Thursday, June 14, 2018

Discrimination and the Free Society

There is a movement underway to pass so-called "employment non-discrimination laws" here in Wyoming. The "movement advancement project" site of this campaign wants Wyoming to pass laws that 
protect LGBT people from being unfairly fired, not hired, or discriminated against in the workplace by private employers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 
I sympathize with the sentiment behind this movement: there are people who feel that they have been discriminated against and want to be treated fairly in the future. I come from a family with long experience of discrimination: my mother and her siblings were not allowed to speak their language in school, even though they lived in a community where their family had been for generations. When they spoke their language, they were physically reprimanded by their teachers. People were stepped over for government jobs because of their names and their cultural background.

My grandparents even changed their family name and their family language to reduce the impact of discrimination on their children. In other words, discrimination is nothing alien to me and my family. 

I want to point this out because the conventional reaction to what I am about to say is that "you are a white straight man who reaps the benefits from white Christian penis imperialism and therefore you have no say in this". This, of course, is a ridiculous notion that excludes everyone without a Ph.D. in economics or political economy from discussing taxes and government spending. It excludes everyone who is not pro life from discussing abortions, and so on. 

Alas, with identity politics out of the picture, let us concentrate on what this is really all about, namely the advancement of a social theory that is antithetical to individual and economic freedom. 

Most proponents of anti-discrimination legislation are unaware of what agenda they are actually advancing. Once we understand this agenda, it is easy to see why libertarianism and the principled underpinning our constitution is the only real path to a society of freedom and opportunity for all, regardless of gender, religion, sexual preference, race, ethnicity or any other identity-related characteristic.

Proponents of anti-discrimination legislation build their arguments on the idea that our constitution allows government to force private citizens into private relations. For example, the kind of anti-discrimination law sought by the LGBT community forces employers to hire people for other reasons than competence, namely that person's sexual orientation. 

The immediate question to ask here is, of course, why anyone would want to force an employer to hire them, and then expect to have a nice day at work. However, leaving such individual concerns aside, the more important point here is that if government can force private relations upon individuals for one ideological preference, it can do so for other preferences as well. For example, anti-discrimination laws could force people who are actively hostile toward Christians to hire Christians and accommodate to their every preference. A gay employer can no longer favor gay people when hiring employees, a women's shelter cannot hire women only, and Planned Parenthood must hire medical practitioners who are pro life and refuse to carry out abortions. 

Activists promoting anti-discrimination legislation do not consider these consequences of their own activism, but it is a safe bet that they will turn libertarian as soon as they are on the receiving end of their own agenda. That would be good, of course, because the idea that the constitution can force private relations upon free individuals is simply false. The constitution protects individual citizens from discrimination by government - it guarantees that we are all equal under the law before government. 

We should be happy that this is the case, precisely because the powers that one group gives government in their favor, one day will be turned against that very same group. As a parallel, consider the powers that government has been given to snoop in our online lives to protect us against terrorism. One day, those powers will be used for strictly authoritarian reasons, and those who support far-reaching snooping laws today will find themselves under the thumb of a government they never thought they voted for.

Back to the anti-discrimination issue, the LGBT community should be happy that we do not try to socially engineer private relations. The constitutional protection against discrimination from government actually means that government must not attempt to engineer private relations of any kind. By forcing one individual to accept a relationship with another, government elevates the preferences, beliefs and life choices of the second individual above those of the first. 

However, there is a deeper issue at work here. There is a theory at work behind the anti-discrimination struggle that actually is antithetical to the very freedom values that most of us share and cherish. 

Laws that force preferences upon private relations are social-engineering laws. Their purpose is to change the way individual citizens live their lives according to values held by some people but not by others. The origin of this line of thinking is not libertarianism or any other freedom-minded ideology, but Marxist conflict theory.

We know this theory in our economy as egalitarianism, practiced in the form of the welfare state. Its public policy practice says that government has the right - in fact, the obligation - to change private relationships until the sum total of all those relationships meet certain ideological standards. Under the welfare state, egalitarianism means the political engineering of economic relationships, for example by eliminating the economic benefits of choices people make in their careers and personal finances. 

Over the decades, the idea that government can socially and economically engineer society has spread to relations that are not explicitly economic in nature. Perhaps the most absurd consequence is when private businesses are, or feel, coerced into changing the gender designation on their bathrooms. 

Employment discrimination laws fit right into this narrative, where egalitarianism strives to coerce relations between employers and employees. A business is private property and the person owning it is in his or her full right to decide who to hire and who not to hire. If a lesbian woman only wants to hire lesbian women, she is in her full right to do so; if a Muslim does not want to hire gay men, he is free to not to hire gay men.

By the same token, people seeking employment can go to other employers - and we can all choose where to spend, and not spend, our money depending on what we think about individual businesses.

Just as a business is private property, so are individual relations in general. Every individual is free to decide with whom to interact, and - by consequence - not to interact. Government cannot tell a straight or a gay person whom to marry or not marry; marriage is a private relationship between free, consenting individuals. By the same token, government cannot tell anyone what kind of economic relationship he or she can or cannot have. 

Once we grant the power to government to engineer what type of relationships people can and cannot have, we force individuals to use their time and resources according to government-imposed values. That is similar to forced use of property, and ultimately of our persons.

Here, though, Marxist conflict theory pops up and distorts the analysis. Proponents of so-called anti-discrimination laws often argue their case as if those who oppose anti-discrimination laws are in fact in favor of discrimination. This is a false argument, but understandable given their foundation in Marxist conflict theory. 

According to this theory, social and economic relations are not instances of voluntary interaction between free individuals, but cases of a struggle for power between opposing factions. In the economy, where the theory was first developed, the struggle is over a perceived constant-sum surplus value in the production of goods and services: if the capitalist gets more, it means by necessity that the worker gets less. 

During the long decay in the social sciences that took place in the mid-to-late 20th century, Marxist conflict theory was imported and applied to many new fields of study. In social relationships, such as a marriage, Marxist conflict theory says that the man and the woman do not live in mutual harmony, but in a struggle for power. In this case, the struggle over the economic surplus that Marx "identified" in economic relations has been replaced with a struggle over emotional capital. If the man gets more, the woman gets less.

Other egalitarians have taken this conflict theory to other relations, finding new constant-sum capital to fight over. They apply it to racial relations and, of late, to relations between gay and straight individuals. This is why those who advocate anti-discrimination laws always assume that a decision not to hire a person is an immediate loss to the person not hired - and some sort of gain to the prospective employer. 

That, of course, is not the way it works in real life. If an employer chooses to not hire someone, and the decision is made on anything other than skills and competence, then that employer is the only person losing. He or she loses a talent who will go on and find work elsewhere. If a business only or primarily hires workers based on identity characteristics, it will gradually erode its workforce skills to the point where talented, hard-working individuals - regardless of identity characteristics - will handily outcompete them. 

Generally, the idea in contrast to Marxist conflict theory is the Hayekian principle of "gains from trade". People who engage in voluntary exchange with each other both take more away from the interaction than they had before. 

Contrast this to the Marxist notion that every private relationship is a power struggle, and it becomes apparent how deeply divisive the debate over discrimination really is. It is not about people's individual preferences for or against other people; it is about how we fundamentally think about our society and our economy. While proponents of anti-discrimination law think that one person's gain is always another person's loss, opponents of such laws believe that voluntary exchange between free individuals is always more beneficial than forced exchange. 

When people can choose when, where, how and with whom to interact, economically and socially, everyone is a winner. From a macroeconomic viewpoint, this means more growth, more prosperity and more opportunity for all of us.

The only time that one person's gain is another person's loss is under government coercion. A society based on coerced, socially and economically engineered relations, is a doomed society. 

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