The Libertarian Case For Traditional Marriage

Marriage and Family: The Lynchpin of Civil Society

One of the great calumnies against the libertarian movement is that it is anarchistic in nature, proselytizing for a world without any kind of governing system to restrain the will of the individual. This libel can be traced all the way back to Thomas Hobbes, who erected the straw man of a world without Leviathan in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” From then until the present day, the defenders of limited government and personal liberty have contended with an opposing narrative of a nightmarish “libertarian” world, replete with stock characters such as the robber baron and the Somali warlord.

As the readers of this site presumably know, this is ludicrous! Far from thirsting for a world of unchecked will and aggression, the true libertarian is a partisan of what Edmund Burke famously dubbed society’s “little platoons,” those local associations and organizations into which free men naturally congregate and that form the genuine lifeblood of a healthy, self-sustaining civil society.

It is within the context of these myriad and interlocking free associations — be they churches, school boards, town assemblies, fraternal lodges, etc. — that man is truly free to exercise self-governance in accord with his God-given dignity and liberty. The stronger these little platoons, the weaker the case for a strong and aggressive central government to fill in the societal gaps, real or supposed, that are left by them.

This being the case, it astounds this writer that so many libertarian pundits and activists are eager to toss aside the strongest and most vital of these platoons — that is, marriage and the natural family it supports. They favor a scheme which, if enacted, will serve only to further weaken civil society and is swiftly becoming the sole constant in the lives of our nation’s citizens: the State.

The Family: The Last Line of Defense Against State Power

It is an open secret that the State and the Family do not get along. As Leviathan grows, that which claims a greater hold on the minds, hearts, souls, and loyalties of its citizen-subjects becomes increasingly perceived as a threat to be neutralized or destroyed. After the sovereignty of the states and the prerogatives of local government have been bled dry, the family remains as the last line of defense between the naked exercise of state power over the will of the individual. It is a telling fact that in the widely varied dystopian fiction of the past century, a recurring element is the destruction of our understanding of the family. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it has been replaced entirely by casual sex and cloning vats. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it clings to existence as a stud system more suitable to a barnyard than a free society. Perhaps most chillingly of all, in George Orwell’s 1984, the family retains the outward trappings of the institution we call by that name, but internally it has been perverted into the cruelest instrument of state surveillance ever devised.

These writers, and the dictators of totalitarian regimes the world over, understand that the Family is the greatest threat to the unchecked might of the State, for it is within the sanctity of the home that loyalties stronger than any flag can command are fostered. Minds, both young and old, are at liberty to develop free of the suffocating hand of political correctness and party line.

Traditional Marriage: The Secret of Familial Strength

Presently, our society is facing an unprecedented, albeit long in the works, threat to the strength and integrity of the family. Many libertarians have been sadly duped into fighting on the wrong side of the battle. As previously stated, there are many ways in which Man organizes himself in a free society, many grouping and associations into which he may enter. What defines his family, though, rests on our traditional understanding of marriage: one man and one woman coming together in a lifelong commitment out of which children may naturally arise. Now granted, for decades Western society has been doing a horrible job at living up to this ideal, but it is something in our collective psyche for which we continue to strive. Despite the tragic mundanity of divorce, we still do not refer to the aftermath as a “family,” but rather as a broken family or a broken home. We recognize that the ideal has been ruptured, and while we may not live up to it, we at least continue to respect it.

This could all change within the next generation. As an alternative to the traditional conception of marriage, two proposals have arisen. In the first, it has been proposed that marriage be altered in our legal code from one man and one woman to any two consenting adults. In the second — one favored by many libertarians — it has been proposed that our legal recognition of marriage be done away with entirely. Both proposals constitute folly and a threat to liberty.

Should marriage be defined in the law as the joining together of two consenting adults, full stop, it would fundamentally alter and weaken the concept of family. There exists, in the union of a man and a woman, an implicit understanding that children will arise out of this new-found partnership and that a whole new societal unit will be created. This is, indeed, the natural order of things. However, should the definition of marriage be expanded to cover instances where there is no such understanding, then marriage becomes just another contractual relationship between two adult members of society, albeit one infused with erotic and romantic love. If such contractual relationships gave rise to associations equal in strength and vitality to that of the family, then the whole idea of the family’s uniqueness and indispensability would be an alien one. Once traditional marriage is gone, the entire concept of the family becomes a vague and nebulous one. As with human and civil rights, that which is fuzzy and nebulous is that which is easy to erode and destroy.

In the “second way” proposed by many libertarians, this process is only accelerated. Not even the fig leaf of the word “marriage” remains; now adults really do simply enter into contractual agreements with one another, and the process of familial erosion is accelerated. Private conceptions of marriage and family may continue to exist — but without definition and recognition inside the legal code, one cannot expect that the State will honor the sanctity or inviolability of that which it does not acknowledge to exist in the first place.

Marriage and Society: A Truly Libertarian Vision

As a movement, libertarians must stand shoulder to shoulder in defending the last best hope that civil society possesses in resisting the onslaught of Leviathan. The Movement must not succumb to the leveling impulses of the Statists who would see marriage defined down and outward until said definition was so broad as to be rendered meaningless.

This is not the libertarian way.

One who loves liberty and true equality will not settle for a mundane sameness across society. Rather, he will celebrate the myriad diversity of how we gather and associate in friendship and love with our neighbors and fellow citizens. Yes, for the health of civil society and the defense of liberty, marriage must remain in its definition a limited institution that does not cover all committed, loving relationships.

Rather than weep over this and attempt to tear marriage down in the name of false concept of equality, let the libertarians of the world throw themselves into the work of building up and promoting other valuable and enriching institutions: friendship and neighborhood, local pride, and a truly universal fraternity of mankind.

One’s sense of worth and human dignity should not be predicated on a slip of paper from the county courthouse, but arise rather from the knowledge that we have the liberty and the support of those around us to find our own unique and irreplaceable spot within our particular platoon.

For more by Mike Gannon, visit his blog Distracted Catholic or follow him on Twitter (@MikeCGannon).