Arguably part of that mighty stream of anti-libertarian pieces coming out of Salon, Alternet, and other left-leaning publications these last few months, Tyler Lopez’s “Libertarian and gay rights: the party failed to take a stand” article (published at Slate) is a bullshit generalization that leads, inadvertently, to larger questions of the definition of rights and oppression. But it falls wildly short of an honest critique of libertarianism.
Reason’s Brian Doherty has already addressed the piece’s simplicity, noting that the official Libertarian Party was anachronistically gay-friendly at its inception, including their nomination of the gay John Hospers as their first presidential candidate.
In the barely-post-Stonewall era, with homosexuality newly not an official mental illness, the Libertarian Party platform started out advocating for a repeal of all laws that restricted consensual, adult sexual activities. A few years later, as I noted in an October PolicyMic piece, and Doherty also notes, Ralph Reico wrote a long essay that said “the Libertarian Party was born believing in gay rights.” He later noted that the stance for libertarians candidates in 1976 was as follows on gay marriage:
- Repeal of legislation prohibiting unions between members of the same sex, and the extension to such unions of all legal rights and privileges presently enjoyed by partners in heterosexual marriages.
Not too shady for the ’70s, no? Apparently no.
With that bold beginning, why then, according to Lopez, has the Libertarian Party “failed” on what is arguably the biggest civil rights fight of modern times? His piece trolls all good libertarians by using a photo of 2008 Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr, but it doesn’t actually mention him. Which is strange, because the ill-advised selection of would-be President Barr, the author of, if eventual disavow-er of, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), would be a way for Lopez to score points (or, to put it more nicely, to cement his thesis). Lopez, though, begins with the very tenuous critique that the official LP website doesn’t have a whole tab devoted to Gay and Lesbian issues. Never mind that acceptance of gay people is a tenet of the platform, now and forever, the party dropped the ball by not giving the gays a tab.
Lopez goes on to scorn the lack of press releases the party has put out about LGBT, then sarcastically scorns them for trying to portray Democrats as being bad for gays. Well, they’re trying to get voters, just like any party. And is it illegitimate for the LP circa-2010 to have been pragmatically going after Obama for not repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or DOMA? What’s so sinful about them trying to win gay supporters? Isn’t that a good thing?
Having admitted that yes, maybe, a little bit, the early 70s LP was more pro-gay than was in fashion at the time, Lopez is as plodding as possible in his praise:
Libertarians like to tout the fact that the party supported marriage equality in 1971, when it was founded. Sort of. In fact, two years after Stonewall, the party’s platform called for the abolishment of “victimless crimes,” which lumped homosexuality with prostitution, polygamy, recreational drugs, abortion, and gambling. While certainly not a ringing endorsement of the LGBTQ community, the mere acknowledgement of gay people’s existence was an important step forward for an American political party. It’s also true that in the 1990s, the Libertarian Party (having no elected representatives) did join a small handful of Democrats in opposing DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, despite overwhelming public support for both measures. This might seem like a case of talk being cheap, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Plenty of Libertarian candidates take strong positions on gay rights.
Note the subtle implication that to include gay issues with “vices” was to equate them with immorality in the libertarian world. Never mind that many libertarians do not see any of those other “moral failings” as objectively wrong either (some do, but would never presume to do anything but bother you about it). And never mind that 42 percent of people thought gay sex should be illegal in 1977 (dipping much lower into the conservative 1980s). Definitely never mind that gays have been a part of the libertarian movement since forever and particularly at the dawn of the official party.
Nope, Lopez cannot damn with enough faint praise, because, you see, the LP “never left the 1990s.” They care only for the the right to be free from state oppression, not the right to be free from individual discrimination. Lopez also notes that libertarians — some libertarians — would prefer that marriage become a private contract, thereby removing the should government endorse this question all together. This is true for some small government folks, but not all. But even conservatives including Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck have come around on the minarchist compromise that, namely, if someone is receiving the government perks of marriage, there is no legitimate reason to bar homosexuals from that privilege.
Lopez goes on, into questions of employment discrimination, and he ends on a dishonest note:
Rather than boldly argue for equal rights for everyone, Libertarians have merely argued for the dismantling of everyone’s rights—the right to legal marriage, the right against workplace discrimination, and so on. That’s not liberty; it’s giving the green light to entrenched systemic discrimination. Libertarians could have led on this issue. Instead, they’ve fallen unforgivably far behind.
Again, Lopez could have written, “for a party with a long, impressive history of being accepting towards gays, the choice of Bob Barr in 2008, was regressive and bizarrely socially conservative.” He could have admitted that there was nothing wrong with needling Barack Obama’s spending 16 years pretending to be unsure about gay marriage for political reasons. And Lopez certainly could have used a column inch or two to give props to Gov. Gary Johnson, the 2012 LP presidential candidate who came out for gay marriage while still trying to run as a Republican. But Lopez does none of this.
It’s fine that he believes in a world of positive liberties, where employers cannot discriminate, and where rights are more than just equal protection under the law. But the difference between positive liberties (the right to, say, healthcare, education, anything that requires the labor, time, or money of someone else) and negatives ones (freedom from government restriction on speech, trade, etc.) should be clear even to someone who believes in positive rights, as modern liberals do. You may agree that we, as a society, should all get together and pool our money and give everyone medical care, but you must admit that that mandates a great deal more planning than the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law…”
To muddy these warring definitions of rights like is dishonest, because it masks the general definition of a libertarian. Lopez might as well have written “libertarians could have lead the way on gay rights if they became liberals.” He may be disappointed that libertarianism isn’t something else than what it is, but there’s no reason to not give the Party props for solving the first part of his equation — that gays should have the same rights and freedoms as heterosexuals — long before the majority of the political world did. Libertarians didn’t “fall behind” on gay rights, they went down a different path.