Emily Miller Jocham, April 24, 2017
To say the 2016 presidential election season was ugly is a vast understatement. Democrats were self destructing; Republicans had 67 candidates (at least it seemed); Libertarians were at odds over…cake. And other things, but mostly cake.
There was a spirited debate among libertarians over this question: If someone wants you to bake their cake, do you have to bake it? The context for this question was provided mostly by the Oregon bakery Sweet Cakes by Melissa and their refusal to bake a cake for a lesbian couple in 2013, citing their religious beliefs as support for their refusal to bake the cake. Ultimately, their decision led to the bakery’s closure later that year. A legal battle ensued, and in 2015–while all 96 presidential campaigns for the 2016 election were in full swing–Sweet Cakes’ owners were ordered to pay $135,000.00 in damages to the lesbian couple whose cake they did not want to bake. This spurred the debate among libertarians about who should have to bake whose cake. At the time, two Libertarian Party candidates–Austin Petersen and Gary Johnson–issued two conflicting opinions. Petersen believed bakers should not be forced to bake cakes for customers whom they do not want to bake cakes. Johnson, on the other hand, made statements in support of the couple seeking the cake, stating in part that businesses should not be able to discriminate against their customers.
The masses continue to debate this issue, and it remains a controversial topic among libertarians. You will see at times that we apply the principles of libertarianism differently, which results in more than one perspective in situations such as these, like we saw with Austin Petersen and Gary Johnson. But on this issue, this writer has pitched her tent in Austin Petersen’s camp (and is roasting marshmallows by the fire, discussing Libertarian Utopia and how we will build the roads). But there is a good explanation.
As controversial as it may sound, a baker should be able to refuse service to anyone he wants for any reason he wants without governmental interference with his decision, even in the most reprehensible situations. Libertarians generally believe that people have a right to choose with whom they associate, and as a result, people have a right to choose with whom they do business. Therefore, if a Jewish baker wants to deny a neo-Nazi’s non-Kosher swastika cookie order (yep, I went full cliché), then he should be able to do that without punitive repercussions from the government. That freedom should be afforded to every business owner.
Now, in the same respect, a consumer also has every right to observe a business’s behavior and decide whether that business is entitled to his money. Enter now, the free market. If a business owner decides to discriminate against customers based upon their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other reason with which other consumers disagree, then those consumers have the right to object to that business owner’s behavior and act accordingly by refusing to solicit the services of that business. Among other things, you could organize a peaceful protest against the business or even chastise the business on Yelp (or using any other means via the Internet to spread the word of that business’s actions). So although consumers should not have the right to dictate how a business owner runs his business by invoking Daddy Government’s powers, they do have the right to protest the business and refuse to solicit that business’s services, as well as influence others to do the same. These recourses have the potential to shut down the business in question or severely negatively affect that business’s income. This is how the free market resolves these issues, without the need for government punishments and/or burdensome, unnecessary regulations. (If you don’t believe the free market works, see the recent United Airlines debacle as an example. It works.) Moreover, once you give the government an inch, it takes 500 miles. So when we allow the government an opportunity to restrict freedoms of individuals—even in their capacities as business owners—the sky’s the limit for what is next, and it puts every single business owner in the nation at risk for undue influence in his business operations, which ultimately puts our economy at risk. The free market eliminates the need for such interference by the government.
Finally, it’s generally accepted among libertarians that as long as you are not depriving someone’s rights or causing actual harm to someone, then you are free to act as you wish. People do not have an inherent right to a business’s services by forcing that business to accomplish their demands. But, a business owner does have an inherent right to refuse his services to anyone he wishes, based upon the principle of freedom of association. By forcing business owners to act against their will, their individual rights are not only ignored and violated, but in essence, they become indentured servants to consumers and are therefore subject to consumers’ whims du jour. This creates the slippery slope situation with the Jewish baker, described above.
Is it upsetting to see a business owner refuse service to a person based upon that person’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or otherwise? Absolutely. Would this writer support the protest against a business that refuses service to a person based upon his race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or otherwise and actively engage in any boycott of said business and refuse to give it a penny? You better believe it. But, should personal opinions influence how a business owner conducts himself in that capacity, and should the government involve itself in such situations at consumers’ behest? Absolutely not. Business owners are free to act however they wish, but always at their own peril. The free market offers natural rewards and natural consequences, and business owners have to accept both.
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The author’s views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the entire Ask A Libertarian Team or its followers.