TCS Daily

Libertarians and Gay Marriage

By James D. Miller - November 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Libertarians love to duck fights, but on gay marriage they must take a stand.


Some Americans genuinely believe that homosexuality is an immoral act that goes against God. Others either celebrate their own homosexuality or feel that those who detest homosexuality are themselves immoral, or at best utterly intolerant.


Libertarians believe that the state should express no opinion on the morality of acts engaged in by consulting adults. Consequently, you would think that the default libertarian position on gay marriage is simply to have states never address the question of whether homosexuality is moral. Alas, on the issue of gay marriage there can be no neutral position.


If a state allowed gay couples to marry, it would clearly be endorsing gay marriage and proclaiming to America that homosexual love is equivalent or at least morally equal to its heterosexual counterpart. Through marriage the state officially endorses a relationship, so by allowing two men to wed, the state would be taking a strong moral position supporting homosexuality, a position which goes against the religious views of many Americans.


Of course, if the state doesn't allow gays to marry it proclaims that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones. Married couples have legal rights that unwed couples don't possess, so by opposing gay marriage states deny homosexual couples the ability to acquire these rights. Given that much of the opposition to homosexuality is religiously based, if a state denies gays the right to marry it is essentially endorsing certain religious views of marriage.


Even if the state compromised on the issue of gay marriage and allowed just civil homosexual unions it would be taking a moral stand. The state would be claiming that gay relationships are not completely abominable, but not quite as preferable as heterosexual ones. Imagine that some state passed a law saying interracial couples couldn't marry but could still be joined in a civil union. Surely through this law the state would be criticizing interracial love.


Evaluating sodomy laws poses far less of a challenge to libertarians than assessing whether same-sex couples should be permitted to wed. Laws against sodomy actively condemn gay sex. In contrast, through the absence of such laws the state neither promotes nor endorses this practice. Consequently, the state-stay-out-of-it libertarian position on sodomy laws should be opposition. In contrast, even though marriage is an activity engaged in by two consenting adults, marriage is also a means by which states endorse relationships. Therefore, opposing bans on gay marriage is not analogous to opposing sodomy laws, for allowing gay marriage represents the state's endorsement of the practice.


Some have suggested that we should sidestep the issue of gay marriage by having the government privatize marriage. I explained here in TCS why this is a horrible idea. To summarize my argument, I pointed out that marriage is a valuable brand name that has strength only because it stands for something very important to many people. Consequently, if anyone could set the conditions under which they got married, the marriage brand name would have no value and consequently marriage would be essentially abolished, not privatized. True, abolishing marriage would prevent the state from having to take a stand on gay marriage, but this position seems a little extreme even for a radical libertarian.


The Massachusetts Supreme Court just struck down its state's ban on gay marriage and gave Massachusetts 180 days to come up with a constitutional solution. Sadly, consistence with libertarian principles isn't of the slightest priority to the Democrats who dominate the Massachusetts House and Senate. Even if Massachusetts legislators were motivated by libertarian beliefs, however, these beliefs would be of no help to them in deciding what to do. On the issue of gay marriage, even libertarians must decide whether the state should endorse or discourage homosexual relationships.


James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


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