The great aim of the struggle for liberty has been equality before the law. -F.A. Hayek
As the 43rd anniversary of the Stonewall police raids and riots the riots approaches, many supporters of LGBT rights have been taking to the streets in parades of solidarity and protest. Meanwhile, those opposed to extending legal rights to the LGBT community have been firing back. This places many classical liberals in an awkward position.
Supporters of LGBT rights tend to be on the political left, while opponents tend to be on the political right, but libertarians seem more fragmented on the issue. Some stand with the left, arguing that the state should extend legal rights to LGBT individuals, while others stand on the right, believing that the state has a role in marriage or that it is best left up to the states. Even then, many libertarians view the issue with indifference, believing that because it does not affect them, they need not expend time and energy working towards equality. This is where we fall short. The battle over LGBT rights is a battle over the very essence and purpose of government itself.
Those who believe that the state — at any level, federal or local — has a legitimate interest in marriage must concede that the state may divide citizens into separate and unequal classes. In our current state, where marriage comes with many legal and economic benefits, the struggle for LGBT marriage is not only a social issue; it is an economic, civil rights, and human rights issue. Thus, those who are denied the legal recognition of marriage, who are denied that negative right to contractually spend one’s life with whomever one wishes, are discriminated against by the state. In this way, the state treats these individuals as second-class citizens by denying them of any benefit that they may have gained had they not been gay.
This distinction of classes should appall anybody who adheres to the classical liberal ideas of Jefferson, Hayek, Burke, and others. Classical liberals are part of a rich and long tradition that includes opposition to slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, and, as it follows, homophobia. Hayek recounts this great tradition, tracking it back to the English Whigs and factions of the American founding in his essay “Why I Am Not A Conservative.” In this essay, Hayek draws the line between classical liberalism and conservatism, a line that is far too often blurred in the struggle for gay rights. Conservatism looks to uphold tradition for the sake of tradition, while the liberal seeks to charter a new course of action while at the same time learning from the great parts of his own tradition. It is from this tradition that the Western world takes the modern concept of equality before the law. As Hayek noted in his essay Equality, Value, and Merit, true equality comes in each citizen being treated equally before the law. Hayek notes that it is unimportant why or how people are different, but the state must grant all equal rights before the law, “It is of the essence of the demand for equality before the law that people should be treated alike in spite of the fact that they are different.”
Thus, the struggle for LGBT rights is the most pure iteration of the struggle for which Hayek and others strive for in the liberal tradition. This struggle presents the perfect opportunity to strive for the classical liberal society of freedom, and from that freedom, equality.
While it would be ideal to completely abolish state recognition of marriage, that is unlikely to happen any time soon; the state maintains a monopoly over “legitimate” recognition of marriage. Only in extension and protection of the freedom offered by negative rights will true equality be found. Therefore, libertarians should work to extend those legal rights to as many individuals as possible. Those who reluctantly join are, in reality, reluctant about the freedom and the subsequent equality that a liberal society promotes.