You Have a Right to…Leave

Posted: 11/06/2011 in Law, Social issues

“‘Good’ and ‘bad’, I define these terms—quite clear, no doubt, somehow. Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” – Bob Dylan

The purpose of the state is to protect your rights. All manifestations of the state, including the law, courts, police, and bureaucrats, fall under this edict. The purpose of the state is to protect your rights.

That is all.

All other powers taken upon itself by government are expansions of authoritarianism. It is not possible for the state to dole out favors that are not at the expense of others. I do not here intend to expand on this point, or attempt to justify it. I invite the reader to investigate the essay The Law, by Frederic Bastiat.

Building on this foundation, the logical conclusion is that it is inappropriate and unjust for government to attempt to regulate what it sees as discrimination or otherwise “unfair” or “immoral” behavior in the workplace or in places of business. How do we arrive at this conclusion, on the basis that the sole role of government is to protect your rights? To illustrate, I will use two examples:

  1. Sexual harassment in the workplace
  2. Discrimination at a place of business

First, let me assert that I have no interest here in entertaining a moral or philosophical debate. Is it fair to allow managers and supervisors to behave in any way that creates an inhospitable work environment? No, probably not. But that is irrelevant. Even if we were to agree that a company is morally obligated to protect their workers from this behavior, that would have nothing whatever to do with the law. It is not the role of government to legislate goodness, even if it were capable of doing so, which of course it is not. It is not the role of government to reflect the righteousness and moral compass of its people, as so many seem to believe. The moral evolution of a people occurs at the individual level. It happens when persuasive ideas spread; it happens when individuals make a stand and use pressure, judgment, and censure to persuade their fellow citizens that a certain kind of behavior is wrong. This is how we have always progressed, even if history has attempted to give the credit to government. The truth is, elected officials attempt to pass laws that reflect attitudes already prevalent. They are the Johnny-come-lately to the moral party. In short, goodness does not come from government.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Recently, an article appeared on the CNN website that advocated the adoption of a law (I can only assume the author means a national law) that would make it “illegal for men (or women) to make sexual overtures to their subordinates”. I don’t think I will waste much time on the illogical nature of the article itself. The author herself admits that what qualifies as sexual harassment is not always clear, and that due to the nature of the beast, it often comes down to he-said, she-said. Nonetheless, she declares that her idea for a law would somehow address the problem when we “decide what, as a society, we want to be acceptable or not in our workplaces and schools and then enforce the norms with legal penalties” (emphasis added).

Enforce norms? With legal penalties? Yeah sure, that’s the way a free society would do it. Sort of like how it works in France with the prohibition against Muslim female dress.

If a private company decides to adopt and enforce their own code of conduct (and they do, all the time, without the government’s direction), then good for them. If, however, no such code exists, or if it is poorly enforced or not enforced at all, then ultimately the worker has no just alternative but to quit. She may attempt to pursued management to adopt such a policy. She may even pursued her colleagues to stand with her. Perhaps she, or they, will go to the press and get public opinion involved. Perhaps a boycott or walk out can be arranged. Or, she could just quit, and take her talents and experience elsewhere. All of these options are perfectly acceptable in a free society, where employment is, on both sides, a voluntary contract.

What is not acceptable, is to call in the goons of government, threaten the employer with a myriad of civil and legal penalties, including monetary liabilities and even jail time. This can only be logical if we believe that the employee has a right to that job, which is nonsense. You can say that she should not have to quit, that it isn’t fair, and all that would be true, but it would be irrelevant. In the words of Joe South: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.”

You don’t actually have a right to that job, or to the work environment which you think is “moral”. You’re not guaranteed a life free from the unpleasant, disquieting, unfair, or painful. The government should not be involved unless someone’s rights are being violated, which an employer could only do by holding people in slavery or by somehow defrauding them of their rightful property, because, at the end of the day, you don’t have a right to that job. Yes, quitting is easier said than done. Yes, economic conditions can make it difficult. Yes, it can bring upon that person all sorts of financial and personal inconveniences. All true, all irrelevant.

Even if you refused to see the law in this light, the fact remains that such laws fail to accomplish their stated goal and often do more harm than good. Singling a group out for special protection implies that people in that group are weak, in a weak position, and need the defense of armed bureaucrats. A law like this is not a gift to its target; it is an insult. Moreover, it turns that group of people into liabilities, making employers more hesitant to hire them for fear of what it may cost them in the future. This is especially true of sexual harassment, since it is an allegation so easy to make, difficult to prove, and where often “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply. One thing I will say for our present system. It has effectively spread the “potential liability” around so well that sensible employers are more or less equally hesitant to hire anybody.

Let’s consider another potential consequence of such a law. First of all, we all know that 99% of companies have sexual harassment codes in place. So let’s imagine a situation where an employee, male or female—we’ll call them Drew—feels the need to bring inappropriate behavior to the attention of human resources. Then let us imagine that human resources agrees that an investigation is in order and promised, while the investigation is underway, to maintain Drew’s anonymity. Perhaps at the end of the investigation, the transgressor is reprimanded, censored, or terminated. Perhaps human resources decides that there is not enough evidence to move forward.

Now let us imagine a scenario where it is a crime to engage in this behavior that has concerned Drew. Now when Drew goes to human resources, they are obligated to report the incident as a suspected crime, because otherwise they could be liable for concealing or aiding a crime. Now Drew must speak to the police, or drop the compliant. Now the transgressor must be interrogated by the police. And we can forget anonymity, because the accused, no longer dealing with human resources within a private company, is now entitled to all the evidence against him and to confront his accuser.

So seriously. This is supposed to be an improvement?

Discrimination at a Place of Business

It is not enough to have a “right” to a job with an acceptable environment, but we also apparently have a “right” to be served at any and every place of business of our choosing. Although many establishments have signs that assert their right to refuse service to anyone, the truth is that merely being suspecting of refusing, or just not accommodating, service to someone based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or disability is to invite a storm of legal and civil liabilities and harassment at the hands of an army of local, state, and federal bureaucrats. This can only be reasonable if we accept that individuals have a right to be serviced at a private establishment.

Honestly, I don’t know how to frame this in a way that does not sound insane.

Let’s imagine another scenario. Say you walk into a restaurant, and witness the manager asking a mixed race couple to leave, in a way that made it clear the manager was racially motivated. What would you do?

I’d like to think that enough people I know would be outraged. That sense of outrage, that feeling of righteous indignation, does not come from government, by the way. In our situation, maybe you would walk out. Maybe you would tell your family and friends not to frequent that establishment. Maybe you’d even write a letter to your local paper and bring down a fury of public outrage and boycotting upon the owner’s head. All of this would be well within your rights.

And it’s how a free society works.

Yes, it’s true, not everyone would take that initiative, or show so much moral courage, but let us have enough faith in our neighbors to cede that many would. Certainly, this is more likely than government bureaucrats helping the situation.

How much does government help in these situations? Let’s consider the Americans with Disabilities Act, a piece of legislation passed to make our representatives seem compassionate and moral. The intent is to make life easier and more fair for people with disabilities, a noble goal, though hardly an appropriate use of government force. However, be that as it may, it does not even accomplish this goal. Who does this legislation benefit the most?

I’ll give you a hint. Who, for the most part, writes legislation?

That’s right. Lawyers.

All across this great land of ours there is a multitude of the codification trained, whose sole source of income is bringing ADA-related lawsuits against businesses. Most of these businesses are small because one, they are more likely to have violations and two, are less able to defend themselves.

From the Sierra Sun (a Californian newspaper, March 2011):

Donner Lake Kitchen, a popular family-owned restaurant in rural Truckee, Calif. is closing its doors following a legal battle with attorney Scott Johnson, who is said to have filed “countless” complaints of lack of handicap accessibility at California businesses. The owner estimates that $20,000-$60,000 in repairs and upgrades would have been needed to bring the dining establishment into ADA compliance.

This has become such a widespread occurrence that even NPR has taken note.

Aside from lining the pockets of lawyers, what good does this sort of thing accomplish? The business is closed! Now no one can eat there! I guess that’s equality for you. And what is the justification? Are we honestly saying that a person has a right, that they are entitled, to eat at a particular restaurant, no matter what? How does it violate anyone’s rights if they are not able to eat at a restaurant?

When did we come to believe that life has to be fair all of the time for everyone, or there shall be hell [fines] to pay? When did we come to think that nothing bad, uncomfortable, or unpleasant, should ever happen to us? When did we come to expect that everything will go our way?

If you’re thinking: “but disabled people should be able to go out to eat!”

You’re right. They should. But as discussed previously, should, in a moral sense, and must, in a legal sense, are two entirely different things. It is not the job of the government to enforce shoulds, no matter how compelling, unless it must do so to protect your actual rights.

Your rights are to life and liberty.

That’s it.

Not to a job, restaurants, cars, houses, healthcare, education, a book, a pair of shoes, a pint of milk or a gallon of gas. ALL of those things must be procured in an environment of free and voluntary exchange, where there is no role for government except to protect your right to life and liberty.

End transmission.

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