The conservative case for gay marriage

2012-05-24 00:08

It is at this point pretty obvious that, for the most part, gay marriage advocates are not particularly persuasive to the most vehement objectors. There’s some interesting differences in how people view the question. What’s most interesting is to observe that, fundamentally, people are making different categories of arguments. It’s not that the conservatives dispute the equality argument, it’s that they aren’t considering it to be particularly relevant.

Well, that’s an interesting point. And long before anyone would have accused me of being “liberal” in any interesting sense, I was a pretty classic knee-jerk libertarian. And it occurs to me: Even back then, I thought it was obvious that same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry. Because, see. That is a return to the core values that make for a meaningful and principled “conservative” approach to life, liberty, and government.

The only really meaningfully “conservative” argument against allowing gay marriage is that it’s a change, and conservatives are by definition opposed to change. Well, maybe as a general policy, but you have to be open to the possibility that sometimes a change is justified or necessary. Human beliefs about marriage vary from one culture to another, and one time to another. I am personally very happy with our migration away from the “women are property and do not get input on whether or whom they marry” view, because while that is indeed the traditional understanding of marriage in our culture going back some centuries, it is also a bad idea. We have come to realize that women are, in fact, people. They are entitled to vote, and they are entitled to participate in decisions about whether or not, or whom, they marry. We have abandoned coverture, and not a moment too soon. So the mere fact that allowing gays to marry would be a “change” is not really a compelling argument.

Let’s consider a few other conservative values. We sure do like to talk about liberties, right? Fundamental freedoms, constitutional rights, things like that? As someone (EDIT: Glenn Reynolds, not Eric Raymond, it turns out) put it, “Personally, I’d be delighted to live in a country where happily married gay couples had closets full of assault weapons.” Why? Because freedoms are intended to be universal, not cherry-picked for some people and not others. Because freedoms should not be denied to a few people just because a lot of other people are uncomfortable with them. That was the point of all these guarantees of rights; to prevent the tyranny of the majority from restricting peoples’ freedoms.

How about small government? Granting the premise that there’s sufficient social value in providing a one-step procedure for getting all the “these two people are now related” legal magic done, how shall we manage it? We should manage it by making the government do absolutely as little as possible to try to define and control people’s lives. It is a ridiculous waste of time, effort, and money to have laws against gay marriages. And instead of stopping there, we have people pushing for constitutional amendments banning them. There’s a reason, of course — it’s that without such amendments, it’s pretty obvious that laws against gay marriage are unconstitutional.

But this is not classic conservativism. The conservative response to “the constitution doesn’t allow the government to make that rule” is to cheer and throw a party. We don’t want the government making rules about stuff it has no business getting involved in! It’s bad enough that we have to put up with the government’s involvement in marriage in any form; why on earth are we getting it more involved?

How about religious freedom? I like religious freedom. I think people should be free to follow any or no religion as they see fit. That’s a pretty classic conservative value… And the only way to do that would be to have the government make no rules about gay marriage. Let the churches that want to marry gays do it, let the ones that don’t not do it, and keep the government out of this.

How about commitment and long-term planning? We like to talk those values up, and yet, here we have conservatives expending immense amounts of time and effort trying to discourage other people from making and keeping commitments. That makes no sense.

Fundamentally, this whole thing is a huge waste of time, and a distraction from things that we ought to be spending time on. The government should not be spending time or money trying to make and enforce rules about peoples’ personal lives. That’s not the government’s intended function. And the only way for us to fix this is to remove all those stupid laws. Leave definitions of marriage up to the states, let them do whatever they want as long as it’s constitutional, and accept that this will sometimes result in people doing things that other people think are gross.

There are many conservative values that I think make a lot of sense, are worthy of respect, and are good goals for people to live by and try to govern by. On each of these principles, I find that the Federal government should be entirely out of the marriage business, states should not have any statements about marriage in their constitutions, and that the law ought to let consenting adults marry if they want and stay the heck out of our bedrooms. I think it is time we rejected the notion that conservative values mean majorities trumping the freedoms of minorities, or asking the government to enforce our religious beliefs on people who don’t share them.

There are real issues where we could be making a positive difference instead of contributing to the portrayal of conservatives as knee-jerk reactionaries who are completely hypocritical about their alleged values and priorities. Maybe if the Republican party were to drop this stupid anti-gay-marriage stuff and focus on issues that actually mattered, we could get something interesting done.

Peter Seebach