James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, March 10, 2006

How Much Coercion?

Ten days ago in my post The Libertarian Brand I listed four points "in which agreement does not necessarily mean one is a libertarian, but where disagreement definitely disqualifies one from using the appellation." I did not and do not wish to be the judge and jury of who is and who is not a libertarian, or what is and what is not libertarianism. I just felt that the word had to mean something, and thought of these four points (definitely not intended to be a complete list):
1. A non-inverventionist foreign policy.
2. Against censorship.
3. Against gun control.
4. Against the War on Drugs.

Sheldon Richman has reminded me of a fifth:

5. Freedom of association.

The issue which brings this up is an "Oklahoma law that would require employers to let their workers keep firearms in their cars when parked on company parking lots." Richman nails it:
Rights cannot conflict. Indeed, the purpose of rights is to avert social conflict and to enable people to pursue their interests in peace, cooperate with one another when suitable, and prosper. Whenever we detect an apparent conflict of rights, at least one of the claimed “rights” is counterfeit. Just as a contradiction in a chain of reasoning is the sign of error, so a conflict of alleged rights is a sign of error.

Employers do not abridge their employees' right to self-defense by prohibiting firearms on their premises. Just requiring drug tests does not violate their liberty. Just as prohibiting sexist remarks does not violate their freedom of speech. After all, the employees are free to find employment elsewhere. Just because the State must not regulate our drug use or censor us, doesn't mean that employers in voluntary, contractual arrangements can't. But the State does abridge the employers' right to free association if it prevents them from setting rules on their own premises.

The same principle applies when it comes to pharmacies dispensing morning-after pills or other birth control devices. If an employee refuses to fill a prescription for moral reasons, the owner should have the freedom to order him to do so, or fire him. Likewise, if the owner himself finds the prescription immoral, he has the right to not let any of his employees fill it, even if they want to. The State is entirely out of line by either
a)protecting the "freedom of conscience" of the employee, or b)protecting the "rights" of the consumer by forcing pharmacies to fill certain prescriptions.

It is and has been said that these principles may be perfectly fine in a totally free market, but in the "real world" people who feel the need to keep guns in their cars can't just up and quit their jobs, as if good jobs were easy to find. And maybe it's the only pharmacy within 50 miles, or the only all-night pharmacy, or whatever. Besides, corporations get a lot of breaks from the State anyway, and pharmacists are in a privileged position through licensing that squeezes out competitors. Often, businesses have de facto control over employees and costumers, especially when jobs and needed products are scarce.

That's true to a point, but it's relative. If the only job a Sunday School teacher can find is as a waitress in a strip club, she is still free to turn it down; she is not "forced" into it. Likewise, no one is forced into a job where they aren't allowed to take their guns to work. No one who desires contraceptives is forced to have sex in the first place.

But what if the game really is stacked in favor of the employers and sellers, leading to real or potential unfairness? The question then becomes, where is the justice in another layer of coercion, in more laws that inhibit the freedom of association of the employers and sellers? What social good is to be found in greater compliance costs and more lawsuits? Since the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments against killing, stealing, and bearing false witness, what good has any additional law done?

The way to remedy situations in which workers and customers feel that their rights are being violated in the private sector, is not to regulate it still more, but to de-regulate it and free it of its tax burdens. Make it easier to find new jobs, or to start a business for oneself. Make it easier for an individual to open a pharmacy across the street from the one that refuses to fill some prescriptions.

The cure in the market place for anti-gun employers and anti-birth control pharmacists, is greater market competition. That creates more opportunities for individuals to work with, and buy from, people who agree with their own values. In any case, I'd rather leave our current system in place, no matter how unfair it may seem, than bring further harm to it by abridging freedom of association.

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