A central tenet of all true libertarianism is that individuals, not the state, are the final arbiters of morality. The role of the state as a promoter of moral behavior exists only as a corollary to its monopoly on force or its role as a coordinator of collective action, i.e., the state exists to prevent a man from imposing his will upon another through violence or theft, and to broker an agreement when decisions cannot be made at the individual level. To extend the law beyond that is to make the state a conduit for the very impositions that it was built to defend against. It is a subversion of free society.
Many object to this notion of a limited state, and the most common objection is as simple as it is hypocritical: if the state does not enforce my version of moral behavior, then others will not observe it. People will not give to charity on their own — we need welfare programs. People will not abstain from drugs on their own — we must prohibit consumption. And people will not conform their sexuality to my norms — we must punish them.
What makes the objection hypocritical is that when the shoe is on the other foot and the critic finds himself in that doleful minority whose rights have been “morally” abridged, all one can hear are plaintive cries of how the majority has gotten it wrong and how unjust the law has become. When that day comes, whither that former faith in the moral superiority of the 51 percent? Whither the certitude that one man deserves the authority to govern the life of his neighbor? Never mind the abysmal record of states as moral actors — each man seems to think that the only problem with dictatorship is that he wasn’t put in charge.
The recent legalization of gay marriage in New York is more than just symbolic — unlike California, which offers nearly all of the benefits of marriage through civil unions, marriage equality in New York is a significant improvement over civil unions and grants significant new benefits to homosexual couples. But the question remains: can this be counted as a victory in the long-running battle to return moral agency to the individual, or is this merely a revision of the 51 percent’s edicts? In other words, is this a shift in the relationship between citizens and government, or is this an isolated reform, applicable only within the narrow confines of marriage contracts?
If it is the former (and I hope that it is), then with luck we will not follow up New York by merely extending gay marriage elsewhere, but instead re-examine the whole idea of offering benefits to married couples, and after that re-examine why the government is in the business of legislating morality in the first place.
For a long time, gay marriage opponents have hid their moral crusade behind the flimsiest of secular justifications, claiming that marriage benefits are intended to incentivize child rearing and procreation. This defense is absurd. Firstly, if child rearing were the goal, why wouldn’t we simply place subsidies on children directly? Why grant couples such huge benefits in their taxes, pension payouts, health care, and so on, when the same effect could be had at a fraction of the price by increasing the per-child tax deduction?
Secondly, it is unclear why we would even desire to incentivize population growth, or how we would reconcile that desire with such a contradictory immigration policy. It’s more likely that the procreation argument is merely a convenient invention.
Granting partners visitation rights in hospitals and other non-pecuniary privileges is a trivial imposition on single people, but the sizable offering of financial benefits that come with marriage is blatant discrimination. Single tax payers are footing the bill for massive government largesse, with nothing more than Judeo-Christian moralizing to motivate this favoritism.
As gay marriage proponents savor their well-deserved victory, perhaps they will remember that New York is only the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, and take pause. If 44 states and the federal government could all come to the wrong conclusion on such a basic moral question, then what confidence can there really be in government coming to the right conclusion on other moral matters? If they think it perfectly acceptable to force their conception of right and wrong on others, whether it be over drug prohibitions, or censorship, or any of the myriad ways in which Leviathan rears its ugly head into the private lives of U.S. citizens, let them be chastened by the slowness (New York notwithstanding) that has marked the marriage equality movement. The majority is not morally infallible; if anything, it commits greater sins than the constituents that make it up.
If we draw one principle of government from New York, let it be this: as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.