As the Supreme Court takes up the same-sex marriage issue, I wanted to re-post an old blog post of mine from Liberty and Power back in September of 2008. Not only is it perhaps my favorite piece I’ve ever written on SSM, it seems to fit very nicely with the spirit of BHL. I reprint it below unedited.
I interrupt the ongoing socialization of US credit markets with a temporary subject change (and not because my subject is necessarily more important).
I spent yesterday morning attending a memorial service for the mother of a colleague here at SLU. One element of the SLU campus is that we have a large (for our size) and vibrant gay and lesbian community within the faculty, of which the colleague in question is a member. Watching her long-time partner grip her hand as they walked in and watching one member of a gay faculty couple with his arm around his long-time partner during the service (not to mention another long-time lesbian couple two rows behind me) got me thinking about the same-sex marriage issue.
We all share a common humanity when it comes to death, especially of those close to us. We turn to the people we’ve built and shared a life with for comfort and consolation in those times. We share that same humanity in times of great joy – at the weddings or births or anniversaries of our friends and family. And we want to share those moments with the person with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.
Sitting there watching those three couples and thinking about how they can never fully share those times of sorrow and joy without thinking twice about where they are and who might be watching, and without the full protection of the law if it was their own partner who was being mourned, not to mention whether some of their own families and friends might have rejected the very relationships that sustain them in such times, welled up my political anger and sense of injustice, of both the thin and thick libertarian variety.
Libertarians can disagree in good faith about what the relationship should be between marriage and the state. In the first-best world, many of us agree that marriage should be freed from the state. I certainly do. And in the second-best world we can and do disagree about whether the state should treat same-sex couples equally when it comes to marriage. As a matter of justice and equality under the law (a classical liberal idea that unfortunately gets short shrift in the modern libertarian emphasis on reducing the size and scope of the state), my own view is that libertarians should support measures to legalize same-sex marriage, including judicial ones. That said, there are certainly cogent libertarian arguments in the other direction, weaker though they may be.
As my wife and I celebrate our 20th anniversary this coming Thursday, I simply cannot imagine having to engage in the fancy footwork about our relationship that gays and lesbians do about theirs, nor wondering and worrying about how the law would treat either of us if something happened to the other. These concerns about our common humanity and treating equally the relationships so many of us rely on in times of sorrow and joy should, in my view, be part of a thicker libertarianism that is more than just politically tolerant or neutral about such relationships, but instead is positively supportive of them as part of a larger vision of a world in which individuals are free to create meaning out of the voluntary relationships they construct in their lives.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting any role for the state in this (beyond treating such relationships as equal to heterosexual ones as a second-best solution), nor am I suggesting that it is “unlibertarian” to simply dislike such relationships. What I am saying is that I wish more libertarians would get past thin approaches that treat the marriage issue no differently than the issue of, say, whether municipal power companies are inefficient.
The marriage question is more than an abstract exercise in political philosophy; it goes to the very core of who we are as human beings and what it means to live a life of dignity. How someone committed to individual liberty can be anything less than supportive of the desire of gays and lesbians to be treated equally, both under the law and in the eyes of others, when it comes to how we face the common sorrows and joys of human existence remains a very frustrating puzzle to me.