Tag Archives: liberty

To Continue My Rant…

I know I’m harping on this, but yesterday a commenter suggested that religious liberty should trump other social goods. (Not his phrasing, but the consequence of his demands.)

That isn’t the law, but more importantly, it isn’t good philosophy either.

Back before so many libertarians made common cause with social conservatives on culture-war issues, and others turned a small-government philosophy into an anti-tax, anti-government cult, I identified as libertarian. The libertarian principle is (deceptively) simple: we each have the right to “do our own thing”– to live our lives as we see fit, free of government interference– so long as we do not harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to extend an equal liberty to others. 

The caveats that follow the “so long as” phrase are important. And they have a critical bearing on the so-called “religious liberty” bills like the one I posted about yesterday– measures to “protect” businesspeople who who defend discrimination against LGBT employees or customers by citing their “deeply-held and sincere religious beliefs.”

As I noted yesterday, similar efforts followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; then it was a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted to keep the races separate. The courts didn’t buy that argument then, and they are unlikely to buy it now.

As I have written previously, there is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between government and its citizens. Government collects taxes from all of us, no matter our race, religion or sexual orientation, and uses those tax dollars to provide public services. The services we taxpayers finance provide an essential infrastructure for American commercial activity.

Businesses ship their goods to market over roads we paid for. They are protected by police and fire departments supported by our tax dollars. Public transportation and sidewalks bring workers and customers to their premises. The deal is, businesses get the benefit of the infrastructure supplied by our taxes, and in return, agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and other markers of group identity.

We can and should argue about the nature and scope of the services government provides, but few people really want to revoke the social contract, dispense with government and return to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Religious liberty is capacious. It allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. It gives you the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church and social circle without government interference. It gives you a broad right to “do your own religious thing” until you harm someone else, and so long as you respect the right of other people to do their “own thing.” Which “thing” may be different from yours.

Religious liberty doesn’t include the right to disadvantage people who should be entitled to equal treatment, or to use the power of the state to impose some people’s beliefs on everyone else.

Neither the libertarian principle nor the social contract defines “religious liberty” as a right to pick and choose which parts of the social contract you will honor and which ones you will disregard.

 

Religious Right to Discriminate–One More Time

Apparently, the right of religious folks to discriminate based upon their sincere beliefs is the issue du jour. 

Yesterday’s post centered upon a subset of that debate, but the broader question is the one posed by an Arizona law currently awaiting Governor Jan Brewer’s signature. That measure–which has most of the state’s business community demanding a veto–would allow shop owners and merchants to refuse service to people to whom they have some sort of religious objection.

Observers have assumed that the law is intended to target the GLBT community, but as written, it protects a merchant’s right to refuse service to anyone, so long as the proprietor can claim a “sincere” religious belief as motivation.

It boils down to a fairly simple question. Does government violate a fundamental liberty by forcing a devout person to do business with people he believes to be sinful?

As the saying goes, this debate is deja vu all over again.

This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to choose their associates. And they were correct; it did limit their liberty. Of course, in a civilized society, our liberties are constrained in all sorts of ways; I don’t have the liberty to take your property, or play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down a city street. Etc.

Here’s the deal: The guy who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business– relies on an implied social contract. He expects police and fire departments to protect his store, and local government to maintain the streets that enable people to get there–and he expects government to provide those and numerous other services to all citizens, not just white citizens or male citizens or Christian citizens. In return for financing the government that provides those services, We the People expect those who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or loans to anyone willing to pay for them.

Opening a business implies a “come one, come all” invitation to the general public. (For purely practical reasons, people who don’t want to issue that invitation probably shouldn’t open a business.)

Bottom line: If you don’t approve of gay people, or African-Americans or Jews, or whoever–don’t invite them over for dinner. I’ll fight for your right to entertain only the people you like. I’ll fight for your right to exclude “sinners” from your church, your private club and your living room.

Your hardware store, not so much.