[By Ryan Noble]
On April 1st the Libertarian presidential debate was aired on Fox Business Network. It was easily the steadiest my blood pressure has been watching a news network for a very long time. The relative lack of outrageous statements notwithstanding, Gary Johnson came out with a Doozy. He was asked if businesses should be forced to serve customers they did not wish to. Johnson answered in the affirmative. Being likable and an all-around good guy he got a kinder reaction than was perhaps warranted by a crowd full of libertarians. His position on this issue may have been the most nonsensical one voiced that night, here is why.
A political position can be either libertarian or not. The same position can be either practically good or not. A metaphysically perfect position is both Libertarian and achieves practically good ends. This fails both questions. On the first point perhaps even Gary would agree. Simply put, the threat of force is being used to compel Business A to serve Customer B. Presumably Gary holds this position because he believes it to be an instrument for the practical good. The mind’s eye sees a disarming and modest gay (or Muslim, or gay Muslim) couple walking into a bakery excited for their big day only to have their dreams crushed by two members of the Westborough Baptist Church holding “Thank God for AIDS” signs. The extreme irregularity of these events places them squarely in the “not a problem” category. Cumulatively, hundreds of times more frustration and pain are caused by incompetent or rude retail employees daily yet no one is clamoring for a law to outlaw this behavior. Additionally, were it indeed a common “problem”, a law banning this discrimination would still not achieve a good end.
If we did actually live in a fractured society where minorities were being ostracized daily we would be sanctioning a unilateral disarmament of hostilities. People that know about conflict resolution know that a conflict cannot be resolved in a healthy way unless both parties have room to negotiate, or some form of leverage or ability to effect the outcome. Forced association laws strip one or both parties of this ability. In this case, it makes the business artificially impotent and the unwelcome customer artificially dominant. Absent this law, if the businesses’ refusal to serve the customer were based off irrational prejudice or being misinformed he/she would have an organic opportunity to grow and see the customer as the non-threat they are. With forced service laws the business owner now KNOWS the customer is a threat. When that customer walks into that business they are coming in with the force of the state behind them, a greater-than-implicit threat to not exercise one’s conscious. If this make-believe world were actually the one we lived in, the cancer of disunity would have no way to heal. It would only be suppressed and pushed into the backrooms of the businesses and the dark corners of our hearts and minds.
The upsetting thing about his position is how willing he is to compromise a central tenant of liberty to enact a non-solution to a problem that does not exist. However, Gary Johnson is a sharp guy, so we can’t be too eager to dismiss his answer as non-instructive. I suggest his position is a misfired response to a fundamental human truth; humans need to belong to a tribe, a more or less unified social family. Durkheim recognized this in his book 1897 “Suicide”. Sociologists today recognize this when studying declining social capital in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies. Johnson knows society as we know it is dependent on a civic ethic, one that is under greater threat every year. He should consider non-statist solutions to this problem or at the very least consider a solution that isn’t the equivalent of a school teacher saying to children “Now you two get along or else!” Alternatively, my assumption of his motivations could be wrong, but that does no favors for interpreting the wisdom of his position.
Most libertarians I know stop at asking “is it libertarian?” when looking at a politician’s policy positions. I disagree with using that as the sole metric for judgement. The problem with merely asking if a position is consistent with libertarianism comes from the fact you cannot apply the same standards of behavior to action taken free of coercion and action taken under coercive force. Imagine a conscripted solder, forced to fight and kill or suffer the consequences of death or imprisonment. When he unjustly takes the life of another person, we cannot say he was morally wrong to do so, strictly speaking. He was placed against his will on a battlefield where people are trying to kill him. Yes, he may have been a coward. He might be considered a better man if he has stood in court for crimes against his nation for refusing to fight. These are not libertarian morality judgements however; these are judgements of some character outside of libertarian morality.
This is extremely important when considering candidates to support. Take two issues that seem cut and dry; Tariffs and immigration. Tariffs are anti-libertarian, obviously, but are they more or less libertarian than an income tax? The question almost doesn’t make sense. Is 10% higher income tax more or less libertarian than a 20% tariff on imports? Now the question is completely unbreachable. As libertarians should we support a tariff on imported goods in exchange for lower income taxes considering that Americans that lose jobs to outsourcing will go on welfare? Addressing this problem with a strict libertarian ethic may or may not be harder than figuring out how man angels can fit on the head of a pin. We are forced to address this question with (ugh) utilitarian calculus. We aren’t asking a question of property rights or basic freedoms, they have already been decided, we don’t have them. The question is tactical, selfish. What would I gain? Does it achieve my goals? These are ugly questions to be asking when it comes to taking and spending other people’s money, but what other questions make sense to ask? The same is true of immigration. Will these immigrants and their children vote to take more of my property and freedom? Will they increase our debt from increased welfare and government programs?
We should all be working towards limiting and undermining the ability of the state to affect our lives. However, Libertarians can be too eager to fall on their swords in the service of their ideology. A commitment to freedom is one of the most beautiful things there are in this world, no, it’s the most beautiful thing there is in this world. Our country and our world, however, is engaged in ugly and evil statist warfare. Let’s let our freedom blossom and radiate in our lives and in the relationships with our family and friends, but let’s not extend the same consideration to the monster that pits us against each other as tax takers and tax makers. We can’t make headway in our cause by misapplying our moral principles to an organization that does not recognize them.