I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
- a quote often (mis)attributed to Voltaire and Patrick Henry
I’ll be honest. I hesitated to write this article. I hesitated because at times I will be defending people whose actions I disagree with. I also know that gay rights is a very hotly-debated topic right now so take the risk of offending some people. In fact, I risk offending people on both sides of the issue! However, for all the rhetoric going back and forth I think most people are missing the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is very important to consider in the framework of the debates going on right now. So in the interest of adding to the dialogue and hopefully presenting a fresh viewpoint, I am just going to put my thoughts out there and let come what may. But first, let me tell you a personal story.
My father died of cancer when he was 50 years young. Most likely the cancer was caused by his many years of smoking. I was only 29 when he passed 10 years ago. He died on the same day my second daughter was born. Besides my own loss, smoking robbed my daughters of a grandfather, my wife of a father-in-law, and my mom of a husband. More than most people, I have every reason to hate the practice of smoking. So several years ago when laws to ban smoking in “public” places were being debated in my area, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that I would have been supportive of passing those laws. However, then as now, I put my own personal feelings aside for the sake of freedom. While I certainly am supportive of and applaud any establishment that chooses to not allow smoking on their property, I do not support a government-enforced ban. I knew then as I know now that even if I vehemently disagree with someone’s actions, a free society does not attempt to enforce their own morality on a person’s life or business. Rather, we make our viewpoints known by actually expressing our thoughts to those who run businesses and ultimately with our dollar vote.
Prior to any legally-enforced smoking bans I was more likely to visit restaurants that were voluntarily non-smoking. And I generally did not visit bars or places where smokers hung out. I made my thoughts on smoking known to anyone who would listen. But I wasn’t going to advocate for the use of government violence to enforce a ban on smoking. As a business owner I knew that how I choose to run my business, just as I choose to live my life, is my right. I wouldn’t tolerate anyone else telling me how to run my business or live my life, so I wasn’t about to support doing the same to others, no matter how much I couldn’t stand the decisions they were making.
Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.
- Voltaire (he actually did say this – in French of course!)
Fast forward to today and the same basic issue of the rights of business owners has arisen again. Only this time the question is whether businesses can choose to deny service to a customer. Several states at the time of this writing, most notably Arizona although Missouri is about to jump in the mix, are debating passing laws that absolve business owners of any liability if they choose to deny service to gay people based on moral objections. This issue has primarily been brought about by the new legality of gay marriage in many states. Businesses that revolve around the marriage industry, such as cake bakers and wedding photographers, are now being asked to service gay couples. Some are turning down this business, often on the grounds that they do not support gay marriage because of their religious beliefs. Some couples who were refused service have taken to prosecuting business owners for discriminating against them in these instances, often citing various equality or civil rights laws. Therefore the reaction by several states has been to propose new laws that are designed to protect business owners if they are exercising their right to refuse business on moral grounds. And that is where things get real sticky.
First let me state that as a human being, let alone a business owner, I do not discriminate based on a person’s sexuality. I have several clients who I believe are gay and I’ve employed people who were apparently gay. I say it in this way because I don’t really bother to ask or investigate people’s sexuality. Whether someone is gay or not is really no matter to me, especially when it comes to earning their business or having them help me service my clients. Therefore, I do not personally agree with any owner who chooses to not do business with gay people. However, I also respect their right to make that decision. Just as I respect their right to serve or not serve people based on other criteria, such as dress code, behavior, ability to pay, or if they are smokers in a non-smoking establishment. I may not agree with their decisions, but I won’t try to force my personal morality upon them. In fact, I wrote an article almost two years ago discussing this whole topic, titled Freedom, Discrimination, and Morality.
In that article I discuss the infamous Jim Crow laws as well as the equally infamous Apartheid laws of South Africa. Many gay rights advocates are claiming that proposed laws such as Arizona’s SB 1062 are the same as Jim Crow laws because they institutionalize the practice of discrimination. Again, while I disapprove of discrimination against gay people, the fact is that there is quite a bit of difference between Jim Crow laws and Arizona SB 1062. Where the new bill is purported to protect the rights of business owners to turn away business as they see fit, Jim Crow laws and Apartheid FORCED discrimination upon the population. As a business owner in those southern states, you were required to keep “separate but equal” facilities for “people of color”. Apartheid enforced similar rules. Even if you weren’t a racist, the governments required you to follow these laws, which were true examples of state-sanctioned, institutionalized discrimination. The proposed Arizona law, as well as the laws being proposed by other states, do not require businesses to turn away gay people. They simply protect business owners from prosecution under other laws in case they get sued for refusing to serve particular customers. To reiterate, I do not approve of or condone discrimination based on sexuality, but I also respect the rights of business owners to serve who they choose. Ultimately, the freedom of a business owner to run a business the way they see fit trumps any objections I have. I believe this because I believe in freedom. Others should believe this as well, if for no other reason than protecting other people’s rights is the best way to protect their own. However, this doesn’t mean people should sit quietly when they believe strongly about something. We can choose to show our objections by not supporting a business with our money and encouraging other people to do the same. Which is ultimately the best way free people can help shape society.
In fact, the history of Jim Crow laws are an interesting case study of the forces of free markets on society. After the civil war, there was a lot of racial tension. Many white landowners didn’t want to hire black workers. Many white business owners didn’t want to serve black people. However, the free market began to erode racist attitudes. Black workers who were willing to work for less enticed white land owners to hire them. Business owners who were turning away black people began to lose business to those who would serve them. Black people started running their own businesses, putting competitive pressure on other businesses to hire black people at better wages and service black people as well. It seems that “evil” profit turns out to be a greater motivator than racism. It was only after reconstruction when racists, unhappy at the way the free market was giving black people the same opportunities as white people, gained the power of a government. It was with that power that they were able to institutionalize racism through the violent force of government laws. First, they disenfranchised black voters through measures such as poll taxes. Then laws were passed that used licensing as a way to restrict black people from starting their own businesses. Regulations were created that restricted black people from owning guns and protecting themselves. And finally the Jim Crow laws were passed making racism a government-sanctioned and enforced way of life. Without the violent force of government, the free market was well on its way to minimizing racism. Institutionalized racism only endured because of big government.
In the same way today, the free market is helping reduce homophobia, regardless of proposed laws like Arizona SB 1062. These laws don’t require discrimination based on sexuality, they only claim to protect the freedom of business owners to serve who they choose. As business owners found out after the civil war, you stand to lose business to other companies that do not discriminate for bigoted reasons. We don’t need laws that force business owners to serve people – we just need government to NOT pass laws that enforce discrimination.
Before you think I am a proponent of laws like Arizona SB 1062, slow your roll. Just as I don’t want government to institutionalize discrimination, I don’t want government to pass laws that serve no purpose or are band-aids for other bad laws. There should be no reason for proposed laws to be necessary in the first place. If a business owner doesn’t want to provide service to a customer, that is their right. There should be no recourse against them as they didn’t violate anyone else’s rights. To be perfectly clear, you DO NOT have the right to make a business owner serve you. It is only because of other government regulations in force today that people think they can force others to work for them. Instead of passing new laws that seem to have the insinuation of government-sanctioned discrimination, we should be repealing those laws that allow others to sue companies and put them out of business. It simply isn’t right in a free society to force someone to work for another. If we really want to get down to it, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed involuntary servitude. I’m not sure if a better example exists of involuntary servitude than using the violent force of government to compel a business owner to work for someone else.
Let’s go back to my original story. I hate smoking. As part of my business, I go into a lot of people’s homes. I have thought about no longer doing business with people who smoke in their homes because I simply can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, not to mention the nasty residue that cigarettes leave all over the computer equipment I work on. Luckily for me, it seems that fewer and fewer people smoke in their homes anymore, so this isn’t as big of a problem as it was when I first started working in people’s homes almost 20 years ago. However, I reserve the right to refuse to service anyone who smokes if I so choose. Imagine if someone tried to sue me because I refused to serve them in their smoky homes. That would be ludicrous. Or worse, imagine if a gay smoker decided to sue me because they thought I was discriminating against them for being gay or at least spun it that way to be malicious. As it stands, I could be liable under various laws even though I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ll say it again, it is simply wrong in a free society to force someone to work for another. Disagree with that and you start running down a very slippery slope.
Imagine a gay business owner who wants to refuse service to a homophobe. Perhaps this person wants “God Hates Gays” baked on a cake or T-shirts made with that phrase. Or they want a gay photographer to take pictures of a Westboro Church Rally. The knife cuts both ways when we infringe upon business owners’ right to refuse service. Now some of you will try to rationalize this away by saying something like homophobes choose to be hateful and being gay is the way people are born so it’s not the same thing. Rationalizations work all well and good when choosing to infringe certain rights – as long as your group has political power. Rationalizations can be used against you when the other side has power. Rationalizations are the reason institutionalized discrimination has existed. Rationalizations are the reason “Separate but Equal” was allowed to exist. Be careful how you rationalize away people’s rights because your rights might be next.
I can appreciate people’s feelings getting hurt when they are discriminated against. As a hispanic person, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid most racial discrimination in my life, but I’ve held my tongue a few times when people have made racial remarks about hispanics in front of me. They obviously didn’t know my heritage and it wasn’t worth the confrontation to say something. But I’m not about to go advocate for laws forcing people to not speak their mind if they are saying things I don’t agree with. Even with laws on the books that allow me to sue people for discrimination, I would not prosecute if I faced it. Why? Because I believe in the power of free people solving their own problems and because these are the sorts of actions that lead to reactionary laws like Arizona SB 1062.
I have a self-professed bisexual friend who frequently posts on Facebook, “Love is Love and All Love is Good Love“. To those who fought and still fight to make gay marriage legal I must ask, what are you fighting for? Because if you are fighting for love, then ask yourselves this: is it love to force someone else to work for you? Is it love to force someone to do something that is against their morality? Whether or not you agree with someone’s beliefs, don’t you ask of others that your own beliefs are at least respected? You have long fought for tolerance and respect. Don’t now become the aggressors. Don’t become like the very people you have fought and continue to fight against. Everything you have worked for can come crumbling down if you use the violent force of government to enforce your morality on others, just as they have done to you for so long. If you are fighting for love, then show love to your neighbors who may not yet completely accept your way of life. Respect their beliefs as you ask them to respect yours. Ultimately, you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If a business chooses not to serve you, just find another that does. I have no problem if you choose not to do business with that company in the future and feel free to encourage others to not support them either. But you cross the line when you ask government to threaten a business with violence if they don’t serve you and in turn become the very people you claim to be fighting against.
In the same vein, it is certainly within people’s rights to boycott businesses that they don’t like for whatever reason. However, I would caution people like George Takei who advocate boycotting all businesses in an entire state because that state passed a law they don’t like. Guess what? There are many more businesses in that state who would not discriminate against gay people then there are who would, even if given the legal room to do so. And lots of those businesses are probably owned by gay people. Don’t do your cause a disservice by throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Target those businesses directly that have policies you don’t like, but don’t punish innocent businesses simply because their state government did something you don’t approve of.
If you truly believe in freedom you must be willing to allow others their freedom, even if you don’t agree with what they advocate. Otherwise, we are hypocritical to fight for some freedoms while denying others theirs. Freedom is Freedom and All Freedom is Good.
With that, I’ll leave you with part of the famous speech from the movie, “The American President”.
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me THAT, defend THAT, celebrate THAT in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.