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Freedom from confusion

May 12, 2016

The backlash over North Carolina’s new anti-anti-discrimination law, HB2, has increased considerably over the past few weeks. Major corporations are pulling their operations out of the state or canceling expansion plans. Film productions have moved elsewhere. Musicians, including some hitherto regarded as being staples of the red right, have canceled their appearances. Even a legislator who voted for the bill has since publicly reversed his position. The popular consensus appears to be that the law is a deliberate affront to LGBT individuals by permitting them to be denied services on the basis of their sexual orientation if the business providing those services wishes to do so.

As usual, consensus does not imply unanimity. The boycotts have generated their own wave of criticism, ranging from complaints that it is undemocratic to attempt to interfere with a law passed by the majority consent of elected representatives to comparisons with attaching sanctions to dictatorships, as actions that will only harm and inconvenience an innocent population without affecting the state’s policy.

All commentary on the situation so far has missed the two main issues at hand. The first is the question of why there is a need for such a “protective” law in the first place. It goes without saying that any individual or business has the right to refuse service to any potential customer for any reason. To require a man, as the price of the existence of his business or the cost of freedom from penalty, to serve another against his will approaches dangerously close to the condition of involuntary servitude which is forbidden alike by the US Constitution, the tenets of classical liberalism, and the ideals of modern secular democracy.  In fact, the definition of forced labor used by the Department of Justice defines it as “threat of serious harm or physical restraint.”  A hate crimes law that imposed fines or imprisonment on businesses and individuals who refused to serve certain customers would certainly count as a threat of serious harm.  And yet an apparently large number of people who would normally consider themselves ardent opponents of wage slavery, human trafficking, and abuse of the justice system would now like to make just such a threat against their fellow citizens – because their opinions on customer service don’t coincide with their own.  Freedom of choice, it seems, cannot be permitted where that choice might harm someone, or where it’s just plain wrong.

The second, and more important question at stake, is that raised by the criticism of the boycotts. Their critics fail to see that this uncomfortable, chaotic situation exemplifies the way a free society should operate. Has the business a right to discriminate? Yes. Has the disappointed customer the right to retaliate against the business for that discrimination? Also yes. Neither side has more rights than the other, and when there is a conflict between them, it is normal and healthy for it to be fought out until they reach a conclusion. In that way the rights of both parties are respected, and criticism of their conflict becomes, in effect, criticism of their human rights.

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