Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Coconuts and other nuts

Also on the news this morning was the case of Shirley Brown:
A councillor has been found guilty of racial harassment after she called a political opponent a "coconut".

Liberal Democrat Shirley Brown called Asian Conservative Jay Jethwa a "coconut" during a debate at Bristol City Council in February 2009.
The term coconut has been used to accuse someone of betraying their race or culture by implying that, like a coconut, they are brown on the outside but white on the inside.

Brown, who is black, had pleaded not guilty to the charge.
I cannot begin to describe how insane this is. Though her sentence was light, Shirley Brown is the victim of some very dangerous laws (perhaps the sort she herself would have voted for). It is not much comfort that black women can be prosecuted under such laws, as well as white men.

The approach of outlawing discrimination has been tried on both sides of the Atlantic. Jeffrey Miron recently wrote a good piece for Cato Unbound about Title II of the American Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by private businesses:
Title II was bad policy because it generated a range of undesired consequences that libertarians presumably abhor.

By violating the principle that private property is private, Title II created a precedent for other policies that violate property rights and have far less justification than Title II.

One example is smoking bans in restaurants. If the law views these establishments as entirely the property of their owners, it is hard to defend laws that ban smoking since non-smoking customers are not required to frequent any particular restaurant. If the law turns restaurants into “public accommodations,” however, then restaurants become places where the law can impose public health concerns and where customers have “rights,” other than just choosing not to frequent the restaurants they do not like.

Similar considerations apply to occupational health and safety regulation. So long as any workplace is the private property of the owner, it is difficult to defend rules about safety equipment, hours of work, and so on. These are concerns only for employers and their employees. Once workplaces are somehow “public,” the door is open for the state to pursue various goals that libertarians find objectionable. Mandatory maternity leave is a good example.
Some of those pushing for anti-discrimination legislation may be well-intentioned, but it is folly to violate fundamental principles of free speech and free association in the pursuit of social harmony.

We do not need anti-discrimination laws. If a businessman is bigoted, his business will suffer. If a councillor is racially insensitive, she jeopardises her chances of re-election. But nobody has a right to be served, and nobody has a right not to be offended.

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