In today’s Acton Commentary, “The Logic of Economic Discrimination,” I take up a small slice of the larger controversy and discussion surrounding religious liberty laws like the one passed recently in Indiana. My point, drawing out some of the implications of observations made by others, including Ryan Anderson and Shikha Dalmia, is that anti-discrimination boycotts depend on discrimination. Or as Dalmia puts it, “what is deeply ironic is that corporate America was able to wield its right not to do business (and boycott Indiana) by circumscribing the same right of Indiana businesses.”
Now there are lots of other angles and significant points to explore surrounding this enormously complex and important debate. Many have criticized the hypocrisy of corporations like Apple for doing business in places like China and Saudi Arabia even while they grandstand against Indiana. Others are now pointing to the actions of many in Silicon Valley, which despite the proclamations of support for social justice, have actually created huge inequalities. Tech centers like Silicon Valley are great, it seems, unless you are a woman, have a family, or are a blue-collar worker.
Indiana politicians, under massive scrutiny, have since moved to “clarify” the RFRA law that was passed, a move that has mollified some but not others. From the beginning, these conversations about religious liberty and economic rights have, in my view, insufficiently included sensitivity to considerations like freedom of association. Hopefully the larger context and interactions of contracts and rights, not merely “religious liberty” narrowly defined, can help broaden and mature the conversation.
If we don’t take into account problematic implications of compelling people to provide a particular service out of religious conviction, what is to prevent compelling all kinds of economic activity that right now is protected by custom if not by positive law? Why should an individual like Nick Offerman be allowed not to serve those he has promised to serve simply out of some moral conviction? Why shouldn’t people who want to buy Chik-fil-A on Sundays be discriminated against by a store that doesn’t want to be open on certain days?
I may not be a baker or a photographer, but hopefully we won’t wait for our own particular interests to be threatened by government overreach before speaking up. Or as Robert Tracisnki has updated Trotsky for today: “You might not be interested in the culture wars, but the culture wars are interested in you.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. from a jail in Birmingham. We need to reason together to determine what constitutes injustice and invalid forms of discrimination, and that starts with understanding the fundamental logic of economic discrimination.