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Freedom of Association

Here’s letter to a young man who describes himself as a “social justice warrior”; I use his name with his kind permission:

Mr. Travis Herring

Dear Mr. Herring:

Many thanks for your e-mail.  You are correct: I do oppose legislation that forces businesses to serve customers that businesses prefer not to serve.  My opposition to such legislation doesn’t mean that I look kindly upon such refusals to serve; quite the contrary.  Yet I value freedom – including freedom of association – so highly that I find it abhorrent that government forces Jones to associate with Smith when Jones prefers not to associate with Smith.  Freedom should be equally available to all peaceful people, including to those who act in ways that we find disagreeable.

Fortunately, the economics of the matter ensures that I confront no moral dilemma in opposing forced association.

First, it’s mysterious to me why anyone wants to patronize merchants who don’t want him or her as a customer.  Do you really think that, say, a homophobic baker forced to bake a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple will do as good a job as would a willing, non-homophobic baker?

Second, bigoted merchants who refuse to serve blacks or gays or women sacrifice whatever profits they would earn by serving blacks or gays or women.  In other words, these bigots generally pay a price for their bigotry, and it is a price that, history shows, reduces at least the manifestations of bigotry over time.*  Legislation forcing businesses to serve people they wish not to serve forces these businesses to earn profits that they would otherwise lose, thus making these bigoted business owners better off monetarily!

Third, bigotry-directed business decisions not only generally harm bigoted businesses, they also help non-bigoted businesses.  Bigoted businesses increase the number of customers for non-bigoted businesses.  Therefore, non-bigoted businesses grow in number and thrive even better as a result of the actions of their benighted competitors (which is one reason why, over time, the free market diminishes the manifestations of bigotry).  Why not allow more-enlightened businesses to enjoy the extra profits that would come their way as a result of their rivals’ stupid behaviors?  Legislation of the sort that you endorse ironically penalizes the tolerant, inclusive, and enlightened attitudes that both you and I applaud and wish to see rewarded.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* See, for example, Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).