Republican presidential candidates have responded in a variety of ways to the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage last week. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said the Court is "completely out of control," adding, "If we want to save some money lets just get rid of the court." Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed amending the Constitution, an approach Senator Lindsey Graham called "divisive." Jeb Bush argued the matter should have been left up to states. And so on. But Senator Rand Paul, scion of the two-man Paul libertarian dynasty, remained conspicuously silent until yesterday, when he published a rambling op-ed in Time that's insightful in only one unintended way: It demonstrates how he plans to capitalize on conservatives’ concerns about the future of marriage by pushing calamitous economic projects.
Among the weird contradictions in Paul’s column includes the assertion that marriage has never before been a constitutional matter because it has historically been a local matter, which it still is. Paul quips, "I don’t want my guns or my marriage registered in Washington,” an eventuality that is only on the table for people who already live in Washington. The idea that the Supreme Court ruling on marriage has somehow transferred the responsibility of issuing marriage licenses to the federal government is promptly contradicted by Paul’s subsequent observation that “states such as Alabama are … [beginning] to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether.” If licenses were issued federally, it would make little sense for states to opt out; moreover, Paul is just factually wrong: it is only a pair of counties in Alabama that have recused themselves from issuing all marriages licenses for the time being.
Paul goes on to vociferously advocate for all Americans’ “right to contract,” while simultaneously supplying that marriage “though a contract, is also more than a contract.” If marriage can be described in contractual terms, though it is essentially greater than a straightforward contract (which seems to be Paul’s overall admission) then it is unclear why he has chosen to pursue his discussion of marriage as a debate about adults’ right to form contracts. Why acknowledge that there is more to marriage than a contractual agreement, then intentionally undershoot that definition in argument?
The answer is simple, and reveals itself in the remainder of Paul’s column. “Do consenting adults have a right to contract with other consenting adults?” Paul wonders rhetorically, adding, “Supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision argue yes but they argue no when it comes to economic liberties, like contracts regarding wages.” In other words, Paul intends to set up a kind of logical trap in which anyone who supports the free formation of marriages must also support the destruction of labor laws preventing employers from, say, hiring workers at $2 dollars per hour. His freedom-to-contract framing of marriage sets up this false dichotomy, which feeds into the paranoid theme of the piece: If you let the state regulate something, it will immediately turn out badly.
Paul juices up this bit of libertarian paranoia with off-handed references to “religious liberty and free speech,” the two principal concerns of conservatives worried that anti-discrimination laws will harm conservative businesses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. In doing so, he weaves together labor laws that protect workers and ensure them decent wages with spectral legal cases that will punish mom and pop bakeries that refuse commerce with gay couples-to-be. Paul’s response to both of these unrelated items is the same: “Perhaps it is time to be more careful what we ask government to do,” he suggests, “and where we allow it to become part of our lives.”
Of course, contra Paul, wage laws have nothing to do with marriages. There is a level of abstraction at which all things look the same, and by adopting rights and contracts as his chosen frames, Paul accomplishes that level of abstraction. And abstraction has everything to do with cruelty.
It’s a clever grift, trying to convince conservative Christians that the only way to protect themselves from a coming onslaught of lawsuits and persecution is to push state regulation entirely out of the economic sphere, as though the delicate matter of religious liberty were even remotely similar to questions of hourly wages, working conditions, and labor policies. But I hope it is not a successful one. Protections for religious liberty and conscience are, at their best, shields provided to maintain a person’s dignity in the workplace, and just labor laws are much the same, regardless of what politicians like Paul will continue to claim as the 2016 election draws near.