Thursday, October 14, 2010

Attention Conservatives! This Is Your Argument Against Anti-Discrimination Laws

In April and May of this year, the Commission of Leon County, Florida (which consists primarily of Tallahassee)[1] debated a Human Rights Ordinance. The law proposed to do a number of things—most controversially, creating a legal cause of action for victims of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I attended a preliminary public comment session, and then the meeting a few weeks later when the vote was held. Each time the room was packed. Hundreds of Leon County residents—and the commissioners themselves—spoke for or against the ordinance. A few of the arguments that were made against it:
  • It's a slippery slope! Next, we'll be prohibiting discrimination based on obesity, attractiveness, height, etc.[2]
  • It will infringe on a preacher's God-given right to preach that homosexuality is a sin.[3]
  • It will somehow diminish the rights of heterosexuals.[4]
  • It will harm business owners by generating—or merely by threatening—frivolous lawsuits.[5]
And so on. It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, and it led indirectly to the creation of this blog. Anti-discrimination laws are fundamentally incompatible with my libertarian principles, but as I watched and listened I had the same thought over and over: Screw my principles—I don't want to be on the same side as the people who oppose this law.

When I figured out why, I sat down and wrote the following—the argument that should have been made:

"We all want to live in a society that treats people as equals. Our opposition to this ordinance is rooted not in a desire to discriminate, but in the belief that we don't need an ordinance to be that kind of society. And now, as we find ourselves on the verge of yet another government intrusion on individual freedom, we are prepared to prove it—to show our community that when we talk about how much we oppose discrimination and value equal treatment under the law, we mean it.

"Some of us, inevitably, will continue to resist. That's ok. We believe private business owners have the right to hire and fire whoever they want, or do business with whoever they want, for any reason, and we believe in freedom of speech, no matter how offensive. Yet we have no doubt that any opposition will be fleeting, because it will be penalized not in the courts, but in the marketplace of ideas. Businesses that discriminate will be boycotted, rental properties that discriminate will be vacated, and churches that preach hate will be abandoned in favor of churches that preach love.

"Some of us will make this commitment out of respect for human dignity, and some of us will make it because the strongest society is one where all people are not only allowed, but encouraged, to reach their maximum potential. For many of us, these two reasons are one and the same—we recognize that the free market we so strongly believe in is undermined by discrimination and hatred.

"Some of us are not convinced that widespread discrimination exists in our community, but there are a lot of people here who clearly believe it does. Regardless of who is right, we understand the temptation for the government to step in. But we also understand how much this law would cost us—and not only in terms of a simple dollar amount. The greater costs are the loss of liberty, and the shame of knowing that our community has reached the point that we need to be told, under threat of forcible seizure of everything we've earned to provide for ourselves and our families, to act like decent human beings.

"Opposition to a law is not the same as opposition to equality. In fact, we will accomplish more without this law than we ever could with it, because the most meaningful equality is that which does not need to be mandated. In that spirit, we respectfully ask for one more chance to prove that we, as private individuals, can do our part to build a community we can be proud of. A community that judges people on the content of their character—and nothing else. And we will build that community not because we have to, but because we want to."

If conservatives really want to stem the tide of government intervention in private lives, this is what they need to say.[6] No one did. The ordinance passed, and I was happy to see it happen. What makes me sad is how sorely it was needed.

1. Official motto (according to Wikipedia): "Florida's Capital City." Exciting!
2. Often accompanied by the scientifically-dubious (to put it nicely) argument that homosexuality is a choice, and it's ridiculous to allow lawsuits based on groups people can join voluntarily—because other protected characteristics, such as, say, religion and marital status, aren't voluntary at all, right?
3. It doesn't. Religious organizations are exempt. But whatever—that's not the point.
4. It doesn't. If a straight person is fired for being straight, the ordinance gives him or her the right to sue, too. But whatever—that's not the point.
5. Alright, that one's hard to argue with, but anyone who makes it is either being disingenuous, or has their priorities totally out of whack.
6. It would help, obviously, if they also mean it, but just saying it would be a nice start.

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