Rand Paul recently made headlines for stating that President Obama's stance on gay marriage "couldn't get any gayer." The senator from Kentucky made the childish joke as part of a larger speech at an event sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Paul often bills himself as a libertarian, and his stance on some issues bears this out. He has used his authority as a senator to block the escalation of the drug war, protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, restrain foreign policy with Iran, and push back against the PATRIOT Act. However, his statements on gay marriage put him at odds with the libertarian view that free people can do as they please so long as they do not violate the rights of others. Paul, and all who wish to carry the banner of libertarianism, should advocate for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and recognition of gay marriages.
Gay couples denied a marriage license are really being denied access to legal conventions that govern large and important parts of our lives, and people who oppose gay marriage are proposing that gays suffer under this legal regime for what will likely be their entire lives. Gay couples who aren't married are not eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. They are excluded from inheritance except when specifically provided for in a will. They are not given power to make medical decisions for a spouse in the case of incapacitation, nor are they always included in employer-provided health care plans. They are not given the favorable tax treatment that heterosexual couples receive. They are not granted an exception to estate taxes as straight couples are. Because gay parents often have to apply for adoption as single parents, custody is not automatically granted to the other partner. These are only a few of the problems that gay couples face, to say nothing about the freedom to get married itself. How would libertarians react if any other group of people were submitted to this kind of state discrimination?
Ron Paul, Rand's more-famous father, get's closer to the libertarian position on this issue but still falls short. He argues, correctly, that marriage is really a contract between consenting individuals, and the state has no role outside of enforcing the agreement in court, or dissolving it in the case of a divorce. Yet by arguing that the state should not recognize gay marriages because privatization is optimal, Ron Paul commits a non-sequitur.
When advocating a policy proposal, libertarians should take into account the chances that their policy has of being enacted in the near term. Privatization of gay marriage, while a good idea, is extremely unlikely to happen anytime soon. It's up there on libertarian wish lists with privatizing Social Security and abolishing the IRS. In the meantime libertarians should put forth proposals that lead to a freer society right now, even if they fall short of the optimal policy.
Libertarians live in a world dominated by government, and the policies we propose need to reflect this. During an appearance on Book TV, libertarian economist Robert Higgs was accused of being a hypocrite for using government roads. His response to the criticism captures the situation well: "We find ourselves in a cesspool. And we can swim in the contents of that cesspool or we can sink."
It would obviously be better, and more libertarian, to have the state play no role in marriage, but that is not currently a policy option Americans can choose from. In the meantime, libertarians — especially Ron and Rand Paul — need to advocate for the rights of homosexuals. Both have predicated their positions on gay marriage with the view that homosexuality is a sin, and marriage should subsequently be between heterosexual couples. Whatever their moral predilections, as libertarians they should know better than to rely on such a flimsy justification. Liberty requires not only tolerance for those who choose to live in ways you don't approve, but — so long as they do not violate they rights of another man — the steadfast insistence that others have the ability to make decisions for themselves.