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Maya Rupert Headshot

The Myth of Libertarianism and the Fight for LGBT Equality

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Conservative leaders are changing their opinions on marriage equality.

Between Sen. Rob Portman's (R-Ohio) recent announcement that he supports marriage equality and the spate of similar sentiments being voiced at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), it seems that every day the media is highlighting another powerful conservative figure speaking out in favor of marriage equality, and this is undeniably a victory for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement. However, even as we savor the welcome impact of this bipartisan support, a note of caution is advised: Much of this trend can be credited to an increasingly prominent libertarian strand in the conservative movement, and it would be unwise to mistake this philosophical shift as a victory for LGBT equality. Libertarianism will not lead us to victories on behalf of the LGBT community, because it is based on a premise that is fundamentally at odds with equality for the LGBT community.

Libertarianism can be praised for its consistency. While liberals and conservatives both vacillate between favoring big government in some situations and decrying government intrusion in others, libertarians call for limited government across the line. But its value of being a completely pure ideological position is dwarfed by the weakness of it being completely untenable.

Libertarianism tells us that freedom is the ultimate good and that it should be maximized, so in order to accomplish that, we must limit government intervention, which restricts free action. Here's the problem with that premise: Freedom isn't simply the absence of government. It's the absence of any force stopping people from doing what they have a right to do. If we take away government, we aren't left with freedom; we're left with anarchy.

Put another way, freedom isn't my right to live unless someone stronger wants to kill me; it is my right to live even if someone stronger wants to kill me.

The concept of freedom is based on the ability to exercise rights, and that ability doesn't exist without some mechanism in place to ensure that all people can actually do so. Freedom needs the existence of government. The argument that more government means less room in our lives for freedom is logically no different from the argument that more cookie dough leaves less room in the oven for cookies.

Achieving LGBT equality will require ensuring the freedom to exercise equal rights, which includes the right to get married, but also the right to work, access fair and affordable housing, make use of public accommodations and live in communities and go to school free from fear of violence, harassment and intimidation. The libertarian premise that without government intervention everyone would be free to do what they want is simply a myth for marginalized communities. True equality for the LGBT community will require government intervention.

The newly anointed standard bearer of the libertarian movement, Rand Paul, has all but announced that he will be running for president in 2016. Before Paul became the darling of some civil libertarians for staging a 13-hour-long filibuster on the use of drone strikes and becoming the Solomon of the marriage equality fight (spoiler alert: The government doesn't have to recognize marriage equality if it stops recognizing marriage!), he was best known for criticizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an example of government overreach.

To be fair, that controversial position is not, as many incorrectly claimed, an endorsement of discrimination. Instead, it is based on the view that private enterprises and organizations should have a "right" to decide for themselves whether to discriminate, and, presumably, that the rest of us have a right to withhold support from businesses that choose to discriminate, thus making it financially unattractive for them to continue doing so. However, without government protection, the freedom of vulnerable communities to engage in all aspects of public life becomes contingent upon whether the majority so abhors the notion of discrimination that it bands together and makes it financially untenable for businesses to discriminate.

Though Paul is (fortunately) not in a position to jeopardize the Civil Rights Act, the no-government philosophy he champions poses a real threat to the legislative priorities of the LGBT community. The LGBT community needs laws that would offer protections similar to the Civil Rights Act, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act (HOME) and other federal legislation that will guard against discrimination. The unrealistic notion that equality can be achieved without government enforcement and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms is not a workable solution to LGBT discrimination. In the fight for LGBT equality, the notion that libertarianism can sustain us is a dangerous myth.