…or, depending on your viewpoint, the right to freedom of association, the right to be a bigot, or the right to uphold the principles of religion.
At first glance, it looks straightforward enough. Mike Pence, the Governor of the State of Indiana, is reported to have watered down a bill that would have protected Christian businesses from being forced to provide services which ran counter to their religious principles. The example most frequently cited is Christian bakeries and florists being forced to supply gay weddings.
There’s more than the usual amount of hypocrisy and grandstanding here. Apple CEO Tim Cook has gone public to declare any religious freedom legislation “dangerous”. Yet his own company does business without qualm with countries whose law mandates the throwing of homosexuals from the roof of high buildings. Strange, but I searched the internet high and low and can’t find any record of him condemning that freedom of religious expression. Similarly, any law in a Western nation generically forbidding the exercise of religious expression, if equally applied, is bound to hit hardest against Muslim minorities, whose cultural and religious norms are far more at odds with the Western liberal tradition, founded as it is on Judeo-Christian ethics. To demonstrate the point, this man went to thirteen well-known “gay” bakeries asking to order a wedding cake with an inscription that defended traditional marriage. Every one of them refused.
There’s a fairly straightforward Libertarian social and economic argument here. Private businesses should not be compelled to serve anyone. Let’s say a a gay couple in a certain town walk into a certain baker’s shop, “Praise The Lord Bakery”, to order a wedding cake. The owner apologizes, explaining his private religious convictions mean he cannot endorse gay weddings. The couple reply, okay, we’ll get our wedding cake somewhere else. So they walk a few blocks down the street, to another shop, “All Welcome Bakery”, run by someone who has no such reservations, and indeed is delighted to take their business. They order a magnificent, multi-layered, marzipan-covered extravaganza, topped with a pair of plastic tuxedoed grooms, and are more than happy to pay the outsize price tag. The couple are similarly delighted with the result on their big day, and consequently tell all their gay and straight friends that All Welcome is the place to go to order cakes, as well as pick up bread, rolls, buns and everything else that comes out of a baker’s oven. A free transaction, where all parties benefit. En passant, they also mention their rather unhappy experience with Praise The Lord, and the reputation of the two businesses spreads.
What do you think happens next? All Welcome Bakery increases its market share in town, at the expense of Praise The Lord, whose customer base is increasingly limited to an ever-diminishing population of ageing, hard-core Christians. Praise The Lord don’t mind this too much either, seeing it as the price they pay for their right to discriminate, and confident that He will right all wrongs on Judgement Day, rewarding them just as surely as He whirls the sodomites into eternal damnation and perdition. The government should not legislate against this sort of private bigotry; the free market will take care of it far more efficiently, and justly, then the state ever can.
If you are Libertarian-minded, no doubt you will agree with all the above. But not so fast: we have not yet explored the implications of the principle we have just established. Imagine if, the week after the bakery incident, the restaurant a few doors down from Praise The Lord Bakery puts out a sign in its window stating “Whites Only”. The owner of the hardware store next door puts a sign in his window which proclaims, “No Jews”. The kosher butcher across the street, in retaliation, puts up a sign in his window stating, “No Gentiles”. The only way a black can get onto the golf course is as a caddy or drinks waiter. Before long, half the businesses in town have their bigotry on open display, advertising who they will or won’t serve. The only two motels in town won’t serve Hispanics and Asians respectively and, before long, the entire town’s economy begins to dwindle.
Is that the sort of town you would be happy to live in? How long do you think the free market might take to sort out a mess like that?
My own view is that we should come down in favour of freedom of speech, and freedom of association, even if it implies the right to discriminate. It will mean that latent bigotry in our society which is festering beneath the surface anyway will be brought out into the open where it can be seen by everyone. I believe that enough people, appalled at its sight, will vote with their wallets to produce a just solution.
I know I would be disinclined to deal with any such businesses, and I’m guessing most of you would be as well. But what if there was only one hardware store in town, and the next town was an hour’s drive away? This is the sort of situation civil rights legislation is generally supposed to obviate. But maybe such heavy-handed state social engineering merely papers over real price of the rights we claim to hold dear: the responsibility to exercise them justly, and the preparedness to accept the consequences, however dire.
That is how it should be when it comes to private enterprise. Discrimination must, of course, end when it comes to the provision of taxpayer-funded services. There is no way, using the same logic, that a Christian fireman should be able to excuse himself from attending a blaze at the home of a gay couple, due to any personal convictions. A government registry employee must validate, stamp and record a gay marriage (in jurisdictions where it is legal) just as he would a straight marriage. Canteens and restaurants at government facilities like national parks would be similarly bound.
That’s my view, and it is meant only as a conversation starter: the first word, not the last. I’m sure you can see as well as I can the situations that it could potentially lead to. So how high a price do you believe we should pay for freedom of association, and the freedom to conduct business as and with whom we will? And would that freedom, unbridled at law, unleash a monster?