A nurse says, “If I can bring myself to treat a patient tattooed with a swastika, then a baker can bake a cake for a gay wedding.” Of course, the statement ignores any differences in the values held by these individuals, their right to hold different values, or at least their right to act peacefully on those values. It makes an arbitrary presumption about what is “fair” and what is “unfair”, which is seldom well-defined when two parties hold sincere but conflicting beliefs. Yes, the baker can bake the cake, but should he be forced to do so under state compulsion? Coerced behavior is the product of aggression, but declining business for personal reasons is not an act of aggression, though the “safe-space” crowd would do its best to convince us otherwise. Sorry, hurt feelings don’t count!
Imposing the machinery of the state on private decisions about how and for whom one’s art must be practiced invites even more coercive action by the state going forward. Jeffrey Tucker addresses this in “Must a Jewish Baker Make a Nazi Cake?“, using the teachings of Ludwig von Mises on the implications of voluntary and coerced behavior.
Discrimination occurs in markets in many forms. Consumers discriminate between sellers and products based on quality, price, convenience and trust. In turn, producers or sellers discriminate between workers based on skill, effort, wages and trust. They discriminate between local markets or areas of specialization based on profitability. They discriminate between buyers based upon ability and willingness to pay. All of these forms of discrimination are rational because they result in better value for the discriminating consumer or better profitability for the discriminating producer. In other words, these forms of discrimination align with economic self-interest.
Other forms of discrimination do not align strictly with economic self-interest, but they may be preferred by the individual based on other criteria. It’s probably not possible to justify these forms of discrimination from all perspectives. Some may be abhorrent to most observers, including me. Certainly more consensus exists on some than on others. Nevertheless, these non-economically motivated forms of discrimination are always costly to the discriminator. For example, a consumer who refuses to frequent certain establishments owned by members of an out-group will forego opportunities for more varied experiences. Also, she will tend to pay higher prices due to her lack of interest in the competitive effort made by the out-group. An employer who refuses to hire certain minorities faces a more limited labor pool. He is likely to face a higher wage bill and will get a less efficient mix of skills in his workers. A seller who discriminates against certain groups by turning them away foregoes revenue, and the action may have negative reputational consequences. Obviously, other competitors can profit from another seller’s discriminatory behavior. Almost by definition, markets impose penalties on discrimination not borne out of economic self-interest.
Anyone with doubts about the effectiveness of markets and capitalism to overcome this latter type of discrimination should look no further than the broadly integrated activity that occurs within markets every day, and at the extent to which markets have become more diverse over time. Here is a choice quote of Tucker:
“Commerce has a tendency to break down barriers, not create them. In fact, this is why Jim Crow laws came into existence, to interrupt the integrationist tendencies of the marketplace. Here is the hidden history of a range of government interventions, from zoning to labor laws to even the welfare state itself. The ruling class has always resented and resisted the market’s tendency to break down entrenched status and gradually erode tribal bias.
Indeed, commerce is the greatest fighter against bigotry and hate that humankind has ever seen. And it is precisely for this reason that a movement rooted in hate must necessarily turn to politics to get its way.“
The hypertext within the quote links to an excellent piece by Andrew Berstein on “Black Innovators and Entrepreneurs Under Capitalism”, which covers the sad history of efforts to use government to undermine black commercial success.
Social justice activists argue that the state has a compelling interest in ending all discrimination, but the courts have followed a circuitous path in thrashing out whether (and what parts of) the U.S. Constitution might protect individuals or groups against private discrimination. But my interest is in what happens when the state endeavors to end discrimination in markets that are otherwise self-regulating: the state infringes on other rights that are clearly and definitively enshrined in the Constitution, and it arrigates power to itself that far exceeds the limits defined there. It may compromise the freedom of association, the freedom of religion, the right to private property, and the right to privacy. I believe the government has a compelling interest in protecting those rights, which apply to all individuals. It is also worth noting the absence of a limiting principle in defining what counts as fairness or discrimination. The Left finds it easy to denigrate and dismiss these as selfish concerns, proving how little regard they have for individual liberty. Establishing government control over the extent of those rights represents the end of our Constitutional Republic and is a prescription for tyranny.
Consider the ways in which government often attempts or is asked to create accommodations for marginalized groups, through laws on hate speech, compulsory service, hiring quotas, admission quotas, lending fairness, pricing equity, wage laws, work rules, mandatory facilities and the forced transfer of income. Tucker argues that this complex web of resource manipulation and mandatory and proscribed behaviors has several “unintended” consequences. I already mentioned the obvious abridgment of freedoms. Another negative consequence is that this approach does not promote unity; it breeds resentment and is likely to end in greater disunity. Furthermore, self-sufficiency is undermined by policies that hamper economic growth, and all of the general measures just mentioned redound to the detriment of that objective. Finally, many of these “fairness” policies run directly counter to the interests of the marginalized, such as wage floors that eliminate employment opportunities for the least-skilled, and means testing that discourages labor market effort through income “cliff” incentives.
The most menacing aspect of the effort to stamp out all forms of discrimination is a state with power to impose its own rules of legal “fair” treatment. Tucker appeals to Mises’ views on this point:
“[Mises] said that a policy that forces people against their will creates the very conditions that lead to legal discrimination. In his view, even speaking as someone victimized by invidious discrimination, it is better to retain freedom than build a bureaucracy that overrides human choice. …
Sacrificing principle for the sake of marginalized groups is short-sighted. If you accept the infringement of human rights as an acceptable political weapon, that weapon will eventually be turned on the very people you want to help. As Dan Sanchez has written, ‘Authoritarian restriction is a game much better suited for the mighty than for the marginalized.’“
Proponents of legal, compensatory handicapping by the state in favor of those pressing any and all grievances ask us to compromise basic constitutional rights, including the rights of association, free expression, privacy and private property. A corresponding effect is to grant the state more complete coercive power in almost every aspect of life. The unavoidable focus of such policies is not unity, but group identity, a divisive result that should give us pause. The power granted to the state in this context is as arbitrary as the currently fashionable definition of “fairness”, and it cannot be rolled back easily. Furthermore, economic vitality is not easy to restore once basic institutions and freedoms have been destroyed. This is evident from the sad history of socialism throughout the world. Ultimately, the coercive power granted to the state can be used in ways that should horrify today’s proponents of social and economic redress for every real or imagined inequity.
Addendum: Just over a year ago, I made a qualified defense of the right of a business to refuse service based on religious principles in my post “Suit Me, Or Face a Lawsuit: Adventures In Litigationland“. There, I made a distinction between “public accommodations” versus work for which a business-person must use her art, which is a form of expression, to provide customized service to a potential customer. I had the baker in mind, or the photographer asked to work a gay wedding. As I have in this post, I maintained that if a business-person finds some aspect of a request objectionable for any reason, she has the right to discriminate by refusing the business as a matter of freedom of expression.
I left a huge loose end in the argument I made in the earlier post. It had to do with the presumed requirement to serve all potential customers through the “public accommodations” of a private business. However, if the baker creates a beautiful “love cake” for sale to the general public, why can’t he refuse to sell it to a gay couple for their wedding as a matter of freedom of expression? After all, it involves the baker’s art. If a stationer has created an artful collection of cards for sale to the public, why can’t she refuse to sell them to a gay couple for their wedding invitations on account of her religious convictions? And what about the nurse? If he is in private practice, can’t he refuse to practice his art of healing on the “swastikaner” as a matter of free expression? I believe that’s a constitutional absolute, though professional oaths may dictate that care be delivered. An emergency room nurse would not have any choice but to deliver care under federal law, but it is not clear whether the law would withstand a constitutional challenge by a private hospital on these grounds. As things stand, the nurse can only refuse employment or resign if the rules are not to his liking.