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.

11 thoughts on “A free-market alternative to banning discrimination against gay people”

  1. Posted 06/04/2010 at 10:51 | Permalink

    When the university where I used to work once got all excited about some aspect of ‘discrimination’, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor to ask if I should inquire about the religion of the grandmothers of all the people working in the department of which I was the head — in order to ensure that we weren’t ‘discriminating’. I never got an answer!

    The fact is, of course, that I didn’t know and I didn’t care about people’s religion, let alone that of their grandmothers. Insisting on ‘anti-discrimination’ risks making us much more conscious of things we don’t care about.

    But if I did care, so what? In a free country I should be free to discriminate. But of course this is not a free country

  2. Posted 06/04/2010 at 11:34 | Permalink

    This case shows how anti-discrimination legislation undermines freedom of association, private property and religious freedom.

    Indeed, I remember reading about a Christian preacher in Sweden who was actually sent to prison for repeating some of the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, and I believe some Christians in Britain have been threatened by the police for engaging in similar activities.

  3. Posted 06/04/2010 at 16:43 | Permalink

    Of course, the free market and “natural” property rights will definitely stop two men holding hands getting beaten up in the street! Why did no one see that before? They should be encouraged to “free himself from the habit … of calling for the police”.

    Attacks on gay people were up 14% last year. It is for this reason why we need ADL and a democratic state to police it. Being rejected from a B&B might seem trivial such events could normalise similar behaviour. In a country which only saw fit to repeal Section 28 7 years ago, where 70% of homophobic abuse goes unreported, 10% of L+G have suffered abuse in the work place this remains an issue beyond the capabilities of the “free” market.

  4. Posted 06/04/2010 at 17:08 | Permalink

    @Alec Hutchison – attacking people in the street was already against the law – there is no need for ADL to address this problem, just proper enforcement.

    And what about the rights of those people who, perhaps for religious reasons, do not wish to associate with gay people? Should their preferences and beliefs be trampled on by the government?

  5. Posted 06/04/2010 at 18:40 | Permalink

    Richard, the problem with advocates of legislation on matters of conscience is that they simply cannot conceive that anyone could seriously disagree with them. Partly this is because they tend only to associate with like-minded people and so do not appreciate how unrepresentative their political views are. Views that don’t concur with theirs are therefore seen as unnatural and objectionable simply because they are beyond their everyday experience.

  6. Posted 07/04/2010 at 10:34 | Permalink

    it’s the other way round. The more resources our legal system dedicates to enforcing political correctness, the fewer resources it has available to tackle violent crime.

  7. Posted 07/04/2010 at 17:46 | Permalink

    An idea – set up a B&B that discriminates against heterosexual couples, allowing only gay couples to go to it, and see what Stonewall say then! You could, by the same token, take a group of straight men to a lesbian night at a nightclub, say, and see if they’re discriminated against by not being let in. How would that be? These laws are utterly nonsensical!

  8. Posted 13/04/2010 at 10:22 | Permalink

    This whole issue has indeed been taken out of context by Grayling’s narrow focus on the rights of a business operating in someone’s own home to discriminate against a particular group of people on moral/religious based grounds.

    The most read blog-post on my own site of at least a year was an attempt to put this a different way – that just because someone goes into “business” with their own justly acquired capital does not mean that capital becomes “public” in the sense that anyone can say that they must use it to serve anyone who demands it.

  9. Posted 13/04/2010 at 10:26 | Permalink

    Oh, and to Alec Hutchison I’d say that I personally would not want to patronise a business or help an employer’s success by having to trade or work for someone who’d really rather I inhabited some special level in Dante’s fiery place. And, I do not see how my security as a gay man is enhanced by trying to force people to keep their opinions to themselves.

    They are welcome to their opinions, which are of course wrong, but they have never been welcome to cause physical harm manifesting those opinions. But if we silence the opinions by law, perhaps, just maybe, they’re going to be more likely to move straight to mainforce to express them out of frustration.

  10. Posted 13/04/2010 at 12:22 | Permalink

    agreed, Grayling’s statement as such was pretty banal. He was only talking about the definitional issue whether a B&B should be interpreted as part of the private home, or as a business entity.

  11. Posted 13/04/2010 at 12:47 | Permalink

    Not to mention that some of the justifications being trotted out for this effectively confiscation of property rights are quite tortuous – such as that businesses pay their taxes and regulatory fees and benefit from the protections of things like limited liability as a result so they jolly well should be “public” and provide their services to everyone equally.

    I wonder if anyone told Louis Vuitton!

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