Gay Rights & Libertarianism: Why Patrick Deenen is Wrong
America’s premier illiberal Catholic, Patrick Deenen, has blamed what he calls “libertarianism” for its alleged role in the RFRA fiasco in Indiana in a piece for First Things. There are many points he raises that are certainly valid and agreeable – even from the standpoint of this classical liberal. What I find objectionable, in this piece and in several others he has written, is his insistence that the forces of sexual liberation (and its totalitarian corollary) are definitionally and logically bound up with libertarianism.
Of course the word “libertarianism” can take on different meanings, but American libertarians appear to be nearly unanimous in their defense of religious liberty. I can’t think of a single self-identifying libertarian with any significant influence on public opinion or discourse (with the exception of the ACLU, perhaps) who categorically rejects private property rights or religious rights in the name of combating “bigotry” as the leftists and opportunistic corporations castigated by Deenen do. There are of course many libertarians who only reluctantly, on the barest of principles, support the rights of gay marriage dissenters; there are just as many if not more who defend their rights enthusiastically.
After all, what unites libertarians across the spectrum is their commitment to individual rights. It is evident to many of us that what homosexuals desire in the way of legitimate individual rights can easily be granted without juridicially redefining marriage or punishing small business owners who act in accordance with their consciences. Regarding marriage, many libertarians favor abolishing it as a legal construct altogether and replacing it with civil unions. This is “marriage equality” of sorts, but one that does not require the state to take a definitive position on a sensitive philosophical and theological controversy. Regarding small businesses, many libertarians would defend the owners not only on 1st amendment grounds but as private property owners as well. There are clear alternatives for consumers of these non-essential goods and services.
More importantly, a commitment to liberty requires a commitment to defend unpopular views against both the unruly mob and the political or even corporate elite. At the risk of engaging in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, I will venture to say that a “libertarian” who thinks it is acceptable for the state to coerce people into accepting gay marriage has, at the very least, some problems with their political identity or with reading comprehension. There are many libertarians who think gay marriage as a concept is a wonderful thing that everyone should celebrate. Some of them correctly understand that they identify with a school of thought that prohibits the use of violence to further this goal, while others unfortunately do not. There are also those of us who do not support gay marriage for a wide variety of reasons, and many of us correctly understand if we wanted the state to enforce our likes and dislikes on everyone else, we would no longer be libertarians. The ultimate point is obvious: libertarianism insists upon peaceful persuasion and rejects the initiation of violence, by individuals or the state, to enforce social policies. All the more so when both sides can get what they want, though they may have to give up their maximum demands and settle for their minimum demands.
If I’m wrong about this, and Deenen’s notion of a “libertarianism” that necessitates totalitarian violence to realize its goals is the correct one, I will happily jettison the label and call myself something else. I don’t think I am though.
More on why I think traditional marriage would thrive in a laissez-faire society in a future piece.