Whose Right Is It, Anyway?

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Recently,
the Shelby County Commission passed an ordinance that would make
it illegal for employers and firms that contract with the county
to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation. Unfortunately,
the discussion got bogged down in questions about whether homosexuality
is or is not moral. It was assumed that the government can intervene
on behalf of favored groups in order to correct the perceived injustice
of discrimination. The debate largely ignored the key issue, which
is whether it is just, moral, and appropriate to use force to correct
others’ wayward beliefs. Now that the dust has settled, we can ask
about this.

As a consumer,
I am free to indulge whatever preferences I’m willing to pay for,
and if I am a bigot the objects of my ignorance have no legal claim
against me. If I am biased against the race and religion of the
proprietors of a local ethnic restaurant, I am free to shop elsewhere.
I don’t have to eat at India Palace, El Porton, or Pho Saigon, and
the owners of India Palace, El Porton, and Pho Saigon do not have
the option to force me to patronize their businesses.

The legal right
to prosecute thoughtcrime only works in one direction. Restaurants
do not have the right to refuse me service if they disapprove of
my race and religion. Something is amiss here. If I am a bigot,
I am free to indulge my bigotry by refusing to trade my money for
their goods and services. They do not have the same luxury: they
cannot refuse to trade their goods and services for my money.

It has been
said that "hard cases make bad law," and laws against
discrimination are a perfect case in point. This is an issue where
pragmatism must yield to principle. In his book Fair Play, economist
Steven Landsburg states
this eloquently
in a passage on the importance of rights, tolerance,
and pluralism (p. 92):

You and
I disapprove of bigotry. But the private virtue of tolerance
and the public virtue of pluralism require us to countenance
things we do not approve. Tolerance means accepting the fact that
other people’s values might be very different than your own. Pluralism
means eschewing the use of political power as a means for ‘correcting’
those values.

The idea
of tolerating intolerance sounds suspiciously paradoxical, but
so do a lot of other good ideas – like freedom of speech
for advocates of censorship. In fact, freedom of speech has a
lot in common with tolerance: Neither of them means a thing unless
it applies equally to those we applaud and those who offend us
most viscerally.

Tolerance
is ennobling, which is why we should teach it to our children.
Pluralism is insurance against tyranny, which is why we should
demand it of our government. To speak up for even the most despised
minorities is both morally right and politically prudent.

 

 

$23
   $20

 
 

Calling on
government to purify others’ hearts and minds opens Pandora’s box,
pushes us farther down a very slippery slope, and invites all sorts
of other hackneyed clichs. I hope that people find discrimination
on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, physical "handicaps,"
and other arbitrary criteria morally repugnant. I do. However, my
disapproval of another’s attitude does not give me the right to
use force to correct their erroneous ways. Indeed, it may backfire.
From what I have observed, the conflagration surrounding the antidiscrimination
ordinance has reinforced "us versus them" mentalities
around Shelby County.

This also addresses
another issue of crucial importance. If I give a government the
power to force you to accept my values, I also give them the power
to force me to accept your values at some point in the future. Another
way of saying this is that any government with the power to take
an atheist’s money and give it to my church is also a government
with the power to take my money and give it to Planned Parenthood.
When we use force to restrict others’ liberty, we endanger our own.

Governments
coerce others with a two-edged sword: giving the state the power
to do things you like necessarily requires giving the state the
power to do things you don’t like, and giving the state the power
to restrict behavior of which you don’t approve gives them the power
to restrict behavior of which you do approve. The right way to change
hearts and minds is not coercion. It is persuasion.

The originally
appeared on Mises.org.

June
30, 2009

Art
Carden [send him mail] is
assistant professor of economics and business at Rhodes College
and an adjunct fellow of the Independent Institute. He has been
a visiting research fellow at the American Institute for Economic
Research, and a summer research fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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