Monday, July 12, 2010

Is John Stossel worse than Glenn Beck and more thoughts about all of those evil racists

I've has a post on the subject kicking around since May, but it was this Alternet piece on John Stossel from a week ago that really got me going. The title of the piece is "Is John Stossel More Dangerous Than Glenn Beck?" an interesting question which implies that the utterly ridiculous Beck is somehow dangerous. The piece only touches on Stossel's repudiation of the public accommodations portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a comment Stossel had made in response to comments made by Kentucky Senate Republican candidate Rand Paul. Paul later repudiated the comments, but Stossel has stuck by what he said. It's a traditional sort of libertarian position, where the freedom of association trumps any government interest in forcing private entities not to discriminate.

Stossel defended his position, arguing that he wouldn't frequent a segregated establishment and he'd use his influence to engineer boycotts and the like. But it didn't matter much as he's been branded a racist many times over these past couple of months.

There was some interesting reaction in libertarian circles in the immediate aftermath of Rand Paul's statement, notably the criticism from some younger libertarians that didn't take that line in the sand, "government can't tell business what to do" position. The argument there is that measures were needed from the federal government to counter the influence of 100 years of Jim Crow. For instance, if motels and hotels throughout the south refused to cater to blacks in the 50's and 60's, how would blacks be able to travel? In a vacuum, we may not want the government to tell private businesses who they can and can't do business with, but government imposed institutionalized racism was a fact of life with a real impact on culture, society, and the market.

I'm inclined to agree that we needed these aspects of Civil Rights law in 1964 (in actuality we could have used them right after the Civil War), but the more interesting question, the one I'd like to think Rand Paul and John Stossel were getting at is whether we still need such laws today. Folks on the left would argue that of course we do, but their arguments are unpersuasive because they tend to focus on the "public" nature of businesses. That is, most folks are not arguing for a thought police that would tell people who they can and must associate with in their private lives. But business is supposed to be different, particularly when you're talking about a store or restaurant or something along those lines.

One of the problems is that we get so focused on race, we tend to ignore the fact that civil rights laws have been extended (some nationally, some locally) to include other protected classes. Some states protect the rights of gays and lesbians the same way they protect the rights of racial minorities, while others specifically do not. Sexual orientation is an interesting case study because although you don't have the same sort of history you have with racial discrimination, there is a history of discrimination and there's a case to be made that government policy has treated gay couples differently from straight couples. But the inverse of that point is a "businesses must accept all-comers policy" potentially blocks gay-friendly businesses. Can there be a gay bar or a gay club with a discriminating admissions policy? This highlights what I would say is the superiority of markets over government action. Government mandates one-size-fits-all solutions through the force of law. Markets allow individuals to pick and chose, to boycott and shame the businesses whose practice are found objectionable.

Ultimately, discrimination law should be about reversing the effects of state-sponsored discrimination and not about cultural engineering. It's far too easy to go in the direction we're headed and expand the outer boundaries of discrimination law until it's unrecognizable from it's original purpose. Each and everyone likes the fact that business are permitted to discriminate in one form or another. Can you imagine a world where the shirtless and shoeless have the right to waltz into fancy restaurants and "no shirt, no shoes, no service" signs were the legal equivalent of "No Irish Need Apply"?

Discrimination law should be about countering the policies of a discriminatory government, not about adjusting the passions and beliefs of some segment of the public.


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