Which is more important — letting people make their own decisions about what to do with their property or forcing them to make decisions that are morally acceptable to you? You have to pick one. You can’t have it both ways.
Discrimination is a dirty word today, but there’s no reason for it to be. Discriminating is actually a neutral thing. Merriam-Wesbster’s first definition for the word is, “Making a distinction.” That’s all it is. It’s only when you discriminate on grounds that we think are wrong that discrimination becomes a bad thing. A woman who chooses one man over the others who might want to marry her is discriminating. She’s making a choice based on what she sees as the differing characteristics of her choices. A man who chooses between different job offers is discriminating. The woman who chooses one pair of shoes over another is showing discrimination. The list is endless.
What you’ve come to think of as discrimination is a specific class of discrimination, characterized by choosing among people for reasons that are considered wrong. Examples are racial discrimination, sex discrimination or religious discrimination. If you hire a white man instead of a black man because he’s white, you’re engaging in racial discrimination. If you hire a woman as a teacher because you refuse to believe that men can be good teachers, you’re engaging in sexual discrimination.
Until the 1960s, this sort of discrimination was perfectly legal. In fact, the law in some places required racial discrimination in many areas of life. (In the U.S. South, the legal requirements to separate races in many ways were called Jim Crow laws.) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed all of that. The law said that restaurants and other private businesses must serve anyone, regardless of race.
The federal government sued a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham because the owners said it was their right to operate their business as they wanted, without being told who they had to deal with. The owners said that Congress had exceeded its powers in telling them who they had to serve. In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the law was constitutional. The principle was thus established that governments have the right to dictate to private owners who they have to serve — whether they like it or not.
Those of us who hate racial discrimination like the outcome that decision has created. Blacks can walk into any restaurant and be served in the same way that white people can be. The decision appeals to a basic sense of fairness that most of us feel. But in the process, property rights were taken away from millions of business owners. And as more and more categories have been added to anti-discrimination laws, it’s becoming impossible for business owners to choose who they’ll do business with.
So I come back to the original question. Should people have the right to decide what to do with their own property? Or should people be forced to act in ways that the majority consider moral?
Property rights are being ignored in most places today — around the world — in the name of giving more and more people what they want. This whole discussion was prompted by an article someone recently sent me about a Christian couple in Great Britain who own and operate a bed and breakfast. They didn’t feel right about having a gay couple staying in their home, so they declined to take them as guests.
The government fined the couple, right, for the discrimination and the case ended up in court. The ruling said the couple aren’t legally entitled to use their own property in a way that’s consistent with their religious beliefs. Instead, they’re required to take customers even if they feel that it’s morally wrong to do so.
I don’t like racial discrimination and many other forms of discrimination, but I like freedom even more than I dislike people making choices I disagree with. I believe people have the natural right to make choices — with their own property and their own lives — that I believe are wrong. A company has the right to deal with who it wishes to deal with, but I also have the right to refuse to deal with companies which have such practices that I find objectionable.
If you’re going to defend individual freedom, you have to defend the freedom of people to make choices that you find wrong. Some people are going to use their freedom in good ways. Others — racists and various other kinds of bigots — will use it in ways that we find painfully wrong. The alternative, though, is destroying property rights and individual freedom, which is what we’ve done today.
If you own a business today, you’re entitled to engage in commerce only as long as you operate your business in accordance with the moral standards of the majority. It’s funny that the people who demand and support this kind of “legislating morality” are angry when other people want to legislate their version of morality. Why is it wrong for one group to want to legislate right and wrong (as it sees those things), but it’s perfectly acceptable for another group to legislate its version of right and wrong?
Believing in a code of morality (and holding ourselves to it) is a very good thing. Forcing other people to obey our code of morality — in cases in which those people aren’t initiating force against others — is a very bad thing. It’s inconsistent with freedom.
It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to prevent governments from treating people in different ways. A black man has every right to expect the same thing from a government as does a white man. When it comes to private property, though, it’s a different matter.
So even if you like some of the practical effects of anti-discrimination laws — as I do — do you believe in individual freedom? Do you believe in property rights? If you believe in freedom and property rights, you can’t support anti-discrimination laws as they currently apply to private businesses. You can’t have it both ways.