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.

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Per Bylund's picture
Columns on STR: 63

Has a passion for justice.


Paul's picture

I agree. This is lesbians and gays in the wild state, seeing the heteros living on the plantation, saying "We want to be slaves just like them!"

If taxes are less for married couples, maybe the correct response is to make your living in untaxable income, or just live with the extra theft as a cost of freedom. If inheritance rights are less convenient, maybe joint ownership of items is the correct response. And so forth.

It's like homeschooling. Some homeschoolers eagerly respond when the state offers programs for homeschoolers. Other, wiser ones, reject any government help and remain independent.

Read about the "Wild and Free Pigs of the Okeefenokee Swamp":

tzo's picture

I especially like the last three paragraphs, which draws the distinction between libertarians and Libertarians, which are actually two completely different animals.

Per Bylund's picture

Thanks to both Paul and tzo for your comments and clear thinking. Let me tell you, most people have not actually commented on the argument but made several attempts at misrepresenting what I write or go into discussing particular policies or situations. This is an argument built entirely on principle - the principle of Liberty - and has nothing to do with practical concerns. Some of the responses misunderstanding the point have been made here:

But most of them were of course not made in public where they can be scrutinized.

mghertner's picture

‎"If, then, the libertarian must advocate the immediate attainment of liberty and abolition of statism, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory to this overriding end, what further strategic stance may a libertarian take in today's world? Must he necessarily confine himself to advocating immediate abolition? Are "transitional demands," steps toward liberty in practice, necessarily illegitimate? No, for this would fall into the other self-defeating strategic trap of "left-wing sectarianism." For while libertarians have too often been opportunists who lose sight of or under-cut their ultimate goal, some have erred in the opposite direction: fearing and condemning any advances toward the idea as necessarily selling out the goal itself. The tragedy is that these sectarians, in condemning all advances that fall short of the goal, serve to render vain and futile the cherished goal itself. For much as all of us would be overjoyed to arrive at total liberty at a single bound, the realistic prospects for such a mighty leap are limited. If social change is not always tiny and gradual, neither does it usually occur in a single leap. In rejecting any transitional approaches to the goal, then, these sectarian libertarians make it impossible for the goal itself ever to be reached.


Similarly, in this age of permanent federal deficits, we are often faced with the practical problem: Should we agree to a tax cut, even though it may well result in an increased government deficit? Conservatives, who from their particular perspective prefer budget balancing to tax reduction, invariably oppose any tax cut which is not immediately and strictly accompanied by an equivalent or greater cut in government expenditures. But since taxation is an illegitimate act of aggression, any failure to welcome a tax cut—any tax cut—with alacrity undercuts and contradicts the libertarian goal. The time to oppose government expenditures is when the budget is being considered or voted upon; then the libertarian should call for drastic slashes in expenditures as well. In short, government activity must be reduced whenever it can: any opposition to a particular cut in taxes or expenditures is impermissible, for it contradicts libertarian principles and the libertarian goal."

- Murray Rothbard, The Case for Radical Idealism

Temujin's picture

You say you had to surrender and "marry" your wife in the statist sense because the consequences of not having this signed piece of paper are genuine inconveniences. Not to sound like I'm casting stones or questioning your principles, but I wonder if you ever regret taking that step? I'm not married but if I were, the one big concern for me would be if I were to die, I'd want anything I own to be 100% transferred to my partner rather than stolen or misappropriated. I suspect that without the signed marriage license, it is a lot harder to prove inheritance claims on anything. Was that your primary justification for getting "married"?

Sadly even the true libertarians are hard-pressed to avoid running errands for the state. The State is often impossible to avoid, even in death.

A really good article though. Thanks for posting it.

mghertner's picture

Shorter Rothbard: a tax cut is not a "privilege". A tax cut is a right, in the sense that all of us have a right not to be taxed. If a tax cut is not paired with an equal cut in spending, the problem lies with the spending, not the tax cut.

Per Bylund's picture

mghertner, you've posted the same quotes in (at least) three places. I'm not sure what you try to accomplish with doing so, since I have responded to it elsewhere. You seem a bit obsessed with the tax break part of my argument. Well, it is part of it - but only together with the other parts. I talk about this here:

tzo's picture

Not paying taxes at all is a right, but a tax cut is indeed a privilege for citizens. It is doled out by politicians. If it is not granted, you don't get it.

For non-citizens, government taxation is theft, period. Whether the government steals 40% or 30% or 1% is pretty irrelevant to the fact that they are violating human rights in every case, since human beings have the right to their property.

Actively fighting for less taxes is not standing up for your rights, it is seeking privilege. It is what citizens do, as they have decided to trade their rights for privileges by playing the government game.

"I am going to steal from you, but you get to pool your opinion together with others and the majority will decide how much I will steal from each of you in order to give to others. Go ahead, vote for less theft, you just may win. Wanna play?"

You surrender your rights if you agree to play, so don't play.

"...the problem lies with the spending, not the tax cut."

That's funny. That's the whole point, you see? You're not ever going to get anything, not even a privilege. You will pay for it your own self in some other form, or you will offload the cost to others, even as they are offloading some of their costs to you. It's just a 3-card monte game, and the suckers never stop lining up. Just fogettabotit.

mghertner's picture

"You surrender your rights if you agree to play, so don't play."

No. Your property rights will be violated by the government regardless of whether you vote or abstain.

From Lysander Spooner's "No Treason No. 2: The Constitution of No Authority":

"In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot -- which is a mere substitute for a bullet -- because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency, into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him."

mghertner's picture

Per, you (or others) have posted links to your article in three different places. What I am trying to accomplish by posting this quote in all three places is to establish for readers that the authority to which you appeal disagreed with the claims you have made in his name. Murray Rothbard was wrong about a lot of things, but he deserves credit for the things he was right about, this being one of them.

John deLaubenfels's picture

So ... you chose to marry your wife in order to cash in on government-given privileges, but now you're telling gays to f*** off. Those privileges are for YOU, not for THEM. Have I got it right?

Samarami's picture

Paul's comment sez it all for me. The only thing I want from agents of state is to be left alone (I know better than that, however -- parasites cannot resist infecting the host if s/he gives them half a chance). They can "legalize marriage" between dogs, cats and donkeys as far as I'm concerned.

What members of state gangs declare "legal" or "illegal" is for the most part simply minor inconveniences for the anarchists among us. The Texas Two-Step was conjured up for the likes of us -- to learn to dance around state impediments without holding hands with the thief.

Paul mentioned "homeschoolers". Yes, we have to decide every now and again whether to partake of the stolen largess the criminal gangs gleefully offer (since they've grudgingly accepted the fact they cannot and will not force us into their state indoctrination centers); or whether to bypass and pay the price for freedom. We tend to choose the latter. It's rare we can recapture any loot from the bandoleros without getting sucked into their "voluntary participation" con games.


John T. Kennedy's picture


"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? "

Did it occur to you to get married without permission?

I often see this surprising view from AnCaps, that marriage is defined by state permission. When I tell anarchists that I did not ask the state permission to marry my wife and therefore do not have any of their pieces of paper certifying our marriage, the most common response is: You're not really married.


It's like the government said you need permission to take a piss, but I tell an anarchist I just took a piss without permission and he responds: You really didn't piss.

It's a silly view. Marriage existed in America long before government declared a legal monopoly on it. Government doesn't produce marriages, it just perverts them.

You certainly *can* marry without state permission. Our service was modeled after the wedding of Lazarus and Dora Long:


Lazarus: I take thee, Dora, to be my wife, to love and protect and cherish—and never to leave you… so long as we both shall live. Don’t sniffle! Lean over here and kiss me instead. We’re married.

Dora: I was not either sniffling! Are we really married?”

Lazarus: We are. Oh, you can have any wedding ceremony you want. Later.


See? No state required. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

I'm not saying at all that an anarchist can't go through with the paperwork if that proves useful, but that has nothing to do with being married.

To identify marriage with state permission should be scandalous among anarchists.

I wrote a lot more on the same subject:

Ha! I just noticed that Micha Ghertner posted in this thread. Micha is an anarchist who told me I wasn't really married.

Suverans2's picture

Happy Thanksgiving, John.

A big thumbs up to everything you wrote here. And, if you don't already have them, here are a few Maxims of Law you can lay on the Micha Ghertner's of the world, not that you need them, but because common sense doesn't suffice for them.

    Matrimonia debent esse libera. Marriages ought to be free.

    Consensus non concubitus facit nuptiam. Consent, not lying together, constitutes marriage.

    Conjunctio mariti et faeminae est de jure naturae. The union of a man and a woman is of the law of nature.

The union of PERSONS, who are cattle, i.e. chattel property, on the other hand, is quite another matter.

John T. Kennedy's picture

Have a good Thanksgiving yourself Suverans2.

By the way, I have no problem with Micha, he's a good guy and we've had many enjoyable debates.

Neither my wife or I are the least bit troubled by those who think we're not married. The don't really have a say in the matter.

John T. Kennedy's picture

I just stumbled upon the comment thread where Micha decided I wasn't married:

We discussed the the gay marriage issue at length. The thread has a lot of good discussion relative to this issue.

AtlasAikido's picture

I would add three things....

How the Covenant of Unanimous Consent
fulfills the promise of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. It pertains to relationships between lovers...

There is *No We*: Challenge the Premise.
Is there a difference between those who seek to build a system, and those who only seek to build?

Happy Great Thanksgiving Hoax....

Suverans2's picture

In the article you posted the link for, we read, "The Sovereign Individual argues instead, that one must simply evict the state from one’s own marriage." The only way this can really be done is to "evict" ourselves from membership in the state - individual secession, (not expatriation). Anything less is just a "placebo", that makes us feel better, but does nothing to really cure what's wrong.

John T. Kennedy's picture

I think even committed statists would do well to evict the state from their marriages.

What do you have in mind with individual secession?