In an earlier post, I detailed my reasons for not embracing libertarianism. To me, the libertarian view of government is lost back in the eighteenth century and mistakenly conflates a popularly-elected democracy with a European aristocracy. Their mantra of “less government equals more freedom” is not merely unprovable, but also displays an overly simplistic faith in the free market as a “one size fits all” solution to every single problem.
It’s this faith-based appeal to the free market that brings me back to the subject of libertarianism.
Back in the day, I was listening to the radio (so it was quite a long time ago), and I heard a self-described libertarian arguing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act that desegregated whites-only lunch counters in the South, among other things. The libertarian argument was that a business that refused to serve black customers would eventually go out of business because people would be outraged and not patronize the establishment, therefore the free market should be left to police such things.
It’s a nice theory, but the real world never works that neatly.
It’s true that if a business in a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles were to openly refuse to serve African-Americans or another ethnicity, they would on the express route to bankruptcy and liquidation. The outrage would be so palpable that even those white folks perfectly okay with not serving people who weren’t white would be embarrassed to be seen entering the establishment. There might be a few alt-right assholes who would bask in the outrage of the “woke” mob and make a point of patronizing the business, but they would probably be too few to keep it open.
In other parts of the country, however, specifically those where we had these problems before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there would likely be enough folks happy to reward a business for excluding black customers that the establishment could easily be profitable.
To use a more recent example, a bakery that refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple because of their religious beliefs would not last long in West Hollywood, for example, but in a more conservative location like Colorado Springs, it’s not hard to imagine there would be enough folks eager to reward the bakery for standing up for “family values.”
The libertarian might nod along with these examples and say that’s just the free market at work. If there are enough people willing and eager to reward bigotry, then the bigots should be allowed to operate their business how they see fit. Again, I think the blind libertarian faith in the free market as a universal solvent for every situation is misguided and simplistic.
The same individual I referenced in my previous post on this subject was making another libertarian argument, although as years have passed, he has admitted to straying from libertarian ideas where they conflicted with basic human kindness. He’s also wasn’t the same individual making the argument against the Civil Rights Act, just to be clear. His basic point in this case was that we should “trust the people,” seemingly unaware that this effectively undercuts the libertarian argument.
Trusting the people and trusting the free market are different things that are often at odds with each other. The free market is a mindless, amoral thing with little regard for the well-being of any individual, while people at their best can make decisions according to an individual or collective moral code that can ignore the free market imperative toward short-term material gain in favor of the good of others. Trusting the people also implies trusting the people to elect a government to act according to our shared values.
The evolution of those collective values has meant that we, as a society, has increasingly rejected bigotry and exclusion based on irrelevant characteristics like race, gender, and sexuality. As the majority comes around to those values, its democratically-elected government makes laws according to those values. Those in the minority may still hold to those values of bigotry and exclusion, and a libertarian may argue that forcing that minority to live according to the majority’s values is somehow trampling on their individual liberty.
As you might imagine, I would disagree with that argument. Many on the political right have no clue what the term “constitutional republic” means, so I will state it as clearly as possible. The government is constrained from acting outside the bounds imposed by the Constitution, especially in ways that infringe upon the individual rights enumerated or implied by the Constitution. Of course, the inverse is equally true, and the government is free to act so long as it stays within those bounds.
An individual is free to believe as they see fit, and that includes the most bigoted ideas. The government cannot punish you for believing that white people are superior to other races. However, your right to swing your racist fist stops at the end of another person’s nose. As soon as your actions begin imposing on the right of another to enjoy the same rights and privileges as you do, you have stepped outside the bounds of Constitutional protections of free thought. The right to believe is not the same as the right to act on those beliefs where those actions affect other people.
You may believe that African Americans shouldn’t eat in the same place as you or their children shouldn’t go to the same school as white children, and no law can prevent you from believing. If you show the poor judgment to express those beliefs in a public place, no one is going to drag you off to jail, but neither is the law going to protect you from the social consequences of saying something that stupid.
In the case of something like the old practice of segregated lunch counters, the free market solution favored by libertarians would perpetuate the illusion that treating some persons like second-class citizens is condoned by the society at large. The discomfort of some citizens at sharing a restaurant, a public swimming pool, or a school with people of another race is not relevant in this case. There is no right to be “comfortable,” especially if your comfort comes at the expense of others.
The most recent example of a bakery unwilling to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of their religious objections to homosexuality is really just another subtle twist on the old issue of segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains, and the religious freedom argument is even weaker.
Again, no law can prevent you from or punish you for believing that homosexuality is wrong and gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. You are free to attend a church that refused to perform weddings for same-sex couples. However, your right to religious freedom doesn’t extend past your right to believe and worship. A bakery is, like a lunch counter, a public establishment, and governed by the same laws that govern the desegregation of those lunch counters.
Allowing a bakery to continue to discriminate against gay customers on the basis of freedom of religion would, like a segregated lunch counter, beyond the harm of making certain communities feel marginalized, send the signal that our society tacitly approves of such exclusionary practices.
To be blunt, operating a bakery and baking a wedding cake are not religious practices, and your opinion about who you are baking that cake for is completely irrelevant. So long as the front door of your business is open to the public, every member of that public has to be equally welcome to pass through that door. Also, your not baking the wedding cake doesn’t somehow invalidate the marriage, nor does baking the cake really endorse the marriage in any way.
Let’s say you’re a Christian, and I came in to your bakery and asked for a cake with my favorite Bertrand Russell quote:
I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.Bertrand Russell
Baking that cake would not be endorsing my atheism. Refusing to take my money, however, is taking money out of your own pocket, food out of your family’s stomachs.
If you’re really that uncomfortable with the idea of a same-sex wedding, here is a suggestion. Just provide each customer with two bride figures and two groom figures and let them decide how to use them. But really, you are in business, and the same-sex couple that comes through your door is there to give you money in exchange for your services, just like the African-Americans walking into a lunch counter in the Deep South are just there for some food. There’s no such thing as black money or gay money. There is only money. Just take it and be a good capitalist.