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Liberty and License


Same-sex couples in New York City can now apply for marriage licenses using online forms that feature gender-neutral terminology. This follows the passage of the Marriage Equality Act, the New York law that legalized same-sex marriage. The bill became law on June 24, 2011, and took effect thirty days later. Marriage licenses in New York City cost $35.

The state of New York had already recognized same-sex marriages performed in other states and other countries where such marriages are legal. Other states like Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island do likewise.

New York now joins five other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, & Vermont) and the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden.

The U.S. government does not recognize same-sex marriages. The Defense of Marriage Act (PL 104-199), enacted in 1996, defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. It also stipulates that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. Numerous lawsuits against the Defense of Marriage Act are pending.

The key issue here has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. Homosexual, heterosexuals, transsexuals, supporters of same-sex marriage, opponents of same-sex marriage, and those that are ambivalent should all be concerned about something far more important.

Why do governments at every level require a license for people to engage in consensual, peaceful activity?

In my state of Florida, a marriage license will cost you a whopping $93.50. There is also a three-day waiting period. However, if a couple takes the state-recommended premarital counseling course, the license will only cost $61 and the waiting period is waived.

In Wisconsin there is a six-day waiting period from the date the application is signed until the license becomes effective and a six-month waiting period for remarriage after a divorce no matter what state the divorce took place in.

In Indiana, there is no waiting period, but non-residents must pay a license fee of $60 instead of the $18 charged Indiana residents.

In Montana, the bride is required to take a blood test for rubella.

In Nebraska, parental consent is needed for the bride or groom if under nineteen. However, there is no waiting period and marriage licenses cost only $15, are valid for one year, and good in any Nebraska county.

And we should not forget that at one time some states had miscegenation laws that forbade interracial marriage.

But it’s not just marriage licenses. Without a state-issued license, no one can practice medicine or law in any state. Contractors and barbers must also be licensed. No one can open a restaurant without getting a license. And even then, a separate liquor license must be obtained to serve alcoholic beverages. In my state of Florida, one cannot even fish in the Atlantic Ocean from the beach unless a shoreline license is obtained. Although one can work as an accountant in any state without being licensed, certification as a CPA is only handled by state boards of accountancy.


We are not talking about a state requiring a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle on a state-owned road or a state requiring a lifeguard to have a state-issued license to work at a state park or a city requiring a group to get a permit to hold a demonstration in a city park.

We are talking about people engaging in commerce and other peaceful activities that don’t involve the government in any way.

Consider the issue of licensing lemonade stands. It seems that every year we hear some horror story about kids having their lemonade stand shut down for operating without a license.

Recently it was some girls in Georgia who were told they needed a business license, peddler’s permit, and food permit to operate their lemonade stand. Last year it was a seven-year-old girl in Oregon who failed to get a $120 temporary restaurant license. The year before it was a ten-year-old girl in New York who was fined $50 for operating her lemonade state without a license. Also in 2009, seven kids in Pennsylvania were told by police to close their lemonade stand because they didn’t have a permit — until one officer discovered that selling lemonade is legal in the state for children under sixteen.

When incidents like this happen, Americans typically side with the kids and against the license requirement. But when it comes to most everything else, most Americans side with the license and against liberty. They are never consistent, of course. Fishermen may grumble about having to get a salt-water fishing license. Homeowners may get upset about having to obtain a permit to have a garage sale. But most Americans in general don’t have a problem with license requirements for anything.


I believe the reason is that most people subscribe to myths about the government.

First is the myth that it is the job of the government to regulate our health, safety, and morals. The only justifiable purpose of government is for the protection of life, liberty, and property from the violence and fraud of others. It is not a legitimate function of government to act as a regulator, a monitor, a supervisor, a guard, an inspector, a parent, or a nanny.

The second myth is that if someone or something is licensed by the government then he or it must be qualified, safe, and trustworthy. Yet, according to some articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association, over 100,000 people die every year from drugs prescribed and administered by physicians. Over two million Americans each year have adverse drug reactions in licensed hospitals while being treated by licensed doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists.

The third myth is that if the government didn’t oversee some person, some practice, some industry, or some product, then the free market wouldn’t do it. Those who hold such opinions must not be familiar with Underwriter’s Laboratories, or think it is an agency of the federal government. Headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois, Underwriter’s Laboratories tests for safety thousands of products we use everyday in our home. No company is required to submit its products for testing, but look at the back of your computer monitor or the bottom of your toaster and you will see the symbol “UL” with a circle around it. According to economist Mark Thornton of the Ludwig von Mises Institute: “The Lab was the first to set standards for certifying the safety of pilots and planes before the government intervened. It set the standards for building materials, fire-fighting equipment, air conditioners, and household chemicals.”

Something that most people who support licensing never consider is where it will all end. The more we allow a license to be substituted for liberty, the harder it becomes to check the intrusion of government into our lives. If the government can license our fishing, our hairdressers, and our marriages, then why not our swimming, our waiters, and our bowling teams?

Libertarians oppose government marriage licenses not because they are averse to traditional marriage and the family, but because they prefer liberty to license. It is family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and ministers that should have a “compelling interest” in someone’s choice of a marriage partner — anyone but the government.

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