Freedom, Discrimination, and Morality

US Bureau of Morality

It’s not real, but it could be one day if we’re not careful.

A story about a woman who was fired from a Catholic school for getting pregnant using in vitro fertilization has sparked a debate about the rights of employers, discrimination, and contracts. Is the employer discriminating against women? Does the employee have any right to demand her job back if she violated the employment contract she agreed to? For all the consternation this situation has created, the reality is that these questions are not ones that need to answered by government. So many “issues” exist only because they have become politicized. Or more accurately, big government has interfered where it should not have and has created a bigger mess. This situation is a perfect example.

At its core, this is a simple dispute between an employee fired for allegedly violating the terms of her employment and her former employer. However, this situation has mushroomed into a debate about the larger questions of freedom of religion (the employer has the right to practice their code of morality) vs various anti-discrimination legislation (employers may not discriminate on the basis of gender, etc.). This debate exists only because the concepts of freedom and morality have become misunderstood and intermingled within our legislative system. This misunderstanding leads to a lot of larger societal problems that simply don’t need to be problems.

The concepts of freedom and rights should not be confused with morality. In a free society, free people live as they wish, assuming full responsibility for their own actions, and not infringing on the rights of others. Only when they violate someone else’s rights through violence, theft, or fraud are they obligated to make restitution. These are the basic tenets of a free society. The only just and proper role of government in a free society is to protect the rights of the people and enforce restitution, i.e. “liberty and justice.”

On the other hand, morality encompasses a much larger set of values and while very important to a society, it is not the role of government in a free society to enforce an arbitrary moral system. This is the very reason so many of our ancestors left the old world – to find freedom in the new world. They wanted to practice their way of life without persecution from the force of government. To drive home the point, the First Amendment was added to the Constitution specifically forbidding laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. In other words, arbitrary systems of morality are not to be enforced nor interfered with by our government.

It is easy to understand why people confuse morality with the protection of rights. For many people, freedom is part of their morality. For example, murder is considered wrong in most moral systems, and it is also an egregious violation of someone’s rights. So in a free society, it is correct for government to protect us from murder, but only because it is a violation of our rights, not because it is against a moral code. As a contrast, many people consider it immoral to say “curse” words. But it is hardly a violation of anyone’s rights if people say curse words. Therefore, the government should not “protect” us from the speaking of curse words. Attempting to do so is violating the principle of liberty and justice and in fact is using government to infringe the very rights it is supposed to protect.

Similarly, “discrimination” is not a violation of someone’s rights, although for many people it is a violation of their morality. For example, in a free society business owners are free to serve or not serve whomever they choose. Using an example of a restaurant, many have dress codes. If you aren’t following that dress code, they can choose to not serve you. Few of us would argue that we have a “right” to eat at that restaurant if the owners do not wish to serve me based on dress code – yet it is a form of discrimination. Obviously, there are certain types of discrimination that many people consider immoral. But not everyone holds those same values. Some people argue that dress codes are in fact a vile type of discrimination. And unfortunately, there are people who think nothing of discriminating based on race.

But if I have no right to force a restaurant owner to serve me based on dress code, do I have a right to force them to serve me based on skin color? In any scenario, I’m being discriminated against, but is one example worse than another? Certainly most people would argue that racial discrimination is wrong from a moral perspective and I would agree. But I think most people would also agree that it would be wrong for me to get a gang of people brandishing weapons to force that restaurant owner to serve me. Using violence or the threat of violence to resolve discrimination is two wrongs not making a right. So why is it acceptable if that gang is made up of government enforcement agents? Because that is exactly what is happening when we pass legislation to force business owners to not discriminate.

Most people will cite the example of the segregated south as why anti-discrimination laws are needed. However, I argue that the problem with segregation and discrimination wasn’t due to the absence of government force, but rather the direct result of it. Segregation existed only because it was THE LAW as created by the governments of the various southern states. In fact the only time that widespread and systematized racial discrimination can exist is when the practice is sanctioned and enforced by government. The other famous example, Apartheid, existed in South Africa only because it was created and enforced by that country’s government. So why is it that anti-racial-discrimination laws are aimed at businesses owned by free people? If anything, laws forbidding racial discrimination should only be aimed at government since it is only the force of government used unjustly that can support a system of racial discrimination.

Similarly, people will also claim that sexual discrimination requires laws to prevent it. They show examples of women being paid less than men for the same work as proof of this. This is a very difficult argument to prove or disprove because the evidence is not exactly clear-cut. At least we do know there are no laws enforcing salaries of women as there were laws enforcing racial discrimination. But the reality is again, that if this discrimination does exist, it is at best a moral issue, and not an issue of liberty and justice. This is an issue that is best left to free people to resolve themselves. Many easy examples exist. Any person that is not satisfied with their pay may find another job. I know from personal experience that many in the technology industry change jobs every few years to increase their salary. Among those people are women. Similarly if people can’t find jobs that they feel pay enough, they are free to start their own business. In fact, statistics show that one-third of all businesses are now owned by women. And more women started businesses in the last decade than men did. I doubt those women business owners are discriminating against other women. If there is widespread gender discrimination in male-owned businesses, it would seem that this problem is well en route to resolving itself.

We have become so accustomed to passing laws to stop “bad” behavior that the idea of “live and let live” seems foreign now. But “live and let live” is an absolute cornerstone to a free society. Again, this does not mean people are free to harm others, as that is not part of a free society. It simply means that if we expect to live freely, we must allow others the same respect. I understand that this can be a very uncomfortable idea to accept and embrace, but it is utterly vital to the survival of your own freedom. In seeking to control others, we allow ourselves to be controlled. Using government to enforce our morality allows others to do the same to us. Entering that slippery slope, our system of limited government has slowly become a system of unlimited government power, where politicians play groups of people against each other. Today, we spend our time fighting each other about issues that could be better handled by the cooperation of free people, instead of the coercive power of government.

We the people have the power to effect great change in society. Through the power of persuasion, combined with the power of our dollar vote, cooperation between free people makes for true, lasting change. The coercive power of government actually works to slow change, by politicizing issues and attempting to create a one-size-fits-all solution and the bureaucracy that goes along with it. Government force replaces the spirit of freedom with the legacy of oppression. And when government can be influenced to enforce arbitrary morality instead of only protecting our freedom, the change we seek may not be the change we get.