Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's a Nice Day for a Gay Wedding (Cake)

I swear, if I were king (or president – assuming there's a difference) I'd establish a cabinet-level department devoted to clear thinking. It would be staffed by... well, maybe a logician or two, but certainly not any of this motley crew of self-styled “philosophers” that infests our campuses these days. I think I would round it out with stand-up comics – you know, the serious kind, like George Carlin or Jackie Mason. Or Lenny Bruce. Their job would be to cut through all the cant, fog, smog, and obfuscation that characterizes virtually all political (which also means social and economic) discussion in our time. But... wouldn't a government agency devoted to clear thinking be a contradiction in terms? I think it would, since government is so dependent on deceit, dissimulation, and obfuscation as tools with which to get their way and exploit the hapless citizenry.

In any case, a current example of where clear thinking could be of use, but will never be applied, is Arizona's gyrations with regard to whether businesses have a right to discriminate against some (potential) customers based on religious freedom – i.e. the business owner's religious freedom vs. the customer's supposed freedom to purchase goods and services the same as anyone else. (Note, please, that the former freedom is in the Constitution, whereas the latter is not.)

First, let's clarify what is intended here (since no one else will). The issue in question, basically, is whether a merchant or service provider can refuse to deal with a customer whose behavior (known or assumed) would be considered sinful according to the religion of said merchant or service provider. (This is, of course, contingent on said businessman being a member of a recognized religious group with a coherent moral code. That already narrows it down a bit.)

Right? I mean, isn't that what we're talking about? It's not just a matter of like or dislike, or of taste. Now – LGBT customers are low-hanging fruit, if you will (and I really do apologize for that metaphor), since the minute they walk in the door you can assume they are engaged, on a regular basis, in certain, um... “activities” that a traditional religious code would consider sinful, even if they are no longer illegal. (I say “traditional” because this is no longer the case with main-line Protestantism, liberal Catholicism, or most of Judaism, or just about anyone else. The Moslems seem to be holding the fort so far.) But this is an assumption, right? I mean – who's going to ask even the most blatantly gay couple whether they actually “do it”? They might be living under one roof in a state of total chastity, for all I know.

But what about everyone else? Do I have to come up with a questionnaire to administer to everyone who comes in the door? I mean... how about a couple “living in sin”, as they used to say? Are we to deny them a wedding cake? At least a wedding would make them into honest people. Or, what about an adulterer? What if a known mobster, suspected of being involved in any number of cement-bootie operations, walks into your bakery and orders a box of cannoli? What about a sharp businessman, or an evil banker or loan shark? What about a politician? Where does one draw the line? I mean... all they're talking about with this bill is one of the ten commandments. What about the other nine? The LGBT community could claim that they're being picked on – and they would be right, in a way.

That's the logic (or illogic) of the situation. But there's another aspect, at least as important. Any libertarian worth his (or her) salt would say that a private businessman has a perfect right to do business, or refuse to do business, with anyone he pleases – for any reason, or for no reason. Call it “discrimination” if you like, call it arbitrary, but the point is that it's a private business, and is thus – or ought to be – sacrosanct and free from government interference, even with the best intentions. The government itself, on the other hand – meaning its agencies and employees – have no such right, since they are supposed to serve the entire citizenry (and not just the ones who voted for the winner, note). And by extension, any organization that does business with the government, or receives any sort of preferential treatment or subsidy, likewise does not have that right. So a defense contractor would be forbidden to discriminate, but the pizza parlor down the street would not (unless they had a standing order to deliver ten thick 'n' crusties to the local recruiting station every Friday night).

See what I'm getting at? “Private” means private, period. So with that in mind, the governor of Arizona should reject (not veto, just ignore) this bill because – horrors! -- it doesn't go far enough. The problem with that, of course, is her legal team would advise her that any bill that expands the rights of private entrepreneurs to the point of, say, the rights they all had up until the last few decades, would be automatically nullified by any number of existing federal laws, case law, etc. And they would be correct, since decisions of that sort were taken out of the hands of business people long ago.

But what does this all mean? Should religious beliefs, or beliefs of any sort, or mere convictions, prejudices, distastes, etc. all be confined to the private sphere and disallowed in the marketplace? Does the government, in effect, own the marketplace even if it doesn't always operate it? We see in this case, more clearly than in most, how the assertion of one right, or set of rights, on the part of one party invariably means a diminution of a right, or set of rights, for someone else – even if those rights are not considered “equal” in merit by societal consensus or by law. My free speech may mean you don't have a right to perfect peace and quiet, or the serenity of unquestioned opinions. My freedom of religion may mean my rosaries on your ovaries – not in the literal sense but by way of prayer. And so on. The premise has always been that human rights, or civil rights, are morally superior to more parochial, self-centered, bigoted interests, but this is a premise in itself – humanistic enough, but a premise nonetheless, that is typically implemented based on political considerations. The very definition of “rights” -- most of which were unheard of until recently -- is a political process. In fact, the term has been abused to such an extent that we may have find another, just to bring meaning back into the discussion. The main problem is that human rights had, at one time, a moral and ethical basis, whereas these days it's all been reduced to politics. But, a lot of the traditional morally- and ethically-based rights are still hanging around, and are forced to duke it out on a daily basis with the newly-discovered politically-based rights. To give just one example, “freedom of speech”, a presumed basic human right, has run up against laws prohibiting “hate speech”, which is a purely political construct. Et cetera.

So if we have a “wall of separation between church and state”, it also appears that we have a wall, likewise, between church and the marketplace, i.e. business. And anyone of any conviction who chooses to seek his fortune in the marketplace must leave his “personal” (even if shared by millions of others) beliefs behind. This is the plain intent of the law as it is currently applied. The dilemma for a person of faith is this: Do they sin by consenting to this arrangement? It's one thing to pay taxes to a government that does immoral things, because behind every tax form lurks the point of a gun. Filing one's taxes is not voluntary; it's voluntary – or else. Or – turn the problem around and ask what happens when a provider of goods and services is perceived as doing sinful, immoral, or just plain wrong things. (Think of Chick-Fil-A. Think of Dow Chemical of old. Think of all the boycotts you've ever heard of, or participated in.) People certainly have a right to not patronize that business. But the business does not have an equal, or reciprocal, right to “boycott” or refuse to serve a subset of customers. All I'm trying to establish is that it's a matter of politics, not principle.

We pride ourselves in that we honor, most of the time, the concepts of free trade and free association, among others. Add freedom of thought, of which freedom of religion is a subset, into the mix. Then see what happens when the freedoms of thought and of association collide with free trade. This is the problem Arizona and a number of other states are dealing with at present, and I think we can expect, in the long run, that anything remotely resembling states' rights in these cases will be crushed into fine power by the federal courts – or by state courts in anticipation of the federal courts. The pity is that questions like this in our time are not referred to the Constitution or to any venerable moral or ethical code, but to politics – which is to say, to rule by the mob and by emotion.

An added observation – what if the Arizona bill were to be passed, signed into law, and passed scrutiny by the judiciary all the way to, and including, the Supreme Court? I mean, I know this could never happen, but “what if?” Let's say a given business decided to assert itself in some way, against one or more “minorities”. Would they regret their decision? It depends. They would, of course, lose some potential customers automatically... others would quit doing business there out of solidarity... others wouldn't start doing business there for the same reason... etc. But on the other hand, there would be people who would start or keep doing business there out of solidarity with the businessman. So it would be a matter of demographics and, yes, politics – and how strongly people felt about the issue. I've never participated in a boycott, but I have redirected my business when I felt that a given merchant or service provider was “doing the right thing”, and that may have been just because they were locally owned and operated, or small, or independent, or something. But it's a complex world out there, and if you look for a reason to not do businesses somewhere, you'll usually find it. Even the coolest of the cool businesses, like – oh, I don't know – Ben and Jerry's or something, probably have some fatal flaw. So on any given day I'm going to opt for price and convenience and quality, and leave the politics up to someone else. (Call me apathetic, go ahead.)

On the other side of the coin is the fate of the consumer. Would a “freedom of association for businesses”, or FAB (!), bill result in minority members collapsing in the street from hunger or lack of clothing and shelter? Of course not. The beauty of American free enterprise – what's left of it – is that any need is going to be filled in short order, as long as it's up to the private sector and not government. To begin with, the majority of places of business would, almost certainly, ignore their new-found freedom to discriminate and continue to serve all comers. But besides that, new businesses would spring up to fill the gap, catering to whatever niche market had developed. And in fact, those businesses would probably attract non-niche customers as well. I've wandered into plenty of places in all innocence, only to find that I didn't quite fit the demographic they were aiming at. (And I'm not talking about bars; just thought I'd throw that in.) But I was always greeted with courtesy, and more often than not I became a customer – at least on that one occasion. So I imagine that our (also quite recent) infatuation with “diversity” would more than make up for any ill effects of letting businesses do as they please. Of course, the only way to find out for sure is to try it, and that's not gonna happen.

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