Steve Horwitz argues that Classical Liberals have become so focused on the size and reach of government that they have lost touch with another important Classical Liberal project: promoting equality before the law.
Part of the problem today is that an increasing number of libertarians lean toward the anarchist position. When one’s whole political perspective begins with the proposition that anything and everything the State does is evil and/or unnecessary, it’s easy to ignore questions about about how the State — given its existence – should properly conduct its business. These questions involve matters of justice and liberty, and if we libertarians ignore them, we risk not only irrelevance in important conversations but also risk consigning our fellow citizens to continued injustice and denials of liberty.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in New York last week has brought these tensions to the surface. Libertarians seem split over whether to celebrate this action. On one side is a group arguing that the real problem is State involvement in marriage in the first place and that this decision just makes it more involved. Therefore, this group seems to be arguing, we should oppose the action (or at least be indifferent about it) and work to separate marriage and State.
Equality under the Law
On the other side are those like me who — while agreeing that the long-term goal is separation of marriage and State — argue that, given the slim chance of separation happening any time soon, classical-liberal principles require the State to treat all citizens as equal before the law.
For most of human history political leaders acted with near total discretion, distributing benefits and impositions among their subjects however they like. One of the most important accomplishments of the liberal movement was to subject those with political power to rules. Starting with the Magna Carta and up through the democratic revolutions and constitutions of the eighteenth century, liberalism worked to create a society ruled by law not by men. Since the eighteenth century the liberal movement has also worked to ensure that all citizens, by virtue of their being adult humans, have their rights fully respected. The liberalism of the nineteenth century was antislavery, antiracist, and part of the earliest movements for women’s rights. It powerfully combined a commitment to liberty with a commitment to equality to make the case for the liberal order.