A free-market alternative to banning discrimination against gay people
“A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police”, wrote Ludwig von Mises in his classic Liberalism. Maybe someone should print out that quote, put it in a golden frame, and send it to the offices of the Guardian and the gay rights group Stonewall.
But let’s start from the beginning. A few weeks ago, a bed and breakfast establishment in Berkshire refused to let a room to a gay couple. The couple sued the B&B owners for violating anti-discrimination legislation (ADL). Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling then caused quite a furore by arguing that this form of discrimination should be legal. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall called this “very alarming”; Peter Tatchell of the Guardian interpreted it as “support for homophobic discrimination”. Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to them yet that there is a world of difference between “being against banning XY” and “endorsing XY”.
Grayling’s critics fear that if private owners were given the right to dispose over their property as they see fit, we would see rampant discrimination emerge. It is strange that Stonewall, which has chosen its name for a reason, views government as per se benevolent and liberating. They should know best that in societies where homophobia really is the norm, protecting gays through ADL is not an option, because there is no political majority for it. As a general pattern, the stringency of ADL is associated with public tolerance towards homosexuality. ADL is most far-reaching in Scandinavia and the Benelux-states, where homophobia is practically non-existent. In other words, ADL only becomes politically feasible when it is not needed anymore.
Consequently, until the 1960s and 1970s, many governments even in Western Europe banned homosexuality, not homophobia. Until not so long ago, gay people were socially sidelined – but they were never economically marginalised to the same extent. Why?
Because business owners, employers and landlords, whatever their personal views, are seldom willing to lose a valuable customer, employee or tenant to a competitor. (In fact, it would not be surprising if some B&Bs in Berkshire now flew rainbow flags and wrote “gay couples welcome” on their front doors, to fully capitalise on the incident.) Today, with gay clubs, bars, literature, fashion labels and dating sites thriving, the gay community represents a major force in many markets. That would be no less true if ADL was scrapped.
So here’s a proposal for Stonewall and the gay rights community: instead of fighting discrimination through slow, costly and probably ineffective litigation processes – why don’t you put your market power in the balance, turn the tables, and discriminate against the discriminators? Why don’t you team up to launch a website where cases like Berkshire are documented, and businesses engaging in discriminatory practices are named and shamed? With an annual guidebook ranking establishments by their “gay-friendliness”, the significant purchasing power of the gay community and those sympathetic to its causes would be coordinated to make discrimination a costly choice. And best of all, no state power would be required at all.