The Intersection of Government Coercion and Private Discrimination
Two themes have been making their way through various posts this past week, and though they have been somewhat separated by post they are so intertwined that I’d argue each must be seen through the prism of the other to reach the most positive outcomes. How we deal with these two themes as a country, both now and in our past reinforces my belief in principled pragmatism over ideology.
Those themes, of course, are coercion and discrimination.
I won’t waste too much time rehashing all the arguments surrounding coercion, as they seem to be being made over and over better than I might be able to summarize. But I will say that from my point of view the objection of “But that’s coercion!” is a bit of a red herring. As I have said numerous times before, coercion is not a function of any single political system; it’s a function of multiple people living together. Coercion certainly took place in Stalinist Russia, but it also takes place in Freetown Christiania. (If you don’t believe the latter, feel free to try to become a prosperous member of the Freetown Christiania community while running an Eagle Forum field office.)
Next in line after the “But that’s coercion!” argument, of course, is the “Coercion by the government is evil, coercion by citizens is good/not nearly as evil” argument and it’s distant cousin “coercion by the Federal government is evil, coercion by the State governments is good/not nearly as evil.” (If this is overly simplistic verbiage for your views, feel free to slide any of the coercive entities to wherever on the ‘good to evil’ spectrum you feel most comfortable.) Unlike the “But that’s coercion!” argument, I find these arguments intellectually honest and at times quite compelling. But more often than not, I find that I end up rejecting them – in whole or in part – based on issues surrounding discrimination.
Burt has been writing some excellent stuff on anti-discrimination issues recently, especially with controversies surrounding the “Christians Walk/Non-Christians Do Time” actions by Bay Minette, Alabama and the “Jesus Saves $20 On Your Next Oil Change” hubbub in Plano, Texas. (By the way, when I say “excellent stuff” I mean to say the best stuff on these subjects – by far – I have come across on the intertubes or off.) He has covered the legal issues far better than I could hope to, so I won’t even try to add anything to his posts on that front. But even if he is right that both actions are illegal, the question remains should they be illegal?
Although some here have supported the ability for a local government to have “different sentences for different creeds” guidelines, a la Bay Minette, it is generally agreed that this was a well meaning but terribly executed idea. But the Oil Change guy from Texas presents us with a much trickier and more interesting question, because it bumps up into government coercion triggered by the most innocuous of actions.
As a reminder (as if one is really needed) the issue at hand was that in order for customers of Plano’s Kwik Kar to get preferential pricing they had to be willing to declare “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This Biblical verse, John 3:16, is in no way a randomly chosen bit of trivia. For evangelicals this is called the “Gospel in a nutshell” and is oft declared in the same way Episcopals cite the Nicene Creed, or that kids of my generation used to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis. Tim Tebow famously prints John 3:16 on his eye black. And the next time you go through your neighborhood In and Out drive through, check out the inside of the bottom rim of your paper cup and you’ll see John 3:16 in tiny red Arial font. In other words, anyone arguing this is a simple Trivia Contest answer is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. (Or at the very least is making the argument with a wink and a sly grin.)
Still, at the end of the day so what? Where’s the harm? Do I seriously care that some lube guy in Plano wants to have an all-Christian clientele? Of course not. I really, really don’t. As wordsmith pointed out after a doing a quick Google, there are a whopping 3,218 places to get your oil changed in the greater Plano area. You could randomly choose different locations each time you got your oil changed in Plano and the odds would be that you’d never even be in a position to get the 3:16 discount. If suit is successfully brought against this guy the government will coerce him to cease and desist this practice. This doesn’t seem right to me, and if I’m being honest I count it in my “Bad Thing” column.
But here’s the thing.
What if it’s not Plano, but a small town that has only one or two places to change your oil? What if it’s a slightly larger town in a heavily evangelical area, and the success of the first guy’s promotion fuels similar types of pricing discrimination, until there isn’t a place for a Muslim to have his oil changed without paying an additional “Muslim premium?” Do we start making rules that only businesses operating in cities with a population more than X are allowed to have discriminatory pricing, and those smaller can’t? If the guy in Plano becomes the Oil Change King in part because of his John 3:16 pricing (not out of the question, Texas has a pretty heavily evangelical Christian population) then how do we deal with the other inevitable challengers to the throne? Do we decide that the first 2000 lube shops are allowed to discriminate, but the 2001st guy is SOL? Or do we decide that as many oil change businesses as there are in Plano can discriminate based on religion, even if it ends up being most or all of them?
And for that matter, why should it be that only the lube guys get the King Oil Can Henry VIII treatment? Why shouldn’t we allow real estate agents to list homes in nicer neighborhoods at one price for those buyers that declare themselves Christian, but at a higher, more discouraging price for those that are Jewish – and heck, why not an even higher economic disincentive for Muslims and Atheists? If we agree that’s OK, why not allow the same for single women, or blacks? After all, they can all just choose to live somewhere else, right?
The reason that I don’t want the guy in Plano to be protected from government coercion isn’t that I think letting him do what he does is bad; it’s that if we say that kind of discrimination is OK once, we have to say it’s OK to do it again, and again, and again. And sooner or later we get to the place from which we’ve spent the past two generations struggling to get untangled.
When my father was in college, blacks were not allowed at his school and that was pretty much the norm in most parts of the country, especially the South. By and large they weren’t allowed to open businesses in the most profitable business districts, they weren’t allowed to live in the nicer neighborhoods, and they weren’t allowed to have lunches in the places that they might wish to eat. People who set this system up (i.e.: the vast majority) knew that local governments had their backs, sure. But in most places, it wasn’t against the law for ‘the Negro’ to open a law office in the city’s financial district; it was private citizens and business owners that collectively made sure they couldn’t.
Unless you are the type of person who faithfully clings to apologistic apartheid nonsense – (“We were just about to make the blacks totally equal, and be their best best friend, and we were going to build them a tree fort and we were gonna make smores together and it was gonna be totally awesome! But then the federal gummint came in and ruined everything.”) – you must recognize that the very reason we don’t live in that world anymore is that the Federal government of the United States coerced its citizens in many, many communities – against their will! – to become socially integrated to a degree this country had never been before, and sure wasn’t headed toward being on its own.
The question I have for conservatives and libertarians that oppose government coercion – or at least Federal government coercion – is this: If you could go back in time and prevent the civil rights movement (which was at its core a minority of citizens successfully harnessing the power of the Federal government and its courts to coerce the majority to change behavior against its will) – would you do so? If you could go back to a system of apartheid (free from federal government intervention!), would you really count that as a win?
There will be those that argue that “it’s different now,” as if the racially, religiously integrated society we have today is not a historical aberration but the natural order of things. But I have my doubts that given the opportunity to slide back into majority approved discrimination of minorities we wouldn’t choose to do so. For one thing, there’s the Augusta National rule, which postulates that people are OK with discrimination as it occurs today even if they are paradoxically against similar discrimination from our past.
For those not familiar with the Augusta National rule, you can test it out yourself the next time you are having a casual conversation with someone that is against anti-discrimination laws by posing this two part question: Was it right that Augusta National Country Club was forced into allowing blacks to be members in 1990? Should they be forced to admit women now? Over the past 10 years I have asked the Augusta National question to maybe 200 people. All but one have answered a variation of the following answers: Regarding blacks in the past, “It was right that they should have been forced to admit blacks, and I was (if they are older)/would have been (if they are younger) on the front lines myself fighting for the blacks’ right to get in back then.” Regarding women today, “Well, it’s complicated, they’re a private club, and why would women want to belong if they aren’t wanted anyway, and it’s really not other people’s business to say who you should let in anywhere, and besides wouldn’t they have to install a set of women’s tees which would be a real pain, and etc.”
(BTW: You can make your own version of the Augusta National rule, and it can be about any kind of restrictions on protected classes, such as “Was it OK for the citizens of King County to block the building of synagogues in1955/Is it OK for Rutherford County citizens to block the building of mosques now?” But I prefer the Augusta National question, because for most of us the question of what membership privileges the rich and snooty should be allowed is not an emotionally charged, baggage-carrying issue.)
So then, is coercion from the government a good thing or a bad thing?
The answer, of course, is that it is neither. Coercion is a tool, and like all tools we are all happy to wield it – through social pressure, economic power, the law, the government, and a million other ways as well. And being human we view it as Good when it accomplishes our goals, and Bad when if fights against them.
“Is it coercion” is a great topic for people like me, poli-sci junkies who like to get into it over beers. But for me it is not a good disqualifier when determining public policy.
After all, the Portland neighborhood I live in now is integrated due to a federal lawsuit from the late 1960s that forced it to be so. And I wouldn’t erase that coercion for anything.