"It [government] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
Reform Sucks. Or Where Do We Go From Here?
Column by Per Bylund.
Exclusive to STR
I recently participated in an online discussion on gay marriage, an issue that was stated to be “such a sure thing” that my views could be dismissed at the outset. And, I suspect, laughed at. Why? Because, it was argued, government’s opening up the state-enforced institution of marriage to gay couples “decreases” discrimination and is therefore, from a libertarian point of view, an obvious improvement.
Well, allow me to disagree. And I disagree strongly. It is not that I am homophobic (which I am not) or think marriage is a sanctified institution (see below). No, I simply do not engage in statolatry as these so-called libertarians do (perhaps unknowingly). And I claim that the perspective I have on this issue (and all others) is libertarian and anti-statist at the core. Reform is not a way forward. Unless, of course, you are a libertarian with a statist bent.
To their defense, I think these “libertarians” are confusing the terms and make things so confusing to themselves that they cannot see clearly. This is why they think the libertarian stand on the issue is so obvious even though they themselves, despite this obviousness, end up on the wrong side.
My reasoning is as follows. We are not talking about the union of two people in love here; marriage may originally have been a public declaration of love and intention of sharing and commitment for a lifetime. But as soon as government co-opted and sanctioned this institution, the “union” became a fairy tale. The state-sanctioned institution of marriage is, first and foremost, a state privilege, regardless of what people make of it. In fact, people have the right and opportunity to be together and make commitments and public declarations in many other ways than registering their relationship with government.
In fact, this is what my wife and I planned to do from the very beginning. We were not to get married. As anti-statists and atheists, why would we ask for permission? And why would we request the blessing of our love from church and state? Does this mean I love my wife less than the average statist? Certainly not; I love my wife more than life itself. Yet we had to surrender and finally got married anyhow, because without the formal marriage certificate, there are so many things you simply cannot do: all rights are exclusively for the unit, and unless one is married, the unit is the individual and therefore it is easy to find the law separating you from your loved one. Government does not recognize love, commitment, or contract; it only recognizes its own, granted privileges.
And, of course, there are issues such as tax breaks and marital inheritance that further make some things a lot “easier” if you’re married. The institution of marriage under the state is simply not about love. It is about privilege.
The issue is then whether it is a good or bad thing to expand this privilege to include more groups. Some claim it is, since with a larger privileged group the “quantity” of discrimination must be lower simply because fewer individuals are excluded from this privilege. But this is a strange way of seeing it, since privilege granted by government necessarily has a cost side – it is not only benefit. So if more people are privileged, it means those excluded from this privilege are necessarily further burdened. Is this a good thing or bad?
Well, the issue is also the nature or magnitude of privilege. Tax breaks to married couples may not be a huge thing, but government does not cut in public spending because more people get married and therefore pay lower taxes. So letting more people enjoy the benefits of this privilege means those choosing not to accept their government’s blessing will (at least eventually) have to pay relatively more. And budget deficits are likely to increase.
Imagine if the privilege is instead to be awarded land, serfs on that land, and a castle as well as the life of a feudal lord. What does it mean to add another group to this privilege? It necessarily means taking land from some (privileged or not) and forcing others to finance the luxury of this new group to have the word “lord” on their business cards. The magnitude of this “lordship” privilege is greater in degree than that of marriage, but there is nothing to this example that changes the nature of the issues we are talking about. It is but much more obvious what is the nature of a government privilege, and what are the results of expanding it to include other groups.
So is it then a “sure case” that expanding privilege is a good thing? No, it is not so obvious anymore. The state still decides who can be lords and who will be serfs, just like it selects what groups may benefit from the goodies it grants to couples who are labeled “married.” From a libertarian point of view, nothing substantial has changed – we still have a privileged group and a group excluded from this privilege. Their relative sizes have changed, but everything else is the same. So why is it better?
It isn’t. Even if there would be no noticeable or relevant change in e.g. dollar amounts (for whatever reason) for all or most individuals after privileges have been reshuffled, we still cannot say whether we, as a group, are better or worse off. We cannot compare how people are affected in terms that really matter: that is, how they experience the change. Taking $10 from both Peter and Paul to give $20 to Patrick doesn’t mean Patrick is “twice as well off” as Peter is “worse off.” Any economist knows that one cannot make such “interpersonal utility comparisons.”
Just as in the case of so many other government schemes, the “opening up” of privilege through expanding the size of the group of those eligible only makes this particular power of the state a little more attractive on the surface. Just like school vouchers, which allow parents to choose schools while government remains in (and can even expand) control, the real beneficiary is the state – it remains in power, remains the regulator of everything, but effectively undermines the opposition to its power through playing the benevolent giver of all things. Even self-proclaimed libertarians fall for it.
Granted, some libertarians claim gay marriage and school vouchers are “the best we can do” right now, since we will not see the repeal of the state’s marriage privilege or state control of education anytime soon. One needs to be “pragmatic.” Well, this is exactly the problem. This “pragmatic” support of privilege reshuffling or the tweaking and tampering with the state system that oppresses us does not bring us closer to freedom. It does the exact opposite: it covers for the state, makes excuses, and provides a rationale to keep the state a little longer. How is this “a step forward” for libertarians?
The fact is that there are two brands of libertarians, and I doubt they will ever be able to work well together. On the one hand, there is the pragmatic, gradual-approach, step-by-step bunch that cheer every time the state acts in a way that they personally consider beneficial (for “others” and especially underprivileged groups, of course, not specifically for themselves). These are expected to be strictly for school vouchers and gay marriage and any other kind of privilege reshuffling that ends up making “more people” privileged than excluded from the particular privilege. They are also expected to be involved in party politics, since any “small step” in the right direction that they can bring about is (to them) a “giant leap” toward freedom. What matters is the number of people on each side of the line that separates privileged from excluded.
On the other hand, there are the radicals who do not trust the state even when it offers goodies. This latter group genuinely, as Murray Rothbard noted, hate the state, and it does not matter how many are on one side or the other. What matters is whether the state oppresses someone at all; one or a thousand or a million does not really matter – every oppressed individual is the end of the world. This is where one finds the true libertarians, who do not run errands for the state on good days and stand on the barricades on bad days.
Lastly, I apologize to all those who feel offended by these statements. I care not for your group or your privileges and I did not intend to offend you in any way. You see, to me you are all the same; I care equally and strongly for all oppressed, no matter to what “group” you belong or are assigned. In fact, the only two groups I see in the world are the oppressed and the oppressor. The single issue matters not to me, no matter how strongly you may feel about it, only that there is an injustice. And as such, we need to get rid of the injustice as well as its cause. That is my passion, not whether you are married or use school vouchers.