Home > Philosophy, Politics, Social policy > The right to be a bigot

The right to be a bigot

May 26, 2014

Should people have a right to be a bigot? The current law (with significant public support) says that people cannot be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc in your private business dealings. On the rare occasions that people oppose such laws, they are generally accused of being racist, sexist, homophobic etc themselves… as happened to Rand Paul in America.

Despite that risk, this is my argument for why people should have full freedom of association, including the right to choose who they deal with, even when they’re being assholes.

By way of introduction, let me say that I can understand why people want to force others to behave according to their own morals, which is a fairly common theme through history. And I understand that forcing people to follow the morals of the majority is always a politically populist position that will generally win votes at the ballot box. But I argue that it is immoral, unnecessary and dangerous to give the government (made up of imperfect politicians and bureaucrats) the power to force people to associate with each other against their will.

My personal approach to social issues is fairly progressive in that I think we should encourage acceptance of different races, gender identities, religions, sexual orientations, lifestyles, etc… and I like to think that I have set a fairly good example through words and deeds, and perhaps influenced a few people along the way. However, I don’t think I should use violence (or the threat of violence through government) to force my morality on other people.

The growing tolerance (and then acceptance) of minorities has been a theme of liberal societies over the last 200 years. As eloquently explained by Milton Friedman, the marketplace has encouraged tolerance by giving people who disagree with each other (and might hate each other) an incentive to deal with each other… which has tended to break down social barriers.

The various liberation movements generally occurred first in places that were most liberal. The UK was the first country on earth to ban slavery, and it was the radical liberals of the day (who would today be called “libertarian”) who were at the front of women’s liberation and the anti-slavery movements in many countries around the world.

All western countries were trending towards greater social freedoms, regardless of government policy. It was not the government that led the movement for civil liberties… society changed first (in part thanks to greater connections through trade & travel) and then politicians attached themselves to social movements after they became popular, as a political tactic. It was only after a majority of citizens became anti-racist that the governments caught up with society and removed their racist legislation.

Not only did government not drive social progress, it is unlikely that government legislation is helpful in convincing bigots to change their mind. Forcing people to violate what they see as their moral code does not necessarily make them sympathetic to your cause; and might actually encourage the opposite response. Forcing bigotry to go underground or make their discrimination more subtle does not necessarily make it less real; and might actually make it harder to address.

So far I have said that I think imposing morals on people with force and denying people freedom of association is morally wrong; and that it is clearly not necessary since liberation movements did not come from government and legislation is ineffective at changing hearts and minds. But my argument goes beyond the laws being immoral and unnecessary… I believe that imposing morality with force will lead to negative unintended consequences.

First, once we agree that the government should be allowed to use force to impose some people’s personal morality on other people, then we get into a very dangerous game of deciding who can impose what? It was the idea of imposing morality that justified previous racist, sexist and homophobic laws in the first place… forcing minority anti-racists to follow the racist populism of the day. The main incentive of politicians is to be populist, and I don’t think it’s true that populism will always be correct.

We open ourselves up to debates about whether we should impose elements of christian morality on non-christians… should we impose conservative norms on progressive people, or impose progressive norms on conservative people… should we make immigrants act like us… should we allow people to have unhealthy habits? Making these into political issues instead of personal choices means that our moral lives becomes hostage to public choice theory, where uniformity is imposed on diverse people, and the consequences of making mistakes (which are inevitable) are much more damaging since they are imposed on everybody.

Instead of hoping that politicians will impose your preferred morals on others (rather than the other way), a less dangerous option is for the government not to impose anybody’s personal morality on anybody else. While allowing moral diversity does mean that some people will behave badly, it prevents the greater danger of imposing populist mistakes or creating artificial conformity. Meanwhile, we can (and should) still aim to convince people through our words and deeds.

Second, and more subtly, when we outsource our morality to the government, we weaken people’s ownership of (and responsibility for) their moral decisions. This may seem somewhat abstract, but there is growing evidence that when government takes over an area of morality, then genuine community retreats from that area… leading to a situation where people feel less inclined to wrestle with moral questions, and less likely to take a personal interest in improving the society around them.

It is no coincidence that the strongest social bonds & most active communities exist in countries, places, times, and cultures that have less government involvement in social causes. This crowding out of civil society is worrying because it was civil society (not government) that led the social liberation movements of yesteryear… and also because civil society helps build social capital and foster social inclusion in ways that government bureaucracy will never achieve.

The decline in community is the real cost that we are paying for our over-reliance on government. If we want to encourage more people to re-engage with moral questions and their social responsibilities, then we need to once again give them control over their moral choices… which includes the freedom to make mistakes, and hopefully learn from them.

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  1. June 3, 2014 at 7:55 am
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