Discrimination (4): Private Discrimination, Freedom of Association and Property Rights

To what extent should anti-discrimination laws apply to private associations, to voluntary employment contracts and in private property? Let’s have a look at a number of recent news stories:

  • There was the controversy over Rand Paul’s opposition (shared by many other libertarians) to the application of the Civil Rights Act to private enterprises, which implies that a restaurant owner for example should be able to segregate his restaurant or even refuse black customers for example. (This view is based on the libertarian opposition to government regulation of the private sector).
  • Then there was the case of the Christian student’s union refusing gay members.
  • A teacher in a Christian school got herself fired because of premarital sex.
  • There’s the famous case of the Boy Scouts’ refusal to allow gay members (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale).
  • The D.C. police department recently decided to no longer intervene in an ongoing protest by Muslim women over their place in area mosques. These women have provoked confrontations in mosques by claiming the right to worship next to men, a right refused by conservative Muslim men. The police initially escorted the women out of the mosques, as requested by the men, but won’t do that anymore. The men claim that the mosques are private institutions, and private property rights should prevail. The women, they say, are trespassers.
  • And some time ago the British BNP, a racist political party, was forced to accept black members.

A similar but different case – because not based on prejudice or discrimination (except if you count PC as discriminating between views) – was the firing/quitting of journalist Helen Thomas following a politically incorrect and possibly antisemitic comment on Israel.

We can, of course, imagine an infinite number of similar cases:

  • Can a gym be held liable for dismissing a fat fitness trainer?
  • Should a business be able to offer a gays-only retirement home?
  • Can a landlord invoke religious objections to renting to an unmarried or gay couple?
  • Etc.

What all such real and imaginary cases have in common (even the Thomas case, which I’ll exclude from the current discussion because it’s slightly different and doesn’t – necessarily – involve discrimination) is that different values clash. Equality, equal treatment and the absence of discrimination on the one hand clashes with the freedom of association, the right to property and the freedom of contract on the other hand. (In the Thomas case, free speech clashes with freedom of employment contract).

If you’re a value pluralist – as I am – then these are hard cases. Property rights, freedom of association, freedom of contract (including in employment), equality and non-discrimination are all important values. It’s a right to hire or fire employees, accept or reject members of associations and serve or fail to serve customers on whatever basis you wish, even if this means discriminating certain employees, members or customers. But it’s also a right not to suffer discrimination. None of these values is by definition or a priori more important than the others. (If you think only freedom and property count, then you can wrap this up in a minute. Likewise if you think equality does count but is the automatic result of freedom. Don’t laugh, some actually think like that. Remember trickle down and the invisible hand).

All those rights are important, and when they clash, as in our examples, we’ll have to make a hard choice: which right in which case will receive priority? That will be, by definition, a case by case trade-off. You can’t use a general rule, since all these rights are – in the abstract – equally important. You can’t use a rule that says, for example, “property rights are equally important as equal treatment, except for bigots”. It’s not because you’re a bigot that you lose your property rights, your freedom of association or your freedom of contract. Those rights are human rights and intrinsically valuable.

So let’s assume that we will find many cases in which equal treatment is more important than property, contract or association rights. Pre-Civil-Rights-Act-America would be such a case. We will then engage in some justified anti-discrimination efforts that limit these other rights. And we will acknowledge that there is a limitation of rights going on. That there is a trade-off between rights and that the limitations of certain rights don’t mean that those rights are no longer important. It’s a necessary evil and an unfortunate consequence of clashing rights.

We’ll also find numerous cases in which property, contract or association rights will outweigh discrimination concerns. The example of the fitness teacher given above (who doesn’t have a right to employment in the business of his choice), or the gay retirement home (non-gay pensioners have ample opportunities elsewhere) would be cases like this. The same goes for the case of the guy protesting ladies’ night. Not all consequences of discrimination are equally harmful.

Consequently, anti-discrimination efforts can’t be an absolute concern and can’t become the only preoccupation. Otherwise, other rights would suffer needlessly. A balance has to be found. We have to decide how far our anti-discrimination measures can go without weighing too heavily on other rights, and how far bigots can be allowed to use their rights without harming the targets of their bigotry. (Or how far non-bigots can discriminate for non-bigoted reasons).

And when attempting to make this balance, we have to look at the specific circumstances and the relative harm that we can do on both sides. Small scale bigotry against a single individual who has numerous outside options – another employer, another restaurant, another organization etc. – won’t initiate anti-discrimination action, certainly not by the government. Jim Crow, on the other hand, inflicted enormous harm on large groups of people during many decades. And it would not have been abolished by a few activists, boycotts or sit-ins. Nor, for that matter, by the government ending its own discrimination. Active government action against private – and public – discrimination was required. And did happen in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later decisions which banned private actors from withholding services or denying employment on the basis of race (or of religion, sex, or national origin). Those anti-discrimination efforts did harm property and other rights but it’s clear that a failure to intervene would have meant perpetuating the greater harm of Jim Crow. I’ll come back to the topic of government vs private intervention against discrimination in a moment.

A parenthesis: some cases fall outside the current discussion. Government mandated discrimination in public places – trains, buses, public schools etc. – is completely and utterly unacceptable in all cases since the government can never be allowed to discriminate. Government discrimination also doesn’t cause a conflict of rights. The topic here is strictly private discrimination.

Take a look at this quote:

Wasn’t racial discrimination basically a private affair? Did we really have to enact federal laws and regulations to end it? Many of these laws dictate how people run their businesses and associations, and these restrictions are problematic to say the least. Even if we do find discrimination wrong, isn’t it a private wrong? (source)

In fairness to the author, he doesn’t seem to answer completely in the affirmative. And yet, why would you even ask those questions? Well, you should if you’re a libertarian and if liberty – including the liberty to do with your private property as you like and to freely engage in contracts and associations as you please without limitations – is the supreme value in life. However, if we accept the logic of this quote, then domestic violence and a whole bunch of other crimes are “private affairs” that shouldn’t be governed by “problematic” laws. And yet they are governed by laws, and hence we have laws “dictating how people run their associations”, and that’s a “problematic restriction”. We may think domestic violence or marital rape is wrong, but it’s a “private wrong” and hence none of our business. Domestic violence or marital rape take place within “private property” and can be seen, with a stretch of the imagination, as part of the freedom of contract (if a wife doesn’t want to be beaten or raped she should cancel the marriage contract, just like a pre-1964 African American who didn’t want to be discriminated by a restaurant owner should have gone elsewhere).

Of course, no one in his right mind would view domestic violence or marital rape like this, and no libertarian does. But the fact that libertarians – as well as many conservatives for that matter – never spill a drop of ink defending these crimes and yet fill libraries with defenses of private discrimination (and have even run a presidential campaign on the basis of this defense) just goes to show that equality and non-discrimination aren’t very important concerns for them, or at least not as important as violence and rape.

Do we really need government intervention to harmonize the two legitimate concerns? The concern for private freedom to discriminate within your property or associations, and the fight against discrimination? Some say that the fight against discrimination shouldn’t necessarily entail government coercion against private discrimination and should focus on private activism. That’s possible of course. Boycotts may help, just as minority organization, lobbying, education etc. (Another proof that free association is an important right. Minorities often depend on freedom of association and on strong property rights for their activism, and free commerce and freedom of contract tend to lower prejudice). There are also market mechanisms that counteract discrimination and fostering those mechanism might reduce discrimination without government coercion.

But that effort is certainly naive in many settings, especially when discrimination is widespread and group conformity counteracts market incentives (for example when customers are willing to pay a premium to visit segregated businesses, in which case the business owners will not be pressured by the profit motive to accept all customers; or when businesses are threatened into respect for segregation). Likewise when discrimination is government mandated. Hence the need, in many cases, for government coercion to break widespread patterns of discrimination that seriously reduce the options and opportunities of those who are discriminated against.

Why specifically state intervention? Racist business restaurant owners or bigoted employers or organizations can perhaps, sometimes, be persuaded to accept non-whites customers, employees or members through boycotts, social ostracism or the pressures of the market, but state intervention is often necessary in order to force them to do so. And they should be forced when the targets of their discrimination are seriously harmed by this discrimination, don’t have options elsewhere and can’t wait for the slow process of the market and of mentality changes. For example, a black person failing to get hired because of his or her race, after many attempts, suffers more harm than a black person failing to get served in a restaurant but having many more restaurant options close by.

It can be, in some settings, immoral to say that government shouldn’t intervene and that only social activists should struggle against racism and discrimination. In many cases, such as the southern parts of the US under Jim Crow, a struggle that isn’t backed by government often means risking life and limb. Discrimination in the US was underpinned by private terrorism (KKK) and actively supported or condoned by government law enforcement officers. Insisting that discrimination should be combated solely by private actors means exposing them to serious risks.

A final consideration: what if property is the direct result of discrimination? Can the descendants of slave owners really claim that their property rights should be a justification of their discriminatory actions? Or is their property illegitimate given the fact that it wouldn’t have existed without slavery? That would be an additional reason to favor equal treatment over property rights, when these two values clash.

Religion and Human Rights (29): When Freedom of Association and Anti-Discrimination Clash

In a recent court case in the US, a Christian student group objected to a university decision to withdraw recognition of the group. This withdrawal was justified by the university on the basis of the group’s discrimination of gays. Gays can only join the group when they “repent”. This policy by the group was deemed discriminatory by the university and in violation of its anti-discrimination policy. Withdrawal of recognition means that the group loses some subsidies and access to university resources, not that it has to cease to exist.

The group claimed that the university decision violated it’s freedom of association and freedom of religion. It also claimed that the university’s non-discrimination policy backfired and in fact created a new instance of discrimination, namely discrimination based on religion (because the group felt singled out; a Hispanic group excluding non-Hispanics did not suffer the same fate). The university contested this reasoning, claiming that the group was free to organize its activities elsewhere.

In my opinion, the Christian group is clearly bigoted and deserves condemnation for that, but groups should be free to decide who can and cannot become a member. And so there’s nothing wrong, in principle, with Christian groups banning gays. Forcing a group to accept members who violate the group’s fundamental rules and principles would empty freedom of association of any content because it would lead to the dissipation of the group’s identity. There is no group without identity, and hence no freedom of association without identity. And identity by definition means exclusion. Communist groups that are forced to accept capitalist members, or neo-Nazi groups that are forced to accept Jews, cease to exist as coherent groups. In case of religious groups, this would also violate the groups’ freedom of religion.

Also, the claim by gays that they are discriminated is weakened by the fact that they have numerous alternatives. It’s not like their non-membership of the Christian group produces a lot of harm to them, in terms of diminished choices, missed opportunities, lost resources etc.

An aside: I always fail to understand why people would want to join groups where they are manifestly unwelcome, except perhaps to cause a stir. Of course, this is no argument in favor or against any of the previous claims, except perhaps a pragmatic argument against the university’s position: if indeed gays will not join the anti-gay Christian group because they don’t have an incentive to associate with people who are hostile, then there’s no reason for the university to move against the group, since no discrimination will occur.

How is this different from what libertarians often claim about private discrimination? (Rand Paul for example recently claimed that the Civil Rights Act should not make “private segregation” illegal and should not force white restaurant owners to accept black customers). The difference is that segregation and Jim Crow were so widespread that blacks had considerably fewer options and suffered considerable disadvantage. The same isn’t true of gays on campus: there are enough associations that accept them. Hence, the discrimination that is imposed by the Christian group is real but not consequential enough to warrant a limitation of its freedom of association or religion.

Another argument in favor of the Christian group: non-discrimination policies have the laudable goal of promoting diversity and allowing every member of society to have the same options and choices. But how do you promote diversity if you don’t allow groups to have a coherent identity? And how do you promote options when you make it impossible for Christians to join a “truly” Christian group?

All this doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which actions against groups are justified. In some instances, the demands of non-discrimination will outweigh the rights to freedom of association and religion. See here and here for more information on the need to balance different rights against each other.

Discrimination (3): Libertarianism and Private Discrimination

Prominent libertarian politician Rand Paul recently caused a stir by claiming that he didn’t support parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically the parts applying non-discrimination legislation to private businesses. Like most libertarians, he believes that if private restaurant owners, for example, want to prevent blacks from eating there, then that’s their right. Similarly, banks should be allowed not to lend to blacks, real-estate agents not to sell to blacks, private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks etc. Same when the targets are Jews, gays, immigrants and so on.

The standard libertarian position is that only government enforced or government protected discrimination is wrong. Private actors should be allowed to discriminate. A private restaurant owner for instance should be allowed to refuse to serve blacks. However, government rules forcing restaurant owners not to serve blacks are not allowed, even though for the blacks in question the results are much the same.

It’s not that most libertarians think this kind of discrimination is acceptable and would engage in it themselves. They reject legislation against private discrimination because they consider the right to private property and the sovereignty of property owners much more important than the fight against private discrimination. They also argue that market mechanisms, which they also like a whole lot, will – over time – weed out such discrimination. A restaurant owner who refuses to serve blacks will do a lot worse than his competitors who are more open minded. He will lose benefits of scale, will have to raise his prices and ultimately also lose the bigoted white customers who detest eating in the presence of blacks but detest even more paying unreasonable prices.

Here’s a good statement of the libertarian position by a self-confessed libertarian:

(1) Private discrimination should, in general, be legal (this includes affirmative action preferences, btw). Many libertarians would make exceptions for cases of monopoly power, and most would ban private discrimination when the government itself ensured the monopoly by law, as with common carriers like trains; (2) The government may not discriminate. If necessary, the federal government should step in to prevent state and local governments from discriminating; (3) The government may not force private parties to discriminate, and the federal government should, if necessary, step in to prevent state and local governments from forcing private parties to discriminate; (4) The government must protect members of minority groups and those who seek to associate with them from private violence. If the state and local government won’t do so, the federal government should step in. (source)

Note the mention of violence in this quote: private violence against blacks isn’t allowed, private discrimination is. Why the difference? Again, property rights. Laws against violence don’t usually violate anyone’s property rights.

Now, what’s the problem with this libertarian position? Property rights are obviously very important. You don’t need to be a libertarian to believe that. I argued strongly in favor of property rights here. Likewise, the free market does an enormous amount of good. The problem with the libertarian view is absolutism and a rejection of value pluralism. There are many values in life, and many different strategies to realize them. And sometimes, some values or strategies come into conflict with each other. When that happens – as is the case here – you have to be willing to balance them and see which one should take precedence. Privacy and free speech, for example, are both important, but what do you do when a journalist exposes the private life of a public figure? You balance the right and wrong: which value is better served by publishing? Free speech or privacy? In some cases, we may believe that free speech is more important than the right to privacy (for example when the politician’s private life has relevance for his functioning). In other cases privacy will trump speech (for example when the facts published have no political meaning). Such decisions can only be taken case by case because the specifics always differ. Doctrinaire and absolutists positions in favor of one value or the other won’t do. And unfortunately many libertarians, and certainly Rand in this case, seem to think that their preferred values – property, freedom and the market – should always have priority over all other values.

Is legislation such as the Civil Rights Act an infringement of property rights and the freedom to do with your property as you want? Of course it is. Are such infringements always wrong? Of course they aren’t. Sometimes they are a necessary evil to gain a greater good.

There a resemblance between the libertarian views on private discrimination and the more widely accepted view in the U.S. that free speech rights and the First Amendment can only be invoked against the government, as if private actors can’t violate people’s right to free speech. The dominant U.S. free speech doctrine reflects an antiquated view of human rights as exclusively vertical. Of course, the government probably does most of the violations, particularly of a right such as free speech, but probably not in the case of the right not to be discriminated against. That’s more of a private monopoly, and markets, protest marches, boycotts, activism etc. won’t solve that problem by themselves. Just look at the market: it didn’t solve segregation, and neither would it have had it been more free. In fact, it’s likely that bigoted white customers who detest eating in the presence of blacks, will not find themselves in white only and hence more expensive restaurants, but will band together and boycott non-segregated restaurants which then lose far more business among whites than they gain from allowing blacks. Such boycotts are absolutely in line with property rights and the free market, which shows that the market can make discrimination worse instead of destroying it. (For a more sympathetic view of the power of the market, go here).

Strangely, Rand Paul himself invoked the parallel between private discrimination and free speech, but twists it to serve his goals:

INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworths?

PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part—and this is the hard part about believing in freedom—is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example—you have too, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things… It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior. (source)

So we have to tolerate discrimination that actually harms real people, just like we tolerate awful speech that most likely doesn’t hurt a fly? Words don’t equal behavior, although sometimes there may be a thin line between them (which is why hate speech laws can sometimes be justified).