Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hard and not so hard political choices

Several states have recently passed laws regarding civil rights for LGBT persons. These laws tend to restrict individual rights. They were apparently enacted as a backlash against the Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. One state that has passed such a law is North Carolina, where I lived prior to moving to Hawaii. North Carolina's law prohibits North Carolina localities from passing laws to protect the rights of LGBT persons and stipulates that individuals use the public restroom provided for persons of the gender listed on the individual's birth certificate.

By nature, I intend toward libertarianism. That is, I think that laws should be a last resort; people should enjoy maximum freedom. However, laws should establish boundaries that equitably limit the individual exercise of freedom.

For example, individuals should not have the right to discriminate against other persons based on religion, sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, race, or gender orientation. Permitting same sex marriage in no way devalues or diminishes heterosexual marriage. Arguably, just the opposite is true: legalizing same sex marriage increases respect for intact families, regardless of the composition of those families. Prohibiting municipalities from banning discrimination against LGBT persons harms LGBT individuals and harms the wider community by diminishing the state's expectation that its citizens will respect the dignity and worth of all persons. In other words, North Carolina's law limits freedom and sanctions rather than ends immoral discrimination.

North Carolina's law is also unenforceable. Who will check the genitals of all persons wishing to a use public restroom? Furthermore, will the state require everyone to carry her/his birth certificate to prove she/he is using the proper restroom? One North Carolina sheriff opposes the law as unenforceable (he refuses to station his deputies outside of public restrooms) and, because the law is so patently unenforceable, as having the unintended consequence of tacitly promoting disrespect for law and order.

If I still resided in North Carolina, I would advocate replacing gender specific restrooms with facilities designed to accommodate everyone. One option is individual restrooms. Another option is to have individual stalls (some might have only a urinal) and a common wash area. Single parents with a young child of the opposite sex can face difficult decisions when the child needs to use a public toilet. These options avoid these problems.

The fact is that the hullabaloo about restrooms masks prejudice against LGBT persons that the law allows to become immoral discrimination. I heard similar bogus arguments against allowing LGBT persons to serve in the military. When finally forced to integrate, the military had no significant problems. People simply need to respect one another as God's creation, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Mutual respect is not a panacea for all political conflict. Hard choices do exist. For example, abortion opponents generally believe that life begins at conception and abortion is therefore murder. Proponents of abortion rights disagree that life begins at conception. Both sides agree that murder is wrong. Unfortunately, answers to the question of when life begins remain elusive. Abortion is therefore a political question that forces hard choices. How can we respect individual choices and beliefs while also not legalizing murder?

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, often will begin with easy questions (e.g., LGBT rights) and then proceed to harder questions. Sometimes, the best feasible outcome is to agree to disagree, accepting that living in a democracy means that one will not always have one's opinions prevail.

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, can sometimes advance by parsing large issues into smaller issues. For example, treating abortion as a complex problem rather than a bifurcated choice between murder and respect for life can move a conversation forward while reducing the number of abortions, a goal about which most people agree. Laws against abortion have proven ineffectual and harmful. Women who seek abortions obtain them from unlicensed practitioners in potentially dangerous ways. Furthermore, the number of women who seek abortions declines as the number of unplanned pregnancies declines. Improving access to birth control therefore is an effective approach to reducing the frequency of abortion. Also, convenient and affordable alternatives to abortion, such as the morning after pill, can further reduce the number of women seeking abortions.


In sum, politics need not degrade into irreconcilable polarization. Most people – that is, almost everybody except sociopaths – have good hearts, solid civic values, and a positive vision of communal life. Together, we can uphold the rights of all through mutual respect while constructively promoting the common good in public discourse and government.

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