The Grand Canyon Between Free Markets and Free Exercise

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The actual content of the proposed amendment that is Arizona senate bill 1062 can be found here. The changes the bill makes are highlighted in blue.

Everyone has accused this bill of legalizing discrimination against LGBT people. It should be pointed out that discrimination of that nature was already legal. Public accommodation discrimination laws in that state only designate race, color, national origin/ancestry, sex, religion/creed, physical/mental disability as protected statuses. Please note sexual orientation is not on the list. Source. Multiple Arizona governmental legal definitions website links before I get to the point, do I know how to hook a reader or what?

The majority of conversations I’ve seen regarding this bill have run as follows:

Defender of the bill: “This allows people free exercise of their religion and is therefor good”

Opponent of the bill: “This is terribly worded and opens the door for innumerable cases of discrimination based upon the fact that the state must uphold any religious belief no matter how antithetical to modern morality or risk creating a state sponsored religion”

Opponent of the bill who prefers historical analogies to legal jargon: “If a religion justified racism(and plenty do) would you be comfortable banning black people from lunch counters in the defense of free exercise?”

Defender of the bill: “If society really has a problem with religious based discrimination, then there will be boycotts of businesses that do it and the free market will determine if the business remains solvent, but that should be left to the economy and not the government.”

The focus of this post, and what should be the focus of the debates surrounding this bill, is that last comment. This bill is superficially about equal rights under the law and what is viewed to be the clash between free exercise of your religion and freedom from discrimination. This bill is the latest test of whether we are more comfortable allowing our societal moral compass be dictated by governmental regulation or free market capitalism.

The free market argument is quite simply if something truly goes against what society believes, then it won’t be profitable. If it is profitable though, then obviously society didn’t have that big a problem with it because people are still paying for it. The government regulation angle is that there are things vile enough in society that they shouldn’t be allowed to happen even if one could theoretically turn a profit on them. This often manifests as protection for a minority because it is usually economically viable to convince a larger group of people to exploit a smaller group of people particularly in the short term.

We’ve seen countless examples of government regulation stepping in to stop a profitable endeavor. In the year 1910 there were approximately 2 million children under the age of 15 employed by American industries. Source. Yet in 1938 FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards act which put limits on child labor. The free market had clearly spoken that child labor was profitable. Quite frankly the free market still states that based upon how many clothing companies use underage labor over seas. It was decided though that children in our country should be in schools and not in factories at that age.

The question to Arizona should be, “If I hold a sincere religious belief that children should start work at the age of ten, do I get to employ just my own kids or can I recruit any children for industrial jobs?” If we’re comfortable with the free market dictating the morality of who you can openly discriminate against in public, then why shouldn’t we be comfortable with allowing the free market to decide a minimum working age?

Why not food sanitation standards? If that many people got sick from eating a product they would stop buying it even if it was half the price of everything else on the shelf. Why not car or firearm manufacturing standards? If that many people were injured from a product they would stop buying it even if it was the cheapest option by a wide margin. These last two examples are also noteworthy because government regulation allows an afflicted party to sue the manufacturer of a faulty product in the same way an LGBT person in states other than Arizona can sue a business for that business discriminating against them.

Government regulation isn’t going to stop people from being assholes, neither are free markets. As is nearly universally the case, the answer isn’t 100% government regulation of all things and it isn’t free market Ayn Rand-topia either. Somewhere in the middle there is a balance between allowing people to show they are assholes publicly enough that we can boycott them, but still requiring the assholes to run their business in a way that minimizes the level of asshole that can be casually achieved.

To loop this back to the proposal sitting on Governor Jan Brewer’s desk. If more people held the sincere religious belief that you should treat other people the way you would like to be treated, maybe we wouldn’t need free markets, government regulation, or this bill.

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.




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