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

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discrimination / discrimination and hate / equality / freedom / housing / law / philosophy / trade / work

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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.

13 Comments

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