Conservatives, Libertarians, and Slippery Slope Concerns about the Gay Rights Movement:

Although I am skeptical about the particular example that occasioned it, I agree with Eugene's general point that some aspects of the gay rights agenda may pose dangers to individual rights that are important even to people who do hate gays or oppose the gay rights movement as such.

This poses a dilemma for libertarians (and some conservatives) who support the principle of equality for gays but worry about some of the potential slippery slope effects of victories for the gay rights movement. For example, I personally support gay marriage and the abolition of antigay discrimination by government. At the same time, I would oppose imposing similar antidiscrimination laws on the private sector, particularly on religious and civil society groups. And there is a nontrivial danger that those elements of the gay rights agenda that I support will, if adopted, lead to the enactment of those that I oppose.

However, I doubt that the right approach for those concerned about the civil liberties of people with antigay views is to oppose the gay rights agenda across the board. If you do not oppose A in and of itself, but are just concerned that it might lead to B, the right strategy to adopt will sometimes be to make a deal with the pro-A forces, pledging support for A in exchange for safeguards against B. This is an especially attractive approach if A is likely to be enacted sooner or later anyway, but the advocates of A need your backing in order to win sooner.

We seem to be in precisely this position with respect to the gay rights movement, which is highly likely to continue gaining ground, but cannot succeed quickly against determined and united opposition from the right. If conservatives and those libertarians who care more about the civil liberties issues than about gay rights oppose the gay agenda root and branch, then the gay rights movement will owe them nothing and will have no incentive to take conservative or libertarian concerns into account. The fact that most conservatives and libertarians either opposed the civil rights movement (as the National Review conservatives did) or were indifferent to it (as were many libertarians at the time) is one of the reasons why that movement took on such a left-wing statist cast. It is also one reason why most African-Americans support liberal statism even now. The conservatives (and to a lesser extent libertarians) of today are in danger of repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.

If, on the other hand, libertarians and those conservatives whose primary concern is the civil liberties impact rather than opposition to gays for its own sake support gay rights but make that support conditional on providing safeguards for civil liberties, there is a much better chance of a positive outcome for all concerned. In addition to the straightforward quid pro quo bargaining involved, homosexuals and their supporters are more likely to take conservative and libertarian concerns seriously if they do not regard the latter as implacable enemies.

Note that there are two distinct causal mechanisms at work here. One is pure interest-group bargaining: conservatives can persuade gay rights advocates to prevent B in exchange for support for A. But there is also a psychological dynamic under which gays and the political right could develop a more positive (or at least less negative) image of each other over time, thus making it easier to take each other's concerns seriously.

None of these points are likely to persuade those conservatives (and perhaps a few libertarians) who simply oppose gay rights across the board on the merits. But they should provide food for thought to those who generally support gay equality or are indifferent to it, but worry about its slippery slope effects.