Richard you are, as always, very clear and eloquent on this topic. The Gay Marriage debacle, because that is what it has become, is one of the clearest examples where the State should step aside and allow private individuals and organisations to resolve the matter. The fact that most people don’t see this is quite terrifying.

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  3. The government, strangely, has got something partially right, by introducing civil partnerships, however, what they got wrong was augmenting the marriage laws rather than replacing them outright.

    From a libertarian perspective, a marriage is just a contract between two individuals, and the government’s only involvement is to enforce the agreed contract as any other. Marriage can be seen as one of the the many “cookie cutter” contracts that are used to avoid lengthy legal fees, the registrar not that different from a paralegal who, say, administers wills, the civil partnership effectively extends the basic contract,

    The debate about gay marriage is not a libertarian one, it is a catfight between the church and the more militant minded gays, the libertarian position is sitting on the couch with a bag of popcorn.

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  4. Great article — I couldn’t agree more on each point. I have, however, come to a particular opinion on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which I shall defend after first outlining the libertarian ideal (there is one).

    Runcie Balspune (above) is correct: a marriage is a contract between individuals, and the government’s only involvement should be to enforce its agreed terms. The State has no business defining those terms or restricting contractual freedom from any of its consenting, adult citizens.

    Civil marriages and civil partnerships, therefore, would be abolished under a libertarian government. Each religious body could define its own terms, conditions, and meaning of marriage, and individuals hoping to get married would contract with them accordingly. Anglicans could define marriage as between one man and one woman; Roman Catholics would be free to legally solemnise the union between a man and a woman for life for the purpose of procreation only without the possibility of divorce; Masorti Jews could marry any couple, regardless of gender; Pagan handfastings would be legalised, permitting a group of people all to be married to each other as an expression of spiritual love; Muslim men could wed up to four women, if they wish. Each faith organization would accept and reject whomever it wishes in harmony with its doctrinal discriminations.

    Secular marriages would come into force by the simple signing of the contract at the solicitor’s office, nothing more. If the marrying individuals wish to have a party or wedding to celebrate the occasion, then that is their responsibility. For an extra fee, I am sure lawyers would be willing to ‘officiate’ at a ceremony by reading out vows and overseeing the signing of the contract in front of the guests, essentially replacing registrars.

    All this proves that contrary to the hyperactive protestations of conservative detractors, there is not one meaning of marriage, but several — and there always has been since marriage as an institution was born, undergoing many changes throughout the centuries in different civilisations (indeed, several Roman emperors had homosexual marriages, and China has a rich history starting around a millennium ago of formal same-sex unions). Under the libertarian model, nobody would have a legitimate complaint that their definition of marriage is being encroached upon.

    Libertarians are a bit stuck in the mud vis-à-vis the ongoing proposals in Parliament at the moment: on the one hand, it will extend personal and contractual liberty; on the other, it does so with the force of the State, thus expanding its remit into our personal lives. It goes without saying that the Bill is not ideal for us, but we do not have a libertarian government, and we ought to be able to shape an interim stance on this until a time comes that a minarchist state restricts itself to protecting life, liberty, and property.

    Albeit reluctantly, I support the Bill. I would say that when push comes to shove, the furtherance of personal freedoms trumps shrinking the government. Except for anarchists, who would do away with the State altogether, it is fundamentally through government that we are granted or deprived of our natural rights and liberties. To the minority of classical liberals who argue that the State should not be redefining marriage, I point out that it should not be defining marriage at all. Are we to espouse the view, then, that the government should refuse to recognize any marriage (until we get a libertarian state), opposite-sex included? Of course not … although I am using the same logic here. If the government is not justified in sticking its fetid nose into our private lives by pushing through gay marriage, then it is not justified in having ANY marriage laws at all.

    This argument is flawed, which is why I say yes to the proposed Marriage Bill.

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    1. There is already a group of very professional people who make it their career to officiate flexible secular ceremonies. They are called “celebrants” and there are about three organised bodies that train and qualify them, the largest being (of the top of my head) the Humanists and the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants. They are not state-backed at all.

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      1. And the ceremonies are legally binding, are they? This is something I shall look to. A great option for secular and atheist libertarians, who are torn between having a religious ceremony (against their spiritual beliefs) and a civil one (against their political principles).

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      2. OK, I have just looked into this. The celebrants can only form an individualised ceremony; the actual marriage is at the registry office. Taken from the website of Fellowship of Professional Celebrants:

        “What is not so commonly known or understood in this country – is that ONLY the *Declaratory Words, and the **Contracting words have to be said in a Registry Office or licenced venue, in order for your marriage to be recognised in law and for a marriage certificate to be issued.”

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