As proponents of Proposition 8 are poised to present their defense in the San Francisco federal courtroom on Monday, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
A central tenet of classical liberalism (or in today’s veritable cornucopia of political labels and identifications—conservatism) holds that the individual should be free from external intrusion.
“Negative Liberty”; the freedom from—from the demands of government or of society, as long as these demands fall outside of the individuals direct purview. In fact, a charge oft leveled against modern day liberals is that they are attempting a sort of “social engineering” in which a supposed “authority” dictates what is best for society and imposes its will upon others. This imposition, according to the classical liberal camp is inherently unjust, for the individual, be it through inalienable rights or intrinsic human dignity should be free of other’s coerced conformity.
Thus negative freedom acts as a platform for the autonomous individual to choose his own path in life. In fact, the core of liberalism rests entirely on the ideal of individual autonomy, for without this most basic assumption, how can the individual be taken as the primary unit of concern in liberal theory? How else can people make self-interested economic choices or exercise their right to vote?
Given that this value of liberalism, which provides the intellectual framework behind conservative ideology, how can modern day conservatives justify the position that government can dictate who marries and who doesn’t? Even beyond the simple argument that there should be a separation of church and state, what ammunition do gay marriage opponents have to argue that society or government has the authority to impose such regulations on one’s life choices? Even more so, how can gay marriage opponents, operating within the ideological framework of classic conservatism level such claims without rendering themselves irreconcilably inconsistent?
Either the individual by right is autonomous and as such the government hasn’t the ethical authority to lay such restrictions, or the individual has only those rights which government grants him. Interestingly, the only way that modern conservatives can argue for banning gay marriage is by renouncing their classic liberal ancestry.
As of now, opponents of gay marriage make their case on utilitarian grounds; since no strong argument can be made that such an institution actually harms anyone, they argue that it is detrimental to society, leading to “incest, polygamy and sex with children” (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-prop8-trial24-2010jan24,0,3480322.story) However, classical liberalism singularly renounces such utilitarian calculations on the issue of individual choice. True Liberal society cannot simply vote away my freedom of speech, no matter how harmful my words are.
Thus anti-gay marriage proponents have an unseen quandary to grapple with. They can win the battle against gay marriage. But the cost is their identity.