“Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” — Leon Kass
First, let me say how happy I am to have my column back at the Freeman. I look forward to being here every other week alongside Sandy Ikeda and Sarah Skwire.
If you’ve spent any time on the Internet in the last couple of weeks, you’ve found it abuzz with opinions on Indiana and gay rights. The passage of the state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has generated all kinds of commentary from both left and right, and most of it is misguided or overwrought.
I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on these matters, which, I think, add up to a call for both tolerance and freedom of association — as well as a rejection of repugnance as the basis for public policy.
Tolerance lies at the core of the libertarian worldview. Living peacefully with each other means accepting our differences and allowing others to engage in behavior that we might dislike but that does not harm third parties. “Anything that’s peaceful” is our lodestar, as Leonard Read often reminded us. Such tolerance does not require that we associate with people we disagree with, only that we leave them in peace. And this idea cuts to the core of the debate in Indiana.
If, like me, you think that gays and lesbians are not doing anything harmful to anyone, and that they should be treated just like other human beings, you might call the behavior of those who refuse to, for example, provide photography services at a same-sex marriage “intolerant.” Perhaps it is, but those who have such views are not engaged in any attempt to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married — or anything else — by refusing to provide them with a service. They are, in fact, tolerating them, but also refusing to associate with them.
Tolerance does not mandate association.
Any idea of tolerance that mandates association will quickly get us into trouble. If, for example, you object to those who refuse to sell their products or services to gays and lesbians because homosexuality runs counter to their deeply held beliefs, would it not be a far worse form of intolerance to make it illegal for them to act on their religious beliefs? After all, your side is willing implicitly (or explicitly) to back its intolerance of religious convictions with coercion — you know, guns, fines, and prisons — while the other side’s intolerance involves only the simple and peaceful refusal to sell.
To repeat: those who refuse to sell are not preventing people from behaving peacefully; those who would make the refusal to sell illegal are.
If, like me, you are bothered by the behavior of those who won’t deal with gays or lesbians, you shouldn’t make matters worse by using state power to engage in true intolerance. Instead, demonstrate how much you really care about tolerance by using persuasion and disassociation to change the behavior you find intolerant.
To see how real tolerance, persuasion, and disassociation in civil society can work, consider this story from Texas. A narrow-minded store clerk objects to a mom letting her little girl wear a boy’s suit. Mom’s friends hear the story and then give the store bad reviews online. (And unlike the small, Christian-owned pizzeria in Indiana, no one threatened the owners or threatened to burn down the store, both of which would be crossing the line that separates real tolerance from coercion.) The store pulls its Facebook page after people leave critical comments. Mom was not actually “denied service,” because she immediately declared she wouldn’t patronize the store due to the clerk’s attitude.
What didn’t happen?
No one sued, used violence, called the police, or said, “there ought to be a law.” People used words, reputation, and the power of exit to persuade others of who was right and who was wrong. This is how it should work. We don’t need a law. The mom had choices and exercised them, and the clerk and store paid a price for indulging their views on gender stereotypes. This is peaceful conflict resolution involving the rights of expression, exit, and disassociation — no need to get the state involved. Tolerance, after all, does not mean we have to like everything everyone else does. It only means we can’t and shouldn’t stop them from doing anything that’s peaceful.
Too often, we try to make laws on the basis of our mere dislike for others’ behavior. As a favorite Internet meme of mine says, “Everything I like should be mandatory and everything I don’t like should be banned.” This sort of reaction to our repugnance at the behavior of others is a real danger to liberal societies.
Whether it involves outlawing peaceful behavior, forced association, or state-sponsored discrimination, using repugnance as the basis for enacting laws is itself repugnant. What we end up with, after all, is poisonous discourse and a social order that is increasingly coarse and uncivil.
Why are people threatening the owners of a small pizza shop in Indiana who, hypothetically, said they would peacefully refuse to cater a same-sex wedding? What underlies such threats is the belief that repugnance (in whatever form it takes) justifies coercion. That belief also helps explain why others are so vehemently opposed to giving same-sex couples legal equality. Whether it’s repugnance at people’s religious beliefs or repugnance at the thought of two people of the same sex being married, such an emotion does not suffice to trump fundamental freedoms.
Sacrificing fundamental constitutional rights and our commitment to equality before the law isn’t worth the warm glow of an ephemeral “victory.” The trade-off is simply too steep — as is the slippery slope it could put us on.
About Steven Horwitz
Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Micro-foundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.