I’m going to take a break from my series on U.S. departments to discuss the freedom of association. There seems to be an all-out war on this, one of the most important freedoms that we have. The freedom or right of association is covered under the first amendment as the “right to assemble”. Being able to associate freely with like-minded people is a natural right that, like freedom of speech, life and liberty, predates government or man-made laws. Not many people besides libertarians talk about association as a vitally necessary freedom, but everyone likes to use the comfort it provides.
Freedom is hard. Part of the responsibility that comes with freedom, is not interfering with the freedom of others. Sometimes, this is not as easy as it sounds. Natural rights all come in the form of a two sided coin. If we take the right of free speech as an example, one side of the coin says we can say what we like, the other side of the coin says that we cannot force others to listen. In the case of freedom of association, we can choose to associate with whomever we wish, but we cannot force others to associate with us. Sounds pretty simple right? How is this so hard? A conflict arises when man-made laws interfere with natural rights. Like many laws, these laws came from good intentions. Consumer protection laws and anti-discrimination laws are being used to force association upon groups of people who do not wish to associate with certain other people.
Associations like the NAACP, labor unions, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and countless others have been protected over the years to peaceably assemble. The NAACP has had to use the defense of freedom of assembly several times in the past to protect its members from the federal and state government. Where this becomes hard is defending the right to assemble for groups that one might find distasteful, like the KKK, or Black panthers. This is generally where liberals diverge from libertarians. Liberal’s typically only defend groups that they like or agree with. Libertarians , for the most part, defend the rights of everyone to say what they want. Nothing is absolute of course, but that is my general feeling on the issue. You will find many examples of liberal groups trying to get conservatives or simply non-liberals fired for what they might say on TV or radio, but not many examples of conservative groups or libertarians trying to get liberal commentators fired.
This “war on the freedom of association”, that I mentioned earlier is coming from gay-rights groups. There are countless stories in the news where florists, photographers, caterers, etc… are being sued for not providing services to same sex couples, mainly for wedding ceremonies. They are using consumer protection laws and anti-discrimination laws as a basis for forcing people who have a moral opposition to same sex marriage to serve their needs. These small businesses are using religious beliefs as grounds for not serving these customers. In other words, they do not want to associate with a same sex wedding on the grounds that it violates religious principles. Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, I have to believe that a natural law outweighs a man-made law on any subject. What is really disappointing is that the ACLU, which is supposed to be a watchdog for civil liberties, has decided that it hates religion more than it loves civil liberty and is starting many of these lawsuits on behalf of the gay-rights groups.
Some of you might be wondering what would happen if these consumer protection laws were redefined or eliminated. Wouldn’t it become ok to discriminate against minorities, or fat people, or gay people? The short answer is yes. A business should be able to hire who they want, and serve who they want. To illustrate why, let’s look at a few examples. A health food store, who’s owner decides that it only wants thin, fit women to work there in order to project a healthy, fit image, should have the right to not hire people he or she deems unfit. A bar catering to chubby chasers should be able to hire only overweight waitresses to attract the desired clientele. A Chinese restaurant should be able to hire Chinese people to keep with the theme of the restaurant if they wish. In each case, the owner of the business assumes the risk associated with his or her decisions. If the patrons of these establishments don’t like the hiring practices they can simply spend their money elsewhere.
Now it gets a little harder. What if a black business only wanted to serve black people and turned away whites, Hispanics and Asians. Is this ok? Yes. Again, the people would decide with their dollars to support or not the right of the business owners to only associate with other black people. This would also be true if you substituted for white, Hispanic, Asian or any other race to that business. In the end, all the people that were refused service would become a market unto themselves and businesses would sprout up to take their money for the service they were denied. I find it very hard to believe that any business deemed racist in current times would last very long in a marketplace that sees no distinction in the color of the money it receives based on the color of the hand from which it was received.
Should those laws be abolished? No. Anti-discrimination laws and the like should only apply to the government. No two citizens should be treated differently in the eyes of the law by the government. Discrimination in public employment should be illegal. Our government is supposed to be “by the people, for the people”. If this is true, then it needs to be for all the people equally, or not at all. What these gay-rights groups and the ACLU don’t seem to understand is the aspect of that two sided coin. If they can force Christian bakers to make them pro-gay cakes, then Christian groups can force gay bakers to bake anti-gay cakes. I get that some people will be offended by the choices of others, but we most certainly do not have the right to not be offended. Freedom is hard people, but that’s no reason to take it away.