Politics May 14, 2013

Mommy, I Hate Myself: Why Libertarian Arguments Against Marriage Fail

But is there a compromise solution?

John Zmirak
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John Zmirak
May 14, 2013
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What happens when two lesbians marry and try to raise a healthy boy? Sometimes, I’m sure, the child finds a male role model somewhere, and he turns out psychologically sound. Sometimes, though, that little boy is so confused and unaffirmed, so shamed by his lack of resemblance to either parent that he decides he is really a girl like both of his parents, that he wants to take hormones to someday grow breasts, and have doctors cut his penis off and carve him out a vagina. And sometimes those lesbian parents – instead of admitting that the child they acquired to complete their “family” is brutally damaged and needs therapy – agree with their 7-year-old’s delusion, and decide that he really is a girl. So they take him to doctors, all right, but not to doctors who will help him overcome the toxic shame and self-hatred he mysteriously developed under their care. No, they take him to the hormone peddlers and the surgeons, to hack away at his vulnerable young body until it matches his tortured mind. And this is all perfectly legal in California. Indeed, the opposing course might not be legal; that state has forbidden therapists from steering confused young people toward heterosexuality.

The story above does not come from a satire by Evelyn Waugh, but from the headlines, and it is only the most gut-churning example of how our modern parenting ethos turns children from human beings into playthings, from sacred trusts into robots we program to act out our narcissism. I don’t claim that such an outrageous example of child abuse is typical of same sex-couples with children. But their arguments, which have triumphed in state after state, make this kind of child mutilation possible, covering it with the fig leaf of parental “love.” So advocates of same-sex marriage are responsible for it, and they should have to answer for it. Just as pro-lifers have to answer, again and again, how they’d deal with pregnancies caused by rape, so marriage “reformers” should have to answer for the abuse of Thomas (now “Tammy”) Lobell.
 
There is nothing we can do for this child now; the doctors and the bureaucrats have all agreed, and he is on a course of potent and dangerous hormone-blocking drugs to prevent him entering puberty as a boy. (He is now 11.) The ideology of “transgenderism” is triumphant across the country. Instead of helping people with gender confusion to conquer the thoughts that torture them – the self-punishing delusion that they were born into the wrong sex – doctors now routinely ravage their bodies to match the madness. So why not start while their bodies are younger, more pliant? As Descartes taught us long ago, our flesh is merely a meat machine in which one’s spirit is imprisoned. If the ghost can figure out magic that lets it better control the robot, who are we to interfere by trying to convince the ghost he is making a mistake?
 
Who indeed? The only argument any of us has left to interpose between Thomas Lobell and the team of doctors hired by his abusive mothers is the single, thin reed: He is not yet a “consenting adult.” The day he turns 18, of course, we can shrug and shake our heads. As good individualists, we know that is where our obligations end. Once you’re grown up – whether to be a stock broker, drug addict, or porn actress – you are nobody else’s business, and nobody’s problem but your own. If you didn’t want to risk getting pregnant, then you shouldn’t have slept with me – go find an abortionist.
 
That is the icy ideology that underlies radical libertarianism – as distinct from the classical or Christian “liberalism” on which Western freedoms were slowly and bravely built. Rightly, our founders (and their British forebears before them) rejected the paternalism of rulers who enforced religious orthodoxy by burning dissenters at the stake, or defended economic privilege by jailing tradesmen who undercut the fixed prices set by guilds. But those who fought for our freedom against inquisitors and mercantilists always knew that liberty can only survive when it is ordered, when strong moral norms inform the citizens who have been liberated, and their natural human concern for their fellow man drives them to care for each other willingly through the kind of private charity that once thrived (as Tocqueville noted) in America.
What happens when two lesbians marry and try to raise a healthy boy? Sometimes, I’m sure, the child finds a male role model somewhere, and he turns out psychologically sound. Sometimes, though, that little boy is so confused and unaffirmed, so shamed by his lack of resemblance to either parent that he decides he is really a girl like both of his parents, that he wants to take hormones to someday grow breasts, and have doctors cut his penis off and carve him out a vagina. And sometimes those lesbian parents – instead of admitting that the child they acquired to complete their “family” is brutally damaged and needs therapy – agree with their 7-year-old’s delusion, and decide that he really is a girl. So they take him to doctors, all right, but not to doctors who will help him overcome the toxic shame and self-hatred he mysteriously developed under their care. No, they take him to the hormone peddlers and the surgeons, to hack away at his vulnerable young body until it matches his tortured mind. And this is all perfectly legal in California. Indeed, the opposing course might not be legal; that state has forbidden therapists from steering confused young people toward heterosexuality.

The story above does not come from a satire by Evelyn Waugh, but from the headlines, and it is only the most gut-churning example of how our modern parenting ethos turns children from human beings into playthings, from sacred trusts into robots we program to act out our narcissism. I don’t claim that such an outrageous example of child abuse is typical of same sex-couples with children. But their arguments, which have triumphed in state after state, make this kind of child mutilation possible, covering it with the fig leaf of parental “love.” So advocates of same-sex marriage are responsible for it, and they should have to answer for it. Just as pro-lifers have to answer, again and again, how they’d deal with pregnancies caused by rape, so marriage “reformers” should have to answer for the abuse of Thomas (now “Tammy”) Lobell.
 
There is nothing we can do for this child now; the doctors and the bureaucrats have all agreed, and he is on a course of potent and dangerous hormone-blocking drugs to prevent him entering puberty as a boy. (He is now 11.) The ideology of “transgenderism” is triumphant across the country. Instead of helping people with gender confusion to conquer the thoughts that torture them – the self-punishing delusion that they were born into the wrong sex – doctors now routinely ravage their bodies to match the madness. So why not start while their bodies are younger, more pliant? As Descartes taught us long ago, our flesh is merely a meat machine in which one’s spirit is imprisoned. If the ghost can figure out magic that lets it better control the robot, who are we to interfere by trying to convince the ghost he is making a mistake?
 
Who indeed? The only argument any of us has left to interpose between Thomas Lobell and the team of doctors hired by his abusive mothers is the single, thin reed: He is not yet a “consenting adult.” The day he turns 18, of course, we can shrug and shake our heads. As good individualists, we know that is where our obligations end. Once you’re grown up – whether to be a stock broker, drug addict, or porn actress – you are nobody else’s business, and nobody’s problem but your own. If you didn’t want to risk getting pregnant, then you shouldn’t have slept with me – go find an abortionist.
 
That is the icy ideology that underlies radical libertarianism – as distinct from the classical or Christian “liberalism” on which Western freedoms were slowly and bravely built. Rightly, our founders (and their British forebears before them) rejected the paternalism of rulers who enforced religious orthodoxy by burning dissenters at the stake, or defended economic privilege by jailing tradesmen who undercut the fixed prices set by guilds. But those who fought for our freedom against inquisitors and mercantilists always knew that liberty can only survive when it is ordered, when strong moral norms inform the citizens who have been liberated, and their natural human concern for their fellow man drives them to care for each other willingly through the kind of private charity that once thrived (as Tocqueville noted) in America.

 
The medicine that is mercy must buffer the law of the jungle, and temper efficiency with empathy. The mighty engine for creating wealth that is the market economy needs the oil of human kindness, or else it will consume itself, creating so many discontented, disaffected citizens that they will arise to smash the machine, and impose again some paternalistic tyranny that “protects” adults by treating them as permanent children or unruly pets. (As Frédéric Bastiat noted, there is never a shortage of would-be “big brothers” who see themselves as perfectly suited to manage the lives of “lesser men.” Nowadays, they don’t call themselves “socialists” but “progressives,” “communitarians,” or sometimes “distributists.”)
 
More central to freedom’s survival than a safety net – not a hammock – for the needy is the question of personal virtue. Truth-telling, integrity, thrift, a sense of honor, a respect for other people’s property, even courtesy – these are the “republican virtues” that America’s founders knew were needed for a free society to thrive. A prosperous, free country is not the automatic, chemical outcome of removing tyrants from power. As some of us told George W. Bush at the time, you can’t turn Iraq into Switzerland by toppling some statues. Post-Communist Russia was so plagued by endemic corruption, by habits of telling lies, by sex-trafficking and mutual exploitation, that it quickly embraced the strongman Vladimir Putin who promised to fend off chaos. And of course, we all know about Weimar Germany….
 
This account of how liberty rises and how it can die is drawn from the scholarship of one of the great defenders of freedom in the 20th century – anti-Nazi hero and Austrian economist Wilhelm Röpke. I have tried to use it when arguing with secular libertarians, whose concern for the single good of moment-to-moment autonomy excludes the other values of human life to the point where it undermines freedom itself. Since the argument is long, requires multiple steps, and makes reference to real historical events, it isn’t much use in winning over ideologues. So I have boiled it down to a simple formula: We seek as much freedom as possible for as long as possible. Freedoms that lead to chaos or cruelty will undermine our free system itself, and make way for the dictators.
 
With all this in mind, let us look at how libertarian arguments affect the argument over same-sex “marriage,” and how libertarians are letting themselves be used by social engineers with zero concern for genuine freedom. Here are the two key libertarian arguments, and explanations of where they fall short, and in fact empower the state:
 
  • We should get government out of the marriage business.
This has some surface appeal: if marriage is just about regulating sexual conduct among adults, then the government of a diverse society with widely different sexual mores ought not to try imposing one group’s view on all the others. But since – as I showed last week – marriage is mostly about protecting the interests of children, who are helpless third parties, that argument fails. Most libertarians do not follow Murray Rothbard in saying that parents have no obligation even to feed their children; they will admit that children’s best interests (narrowly defined) are something the state can step in to look out for. If the libertarian you are talking to will accept this piece of common sense, then move on to discuss how heterosexual marriage is a pre-political institution which the state does not create but merely recognizes. In fact, the family is one of the civic institutions that can push back most effectively against overweening government. Blow it up into tiny individual atoms, and there is nothing standing between the individual and the state, which is precisely why those who love big government want to redefine the family out of existence.

 
  •  Marriage is just a contract between adults, and the state should not refuse to enforce any contract two adults wish to make.
The obvious answer is: why just two adults? Why can’t people form “families” out of Mormon or Muslim harems? Consistent libertarians will answer that the state should permit this, too. At that point, then it’s worth saying that it’s immoral to extend the marriage privilege merely to couples, and that any bills changing marriage ought immediately to make room for polygamy. But why limit this privilege to sex partners? By the libertarian logic, any group of individuals of any size should be free to associate and adopt children. So motorcycle gangs, Carmelite monasteries, and even political parties should have the privilege of taking in children and raising them as members. (The celibate Shaker sect used to reproduce itself just this way.) Maybe the Koch brothers should adopt the entire state of New Hampshire…
 
Furthermore, the government already has a long array of contracts between adults that it refuses to enforce: slave contracts, for one thing—is that unfair to the “BDSM community?” The state forbids people to work for less than a certain wage, or in certain dangerous conditions. It also forbids racially exclusive contracts. Now, a consistent libertarian might reject all those state interventions as paternalistic and unjust. If the person you’re speaking with argues this way, ask him why he isn’t an activist on behalf of racist landlords.

Tell him that you’ll accept gay “marriage” on the day that Congress repeals the Civil Rights Act, eliminates OSHA, and inserts an S&M loophole to the 13th Amendment. Until then, you will rightly see same-sex “marriage” as a statist assault on the family.
 
What is worst of all is the fact that one of the contracts the state refuses to enforce is traditional marriage. In no state of the Union can a Catholic couple make a legally binding contract that they will marry for life, with no possibility of divorce and remarriage. That is the contract our faith demands we make, but the state refuses to enforce it. Why? Because the state insists on a single, one-size-fits all model of marriage that has been gradually whittled away through no-fault divorce laws into the least sacrosanct covenant in American law. It is much, much harder to get out of your credit card debt than out of a marriage. (Let’s not even bring up tax obligations or student loans – those really are sacred.) If libertarians really favor freedom of contract, then they should be out protesting in favor of Christians’ right to contract binding marriage.
 
In fact, therein lies a compromise which I think Christians should grudgingly accept – a national bill that at once extended to same-sex couples the vague, faint protections that remain in the anemic institution called civil marriage, which also allowed couples to freely bind themselves in a “covenant” marriage, drawn up by their churches or lawyers, which the state would enforce like any other contract.
 
Such a bill would not protect children adequately, as traditional marriage once did. It would not revive the institution of marriage, or provide much protection against the advancing, therapeutic nanny state. But it would grant those of us who care about such things the same rights as experimental families (which is more than we are likely to get in the current political climate).
 
So maybe that’s what Christians and other traditionalists ought to be pushing for: a platform of “marriage freedom” that lets any couple choose from a Chinese menu of marital options, including (alas) same-sex unions and even polygamy at one extreme, and a binding, lifelong traditional marriage at the other. Of course, those churches that regard marriage as permanent could demand of any couple seeking a wedding in their faith that they present the proper, permanent marriage license. Refusal to contract a “covenant marriage” ought to make a couple ineligible for the sacrament of matrimony. That would be up to pastors and bishops to enforce, so don’t get your hopes up. But at least it would provide some shred of public respect and legal support for the fragile, crucial covenant that is the source of human life.
 
Meanwhile, keep poor Thomas Lobell in your prayers.
 

Part 1 in this seriesSame-Sex “Marriage”: Why We Don’t Fight
 
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. He blogs at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.
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