The recently passed legislation in Indiana has raised the ire of some executives (such as Apple CEO Tim Cook) and others in the technology world who view it as a license for discrimination. But there’s a way to balance equal protection under the law, individual freedom and different moral sentiments—non-violently and “democratically.” Doing so, however, requires both a live-and-let-live attitude as well as the courage to shed political correctness. Here’s how we can make an imperfect world a little better.
The Non-Aggression Principle
Most people would likely agree that our business and interpersonal relationships should never resort to violence (except, perhaps, in self-defense against violence initiated by another). As a legal guideline that isn’t a standalone moral law, this non-aggression principle would give everyone the right to live their lives as they see fit as long as they do no violence to others. Murray Rothbard describes this libertarian principle as follows:
Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism. It should not be surprising, therefore, that there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of ‘bourgeois’ conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights.
Rothbard describes what many (arguably most) people probably think of when they think of the word freedom: the ability to do as you will as long as you don’t harm someone else. That is, “live and let live.” Unfortunately, our national obsession with “discrimination” places this more fundamental idea in jeopardy.
Relativity and Equal Protection
In physics, there is a certain beauty and desirability in laws that apply to every situation regardless of minor (or perhaps major) details. Einstein’s theory of special relativity, for instance, says that no matter where you are, how fast you’re moving or what direction you’re going, you’re always going to see light traveling at the same speed (c, or about 300,000,000 meters per second—that’s about 187,000 miles per second for those still stuck in English units). This theory leads to some strange results, but it also simplifies a number of problems.
In law, a similar universality is also desirable: equal protection under the law. No matter who you are, what you look like or even what you did, you are subject to the same rules as everyone else. The notion of protecting individuals against “discrimination” seems at first like a natural outworking of this principle, but it fails owing to its arbitrary and politically driven character.
Part of Einstein’s motivation in developing his theory of relativity was to avoid giving any one frame of reference (or “perspective,” if you will) a special status compared with any other. Relativity made them all equal in a sense, since the same physical laws apply to all of them. In the legal domain, analogous attempts are made to enforce equality through non-discrimination. But discrimination is a fundamental—even necessary—human behavior.
On a basic level, we discriminate among situations that are dangerous or not. We discriminate among people whom we want as friends; we are highly discriminatory when it comes to choosing a spouse. We discriminate among candidates for a job. We discriminate among vendors of products, as well as among products themselves. We discriminate among living one lifestyle or another, as well as to whom we donate money. And all of these discriminatory choices are intertwined: there is no clean distinction between the personal and business worlds. Just as an employer may overlook a candidate owing to his personal choices, so a clientele may make or break a company solely on the basis of its collective choice of what products to purchase. And our reasons for our various discriminatory choices may even be dubious or unsettling to others.
Non-discrimination laws, therefore, must necessarily make artificial legal (not ontological) distinctions among individuals: men versus women, black versus white, native versus immigrant, heterosexual versus homosexual, disabled versus able and on and on. Some groups receive the benefit of special laws protecting them from the vagaries of human decision making, whereas others do not. From an “Einsteinian” perspective, this is unacceptable if we are to truly have equal protection under the law.
That’s where the non-aggression principle comes in.
True Legal Equality
The beauty of the non-aggression principle is that it enables each individual, within his own legitimate sphere of person and property, to be free and to receive the same legal protection as anyone else. Thus, if an individual or business owner chooses not to engage with another individual or patron over matters of skin color, immigration status, gender, appearance, hair color, tattoos, musical preferences, favorite football team or method of lacing shoes, he or she has every legal right to “discriminate.” One may not like that act of discrimination, but dislike should not be the sole basis for legislation or litigation.
It’s at this point that someone is most likely to fall away from this argument. After all, only a jerk would discriminate on the basis of such matters, right? But is it really a good idea to allow bloat.gov to punish people for being jerks? (No matter who’s in charge, normally at least half the population despises the politicians currently running the show.) Let’s not forget what happens when you sue or call the cops: you are calling in the overwhelming power of government to force an individual or business to use its employees and property in a manner you want, not a manner they want. In other words, you’re saying that a person’s right to life and property ends when you feel snubbed.
Thus, non-discrimination laws effectively boil down to the following. It’s okay to initiate violence against another on these two conditions:
- You feel offended.
- You have someone else (the state) do the dirty work for you.
And let’s dispense with illusions: government is force. When you sue someone because you don’t like their non-violent actions, you’re asking the government to force them to act as you want and, if they resist, to throw them in jail or kill them.
What’s worse is that non-discrimination cases may ultimately lead to prosecution of thoughtcrime. Did the hiring manager really overlook some candidate on the basis of qualifications? Or was it just a matter of hating people who are (fill in the characteristic)? Perhaps the hiring manager honestly did believe the candidate was unqualified, or perhaps he or she was just not paying close enough attention to that individual’s resume, or perhaps other candidates had some “intangible” in greater measure, or any of a million other things. Again, do we really want politicians making such determinations?
Contrast that with the non-aggression principle: a precept that applies equally (dare I say fairly) to everyone regardless of their appearance, beliefs or actions. No one may initiate force against another, and each is the master of his or her own legitimate domain. That’s freedom.
If you remain unconvinced, consider an example case of a mom-and-pop business run by a black family. Let’s say, to give things a technology flavor, it’s a computer-repair store. In one day walks a charter member of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter with a broken computer. He laments that they will be unable to conduct their upcoming meeting, complete with Power Point graphics showing how inferior certain races are and so forth, unless they get their machine fixed pronto. Should the owners of that business be allowed to decline on the basis of conscience, if they so choose? (Of course, they might accept for various reasons, but their reasoning should be their own.) Or should they be forced to provide that service regardless of how they view the purpose toward which their labor will be employed?
Remember, in completing this test, to keep equal protection under the law in mind: the same rules for everyone. If you subscribe to the non-aggression principle, you can consistently say sure, those business owners have every right to turn down that customer. Whether that action is moral is another matter.
The Moral and Democratic Side
Where does that leave the moral side of the equation? After all, should technology CEOs, workers and observers condone people acting like jerks? The non-aggression principle only says you may not use force to get your way—but that still leaves plenty of options for non-violently compelling conformity with social norms.
The boycott is the chief tool in the arsenal of those who wish to non-violently promote their beliefs. If a company discriminates against someone in a manner you deem unfair or immoral, you can take your business elsewhere and, what’s more, lobby for others to do the same. In this way, those who shun discrimination (of certain kinds) can work democratically rather than through force: if enough people agree, the company will suffer financially until it either changes its ways or goes out of business. The recent actions of Salesforce.com and Angie’s List show that people believe in the power of boycotting.
So, the non-aggression principle offers a truly equal and fair legal framework that treats everyone on the same terms but also leaves people free to manage their own affairs without intervention from government on behalf of individuals who may have nefarious motives. (For instance, what if the KKK members from the hypothetical example above are simply trying to bait the black business owners into turning them down so they can sue?)
The technology world is one of the bright spots of a lackluster economy, and it can also be a bright spot for basic sense. Rather than calling in the guns of government to solve social disputes, we should commit to non-violence in addition to being a little less sensitive. Sure, we have all been hurt by the meanness of others (and let’s not forget we’ve also dished it out), but that doesn’t warrant revenge by proxy. It warrants making informed decisions in our own spheres of influence as consumers, employees, managers and business owners. The U.S. is a huge nation that encompasses people of wildly different views, and freedom allows each of us to obey conscience as long as it doesn’t aggress against another. The alternative to the non-aggression principle is the creation of a laundry list of favored groups (and, by implication, a list of disfavored groups), compromise of property rights, prosecution of thoughtcrime and a mass of inscrutable laws to cover myriad situations. We can and should do better.
Image courtesy of ilovememphis