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The Goodness Monopoly, Part 1 & 2

Economist with the Think Tank, Wyoming Liberty Group

~~~By Sven Larson~~~

This is the first in a two part series.

The European Union is not just a giant, ailing and failing welfare-state project, but it is also a political machine aimed at expanding government power in other directions as well. Some of those ambitions are related to the welfare state, such as giving citizens a variety of “positive rights”, a.k.a., entitlements, to health care, education, welfare, housing, etc. Others relate to the eradication of discrimination, such as against ethnic, religious, sexual and racial minorities.

I strongly approve of the eradication of discrimination. Government should never, ever treat two citizens differently based on who they are. My problem with the fight against discrimination has to do with the invasion of property rights that is often linked to anti-discrimination campaigns. Sometimes government restricts the use of private property in the name of fighting discrimination, a restriction that is inherently wrong.

An example. The management of a department store notices that whenever large groups of gypsies patron their store there is a rise in theft. They decide to ban gypsies from entering in larger groups than three, so they can have their store security keep them under proper surveillance. The measures work: theft and related losses fall dramatically.

Some gypsies complain to a local government anti-discrimination board. The government sues the store for discrimination and force them to abandon their restrictive policies against gypsies. Theft and losses rise again.

Since the local government forced the owners of the department store to use their property in a way that goes against what they determined were sound business practices, will the government then compensate the store for its higher losses to theft? Will the government compensate the store for its dramatically higher costs of security?

No, of course not. And this is where government-imposed anti-discrimination measures against private property owners go astray. Government increases the cost of doing business to private property owners based on a morally understandable but practically impossible policy.

But what about a shop that refuses to sell to, say, people who support nationalist political movements? An online retailer in Sweden declared after the election in 2010 that it did not want supporters of the nationalist Swedish Democrats among its customers. The reason was, plain and simple, that the owners did not like the policies on immigration that the Swedish Democrats had put forward.

By the principle of sovereign property rights that protect business owners against government anti-discrimination measures, those same property owners should be protected against government measures in this case as well. Regardless of whether the online retailer declared that they did not want nationalists, Christians, conservatives, Jews, muslims, Scandinavians, left-handed people, gays, trisexuals or Klingons among its customers, it is entirely up to the property owner how he wants to use his property for business.

We rational, grown-up citizens can then decide whether or not we want to patron a business that discriminates in a way that we disapprove of. In the case of the Swedish retailer, that is exactly what happened. They lost so much business they had to file for bankruptcy.

Free, independent individuals are the best decision makers when it comes to moral issues. This is yet another good reason why we need to keep free societies, well, free.

By contrast, government-imposed moral codes not only increase the burden on property owners but also demote individual citizens to ethical children, unable to make virtuous decisions on their own. When this demotion has been allowed to continue for a while, it can take entirely unreasonable proportions. A good example is the EU’s witch hunt against the Hungarian government, a topic we will elaborate on in the second part of this series below.

Part II

The Goodness Monopoly, Part 2

This is the second installment in what was supposed to be a two-part series. However, the issue being discussed here is too complex. I need to have it spill over into a third part, due Friday.

As a libertarian I am allergic to all forms of government incursions into our lives. Some of them we have to tolerate, because right now, right here, today we have no better alternative. A good example is the monopoly that government has taken on providing for the poor: while we need, desperately, to end that monopoly and return care for the poor to private charities, we cannot end the welfare state overnight. We have to put in place a strategy for transitioning out of the welfare state, and make sure that the transition does not make the poor worse off than they are now.

I often get criticized by ill-informed Austrian armchair economists for not wanting to end the welfare state abruptly. When I point to the economic disaster we know as Europe and ask how their rapid-fire spending cuts have made lives better for the poor, I get a blank stare in response.

In other words, as a libertarian I accept the current state of affairs and that it takes time to change them. I accept that I may not see a welfare-state free world in my lifetime, but that is fine with me. Unlike reckless ideologues on the left, I believe that political reform must happen at a pace that people are willing to accept by free will and independent decisions.

This reformist principle, where the free will of the people is the vehicle in which we travel, and libertarian ideas are its engine, is not limited to economic issues. It applies to all areas of our lives, especially those where government has decided to be involved. But more importantly, this principle means that we have to show due respect to our fellow humans and how they decide to live their lives. We must respect the personal choices of our neighbors, and accept that there may be communities such as religious congregations who choose to live an entirely different kind of life than we do. Some communities may say that “we do not want any gay couples among us” while others may way “we do not want anyone hostile to gay couples to live among us”. The same applies to religious views: in a free society, evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, Hindus and Laestadians must be able to live side by side and respect the different paths through life that members of each group will take.

I can hear the cries about “moral relativism” from conservatives and socialists alike. But this is not moral relativism: a libertarian society is founded on natural rights which our Creator has endowed us with, namely the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (The right to pursue happiness is then translated into the right to property.) A morally relativist society would allow Jack to violate Joe’s endowed rights by elevating the moral value behind Jack’s action to the same status as Joe’s endowed rights.

An example would be theft. Suppose Joe, in pursuit of happiness for him and his family, acquires a cow. Suppose Jack and his family are starving and he decides to steal Joe’s cow. A moral relativist would claim that Jack’s action was morally acceptable because he was starving. In doing so the moral relativist devalues Joe’s property right by putting it on equal moral footing with the action to end that property right.

We can make a similar argument regarding life. A mother feels uncomfortable being pregnant because she is unsure whether or not she will be able to maintain her lifestyle after the baby is born. Therefore, she wants an abortion. The inalienable right to life that every human has been endowed with is now reduced and compared to some alleged right of every human being to a certain lifestyle.

Again: a libertarian society is not morally relativistic because it allows for different religious affiliations, sexual identities or similar identity-related choices. The rights that we have been endowed with by our Creator provide clear and concise guidelines for how we can live side by side. An example: the religion of a muslim is not my problem so long as my Christian religion is not his problem. If, e.g., radical islamists decide to wage war on Christians qua Christians, they immediately violate the bedrock principles of a libertarian society.

One of the most pervasive problems of our modern world is the desire of government to play moral arbiter beyond – often far beyond – the moral framework of our endowed rights. Government intervenes and imposes micro-managing rights and restrictions on our lives to the point where, e.g., a business owner is no longer independent in deciding how to use his property. Governments all over the world, even in the supposedly free West, invade our lives with dictates on how to behave, how not to behave and how to interact with each other in general.

The conflict between the EU and Hungary is a good example of what this can lead to. Stay tuned for the third and final part, due Friday.

.

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