Last week a judge in Northern Ireland ruled that a “Christian-run bakery” discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. It was agreed between legal teams on both sides that the business owner would pay £500 in ‘damages’ to the ‘victim’.
Just because someone’s being bigoted, obstinate or unreasonable doesn’t mean it’s okay to use violence (i.e. the coercive apparatus of the State) against them. Just because this business owners’ objection to gay marriage has no basis in reason or evidence doesn’t make it morally justifiable to force him to hand over money at the point of a government gun. If (peacefully) acting upon beliefs not based on reason or evidence is a crime, then every human being who ever lived is a criminal.
There’s no way that this judge or any judge of sound mind would possibly conclude that the business owner’s action, or rather inaction, harmed the other party if it wasn’t for the fact that the law says discrimination is a crime. It upset the other party, yes, but in a free society people will upset you. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes as a result of their acting according to their own beliefs, however irrational. That’s life.
In a society where the law did not grant people the special right to live in a world where they never get discriminated against based on their sexual preferences or religious or political views, the gay customer would have to refrain from using threats of violence against the baker. Or, he would have to enact the violence himself and face the consequences. Instead he might simply offer the baker more money or try to persuade him through argument to change his view on gay marriage.
If that fails, then he would just have to find another baker. That’s a bummer, yes, but that’s life. Sometimes human beings can be dicks. But, generally, dicks don’t prosper. If the spurned customer felt strongly enough he could tell the world that this business owner is an intolerant bigot, and organise a protest or encourage a boycott. If any of this was successful, then the business owner would either have to change his ways or risk going out of business.
This is how unpreferable, bigoted or intolerant but non-violent and freedom-restricting behaviour is marginalised and rendered unprofitable through peaceful means without resort to violence. This is how civilised, free and peaceful society works – and works well. We do not need and should not want to inhibit this spontaneous system of order nor introduce violence into it.
The only ethical way to deal with behaviour like discrimination, which is refraining from using one’s own person or property, is to respond in kind by refraining from engaging socially and economically with discriminators. This is what most of us are doing most of the time, actually, consciously and unconsciously, and it works wonderfully well. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t create any one person’s vision of a perfect world, but that’s not possible because humans are imperfect – and can only be attempted through brute force.
Every law that criminalises a non-criminal behaviour requires the State to commit crime in order to enforce it. Every time a judge decrees the non-criminal actions of individuals as criminal the State must commit an act of injustice instead of serving justice, which in this case was forcing the baker to hand over £500 to the gay customer at the point of a government gun – that’s wrong however bigoted or intolerant the victim is.
Contrary to the claims of the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission and gay rights groups this ruling is not a sign of social progress. It is another instance of the State’s powers being used as a weapon of attack rather than a shield of defence; as a way of enabling certain people to benefit at the direct expense of others.
We should never forget that we have laws against violence and theft because human beings have the right to life and to property, we don’t have these rights because the laws says so. Common law, that is laws prohibiting acts of violence and theft, is a codification of our widely held moral principles that theft and violence is wrong and must be preventable. To obey these principles we don’t have to do anything, just refrain from aggressing against others, stealing and defrauding.
The vast body of positive laws in existence today, in contrast, oblige individuals to undertake specified courses of action under threat of punishment. In this case, the law against discrimination forcefully obligates business owners to engage in economic exchange with people whose sexual orientation, or religious or political views they object to.
The purpose or mission of the law is to maintain people’s freedoms and enforce their property rights. However, as belief in the coercive apparatus of the State as the most effective means of solving complex social problems has strengthened since the world wars, the law has moved far beyond its original objective and is now used by special interest and minority groups as a way to harm bigoted but non-aggressive people. Positive law is the worst case of mission creep in human history.
The law against discrimination allows people who are discriminated against to do what they probably really wish they could do, which is to use violence against the bigoted, the unreasonable and intolerant, against the very people they despise. The thought of violently punishing people we dislike is very tempting to many of us, but the cost to one’s own conscience (guilt for doing something immoral), the social cost (judgement by your peers, criminal record) and the practical cost (imprisonment) means the vast majority of people refrain from doing so. Which is a mark of civilised society.
However, the existence of laws against discrimination enables people to outsource this violence to the abstraction of the State, which means people get to inflict harm on others whilst evading the psychological and practical costs of using force unjustly. Furthermore, because people see the law as synonymous with social good, instead of feeling guilty about using violence people are more likely to feel proud and righteous.
As a society we’re gravitating towards believing that it’s morally acceptable to be punished by the law if we cannot prove to be right or reasonable our decisions to refrain from using our person or property. We’re moving towards a society where not you but the State gets to decide what is a right and reasonable use of your person and property, and thus to force you to act in that way.
Even if the knowledge and reasoning of the State’s incumbents is superior to yours and they can prove that their forcing you to act according to their choices will benefit others in some way that doesn’t morally justify their controlling your behaviour by threatening to fine or imprison you – or punishing your failure to comply in the same way.
Even if the State was populated with higher beings who possessed perfect knowledge that still wouldn’t mean that your enslavement was an okay thing to do. It wouldn’t be. You should be free to think and act in peaceful pursuit of your own goals because any lesser state requires the use of force against you to manifest and maintain.
The truth is if we become enchanted with the fantasy of living in a world where the State punishes people for not doing what we want them to, then in reality we want to live not like human beings in a free and imperfect society, but like slaves in an unfree and perfectly controlled society. We can’t have our cake and eat it.
P.S. The customer got exactly the cake he wanted by doing business with another bakery. In a future society of totalitarianism with a human face he can forget about free market competition amongst bakers, and customised cakes. Or any cake. If there was cake, it would be in short supply, so he would have to prove to a government official that his desire for cake is right or reasonable – and that no else needed cake more than he.
P.P.S. I think the cake looked pretty cool (I’m a Bert and Ernie fan).