Politicizing private disputes is how free society dies

Last week, The Metro newspaper reported the story of a woman who was ‘sent home from work without pay for not wearing heels’. “…did you know it’s still legal for workplaces to send their female employees home for not wearing them?” The author cried. Days later the woman, a Ms Nicola Thorp, started an official online petition demanding that the government ‘make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work’. Parliament is now considering the petition for debate because it has gathered over 100,000 signatures.

Consider what has happened here. Somehow we’ve gone from an employer peacefully refusing to engage in economic exchange with a female temp unless she meets its conditions of employment, which is something that happens countless times everyday and is permissible and essential behaviour in a free and prosperous society, to a potential parliamentary debate on making it illegal for employers to stipulate how female employees should dress when working for them. Which is law and government action completely incompatible with free and peaceful society.

A week later and the Metro is dedicating whole pages to the supposed sexual-discrimination-in-the-city scandal, which it helped create. The non-story of a highly motivated but very confused women who doesn’t understand how contract law works. A women who happens to be rather photogenic, which I’m sure is not something that escaped the notice of the editors of the papers that ran her story.

The Metro’s Jenny Stallard wrote yesterday that “being forced to wear heels to work is now a national debate…” The sad thing is that she is right. The nation is debating whether women should be forced to wear high heels by employers. But that is absurd because UK employers aren’t forcing women (or anyone) to do anything. Force proper, I needn’t point out, is illegal and prohibited by common law against theft and murder. Employers and employees by the very definition of the terms don’t force each other to do anything.

The temp agency didn’t say to Ms Thorp ‘you cannot wear flat shoes’, as if it were God issuing a moral commandment to be obeyed at all times and in all places. Nor did it put a gun to her head, force her to wear high-heeled shoes and then force her to work for eight hours. No, what it effectively said was this: “IF you want to be employed by us, THEN you need to dress according to our dress code” Or, to put it another way: IF you aren’t prepared to comply with our dress code, THEN we are not willing to offer you temping work.

I think it highly unlikely, but if Ms Thorp had not been made aware of the high heels stipulation before she signed her contract with the agency, then in fact when she turned up for work there was no valid contract between herself and the agency. Because it is impossible to accept or not accept a condition that hasn’t been communicated to you in any way, and thus impossible to enter into a contractual arrangement based upon that condition.

Only Ms Thorp herself can know whether she would have refrained from working with the agency had she known beforehand that she would have to wear high heels. If she would have chosen not to work for the agency, then it is the agency’s fault that the woman wasted her time/money travelling into its office expecting to be allowed to work in flat shoes and expecting to receive payment for it. But the agency wouldn’t contractually or legally owe her any payment because, having refused to accept the condition of wearing high heels, she didn’t give any labour to the agency to be owed for.

At most there is a moral argument that, out of common decency, the agency should have offered to reimburse Ms Thorp for purchasing high-heeled shoes, had she chose to stay and work, or for her travel costs had she not and left. But that’s being generous.

Remember, all this is true if and only if the agency did not state the dress policy to Ms Thorp before she agreed to work for them. If it did, then it has done nothing wrong and she has no valid grievance against it whatsoever. This crucial fact, perhaps not surprisingly, is absent from the media’s reporting of the issue.

The trivial matter of a temping agency refusing to give work to a woman who refused to comply with its dress code is not even close to being a political issue and yet, as the result of incoherent notions about political rights and contractual rights among the general pubic and the media, it has become one. A political mountain made of the molehill of a private dispute. The distinction in people’s minds between the political realm and the private realm, the State and society, seems to be fading by the day. Everything is everyone’s business and every trivial dispute is laid out for all of society to judge. This is a regressive, collectivist mindset. The mindset of the tribe.

As the Metro reported, Ms Thorp is now campaigning against woman being ‘forced’ to wear high heels. In her petition she says to members of parliament that “it is still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will [my italics].” By using the adverb ‘still’ she reveals her disbelief that this behaviour is still legal, as if it were some archaic practice akin to burning witches and not merely the normal and necessary behaviour of free people engaging in economic exchange.

What she doesn’t comprehend, or else is not troubled in the least by, is that if it were made illegal for UK employers to require female members of staff to wear high heels, then that would be forcing employers to engage in economic exchange against their will – and thus doing the very act she condemns. Truly against their will, in this case, because people with guns enforce laws. Conditions of exchange, in contrast, are enforced by peacefully refraining from contracting with the other party.

Ms Thorp was not truly forced to do anything, but she seems to believes she was. I suspect this is because she believes that she was entitled to the job and its associated pay, and entitled to do it dressed as she liked and not as her employer liked. From this false sense of entitlement comes the false sense of injustice at being denied access to and use of property (wages) that she believed was hers by right.

Ms Thorp’s confused reasoning is bad enough, but her political demands are much worse. She believes UK employers should not be free to refrain from economic exchange with women (i.e. free to not employ a woman) if the woman prefers not to wear high heels. She envisages a world where women can dictate to their employers what footwear they wear. But it won’t stop there.

Legislative laws only ever multiply and so the kind of law she is demanding will likely lead to more laws granting further unjust economic privileges to women. This would eventually lead to widespread unemployment among women because hiring them would be much more costly compared to hiring men.

If a future government, attempting to help women, then makes it illegal to not hire women, then businesses will be managed for the benefit of female employees and not for profit (the benefit of customers), which will only reduce overall wealth creation and thus lower the standard of living in the UK. There is no way to avoid these negative consequences of laws with laws. Either women exclusively will be left worse off or all society will.

The temp agency involved has now changed its policy on high heels. This shows we don’t need to resort to the brute force of the law to prompt employers to align their practices with current attitudes in society. Ms Thorp’s actions have shown that many people disagree with agencies insisting temps wear high heels, and thus she has motivated this agency to change its practices. Others agencies will probably do the same because they all want to maximise their share of the market and maximise their profits.

To Nicola Thorp I say this: you’ve won! By peaceful means you got Portico to change their policy. If you wish, continue to campaign in the same way to get other agencies to change their policies, but take down the petition. You’re demanding government action that could easily lead to social disaster for future generations of women. Your proposed law to protect women’s ‘rights’ and to liberate them from male ‘oppression’ would send women hurtling back several decades into lives of economic idleness and financial dependency upon men. But this time it won’t be attitudes that will need overcoming, it will be laws. And laws are practically immoveable. Keep your faith in peaceful protesting and abandon your mistaken faith in the brute force of law as a means to social progress.

One comment

  1. “You’re demanding government action that could easily lead to social disaster for future generations of women. Your proposed law to protect women’s ‘rights’ and to liberate them from male ‘oppression’ would send women hurtling back several decades into lives of economic idleness and financial dependency upon men. ”

    How so “disaster”? Obviously to demand that women have to wear high heels can be viewed as intrusive as demanding that they wear flat shoes, but the point here is not to demand a clearly uncomfortable dress code such as high heels that only women are asked to wear, in contrast with what is expected for men to wear. Dress codes should not be sexist, period. Demand the same to men as you demand to women.

    Tell me, what difference would it make for a woman to close a business deal if she wears high heels? (Imagine, for example, if the wealthy mogul at the other end were blind.) Or to carry out her stock market tasks sitting in front of her PC? None! So obviously if you demand high heels is because you associate them to feminine elegance, which is totally sexist. Remember that in the past men used to wear high heels in some of the European courts. So why not demand both sexes to wear high heels then as their dress code?


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