Gay Marriage and Libertarian Leadership
by Ari Armstrong, July 14, 2003
On Saturday, June 12, the Rocky Mountain News published an article titled, Gay marriage ban brews dissent, by Peggy Lowe. The article spends about three column inches explaining my views on the matter, and it cites two articles written by Stephanie Shearer and me published by the Colorado Freedom Report. Lowe's article concludes, "To read the essays, go to www.FreeColorado.com."
Here's how that article originated. On July 4, Gwen Florio of the Denver Post wrote an article describing Shearer's work opposing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. I called Shearer (having worked with her before on other issues) and asked her to write about her views for the Colorado Freedom Report, which she did. Lowe then read Shearer's account and contacted her and me for more information.
I think Lowe did a great job with the story, and obviously I appreciate the publicity. However, there is an error in her story. She states Shearer's essay appeared "on the Colorado Libertarian Party's Web site," and she refers to me as "the Libertarians' state leader." In fact, the Colorado Freedom Report is described in its mast head as "a libertarian journal of politics and culture," and at no time did I claim either the web page or I represent the Libertarian Party of Colorado. The Report also provides a graphic link to the Libertarian Party of Colorado at www.lpcolorado.org. However, I thought Lowe's error was relatively minor and not of much significance to the overall meaning of her article. After all, I am something of a "leader" in the regional libertarian movement, I used to served on the state LP board, and the Colorado Freedom Report is a major source of libertarian news and views for many LP members in the state.
Unfortunately, the state LP board did not respond to the issue very well. In fact, the event raises important questions about the leadership of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, as well as about the issue of gay marriage with respect to the LP.
The Response from the LPCO
On July 13, Mike Seebeck, a former member of the state LP board, send a copy of the article via e-mail to current board members and noted a "clarification" is needed concerning Lowe's article.
Legislative Director Paul Tiger send a reply to Lowe and to a managing editor at the News. His reply, while acceptable and basically professional, also was not very pleasant. He told Lowe he was writing to "to inform you of a few facts." He writes, "I know Ari Armstrong well enough to believe that he would not have claimed to be the leader of the state party. I believe that this is something that you may have inferred, and incorrectly so. In the future we ask that you check out your facts before they reach publication." But Lowe gave the state Libertarian Party good (though unearned) publicity, and Tiger's reply sounds as though he's miffed. Also, I think a reply should have come from Norm Olsen, the state chair, or Desiree Hickson, the official Media Director.
Unfortunately, the local Libertarian Party often takes an unnecessarily hostile attitude toward the press. Yes, errors should be corrected, and biased reporting should be criticized. At the same time, the LPCO will not get very far if it alienates reporters or fails to build friendly relations with them.
While I was in contact with Lowe, at no point did it cross my mind that she might think my page represents the state LP. However, in retrospect, it's easy to see how the mistake was made. For two years I produced the "official" state LP publication as well as the web page.
The more important reason, though, is that, when it comes to discussions of libertarian positions on the issues, the LPCO is basically invisible. To my knowledge, not a single issue-based press release has been issued in the last three months. In his note to Lowe, Tiger writes, "Ms. Shearer has no article on the Libertarian Party's web site. Nor are there any articles pushing gun rights. If you want to see what is there, then you would do well to visit it at http://www.lpcolorado.org." In fact, however, there are no issue-based articles AT ALL on the official LPCO web page. A reporter who visits that site will find nothing of interest whatsoever.
[July 18 update: Norm Olsen has indeed sent a very nice note to Lowe explaining the situation.]
On Self-Appointed Pundits
Rand Fanshier, the Outreach Director for the LPCO, is doing an enormous amount of good work for the party. Indeed, his weekly reviews of LPCO activity are the only regular communications from the party concerning its activities. (These are available at the LPCO's web page, and they are important for activists if not for journalists.)
Fanshier's recent article describes some of the important accomplishments of the state party. In terms of building affiliates, registering new voters at events, and planning for the election cycle, the state board seems to be on track.
However, the state board has not been effective at becoming a respected voice on policy matters. Rand notes the board is developing "[s]imple, concise position statements on public issues," but that goal has not yet been accomplished.
Rand continues, "Rather than allow 'line-holders' or self-appointed 'pundits' to create our public image and public policy, we are creating a candidate program including training videos, pre-written position statements, and other tools common in organizations that want to get the job done and know how to do it."
This is great, but candidates are heard from only a few months every two years. What about the rest of the time?
In truth, it is only "self-appointed pundits" who have earned any media coverage recently for the LP. Fanshier's comments are in part a reply to Ralph Shnelvar's appearance on television. Shnelvar appeared as a "libertarian" commentator on two KBDI shows. I appeared on one KBDI show with Shnelvar, I gave an interview for 9News, and I am quoted in Lowe's article. Frank Atwood, of his own initiative and with Democratic and Republican allies, launched a campaign to repeal Littleton's grocery tax. His efforts gained media exposure in The Villager and the Littleton Independent. Fanshier is now helping out with that effort, but only because of the groundwork laid by a "self-appointed pundit." The effort in Montrose to repeal the grocery tax was initiated by the local LP group, not by the state LP board.
One problem lies with the term "libertarian." That term preceded the Libertarian Party and today is used to describe a political philosophy, not just a party. Many people registered with other parties -- or not registered to vote at all -- describe themselves as "libertarians."
On the other hand, rarely do people say, "I'm a republican" or "I'm a democrat," unless they mean they are associated with the Republican or Democratic party. I suppose we do well to remind ourselves that, while the distinction between "libertarian" and "Libertarian" is perfectly clear to us, it is less clear to outside observers.
There is simply no way the libertarian movement will grow unless "self-appointed pundits" speak out for libertarian ideals. It is neither possible nor desirable for individuals to seek permission from the LPCO board prior to taking public positions. Yes, if somebody claims to represent the Libertarian Party, he or she needs prior approval. But the libertarian movement is much broader than the party, and by its nature cannot be subjected to hierarchical control.
The Gay Marriage Controversy
David Boaz of the Cato Institute addressed the Libertarian Party of Colorado's convention April 15, 2000. As I reported for the May 2000 edition of Colorado Liberty, Boaz "encouraged libertarians to reach out to gays and lesbians. 'The history our grandchildren study will be influenced by the decisions you make,' he concluded."
I agree with Boaz that it's critically important for libertarians to defend the civil rights of homosexuals. To its credit, the Libertarian Party of El Paso County has hosted a booth at events sponsored by gays and lesbians.
That said, the decision confronting us is not strictly binary. As usual, libertarians take a position that doesn't fit well with modern "conservative" or "liberal" ideologies.
Boaz further explains:
And privatizing marriage would, incidentally, solve the gay-marriage problem. It would put gay relationships on the same footing as straight ones, without implying official government sanction. No one's private life would have official government sanction-which is how it should be...
Indeed, it is only because marriage is wedded to the state that it causes a political debate and social friction. Should the state force employers to provide "benefits" to gay spouses? No, but neither should the state force employers to provide benefits to heterosexual spouses. As Mises warned, state controls tend to breed more state controls. The only good solution is to repeal the original controls and return to liberty. Many businesses already voluntarily offer benefits to gay partners.
A July 13 article in the Denver Post by Gwen Florio reports, "Same-sex marriage, which would grant gay couples the same legal rights -- such as health care and pension benefits -- as straight couples, remains illegal in the United States.... [Gay couples] can't file taxes jointly, and adopting children... will be a major hassle."
Both taxes and adoption are state-related activities. If there were no income tax, the issue of filing taxes jointly would be moot. Given the income tax exists, there's no reason why the government can't treat all kinds of families the same, without resorting to legally sanctioning "marriage." Similarly, there's no reason why (state-controlled) adoptions can't treat gay partners the same as heterosexual ones.
Even as libertarians offer a unique view of gay marriage, they should be quick to defend homosexuals against bigotry and oppressive laws. It's the right thing to do morally, and it's also good politics.