Arizona and Religious and Personal Liberty

A successful society balances the interests of individuals and society. In the area of personal liberty and public tolerance, all low hanging fruits (all win – win policies) have been picked. Thus remaining discussions of the best boundary between the sphere of private belief and behavior and social behavior involve trade offs that are more difficult to evaluate. This is illustrated by the recent controversy in Arizona over the bill just vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers on religious grounds.

The point I want to make here (yet again) is that our society functions best when it favors persuasion over coercion (voluntary action over legal compulsion). Should a professional photographer who objects to same sex marriage be required by law to accept business from a same sex couple to photo graph their wedding? My first reaction to this question was why in the world would the couple at issue want to give their business to a bigot. Examples of my earlier discussions of such issues are:

I abhor prejudice of any sort both on moral and on economic efficiency grounds. People should be judged on the basis of factors relevant to the situation. A job applicant should be judged on the basis of whether she has the best qualifications for that particular job, rather than whether she is Irish, Ghanaian, Muslim, Christian or Korean (though if the job is to wait on tables in a Korean restaurant, being Korean might be relevant). I strongly believe that it is more effective to persuade people of this view than to legislate it (just as I think persuading teenagers and others of the dangers of some drugs would be more effective than has been our very costly and damaging War on Drugs). For one thing businesses that express their prejudices in the market place pay a price in the form of less qualified, more expensive employees and/or fewer customers.

I am obviously a bit out of the mainstream on this as I shared Senator Barry Goldwater’s reservations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s restrictions on the right of “public” business to choose their customers (especially Title II on public accommodations). I prefer, both for philosophical and pragmatic reasons, the legal approach taken with regard to the Boy Scouts of American. As a “private” organization they are entitled to whatever membership criteria they want. Public discussion and evolving attitudes is gradually leading them to amend their membership requirements, which now allow gay boys to join. This is a better way to bring about that result in my view in our very heterogeneous society.

That said, if we must have laws against discrimination, gays and lesbians surely must be given equal protection under those laws.  E. J. Dionne makes some good points in today’s Post: “Arizona’s anti-gay bill hurts religious people” Washington Post /2014/02/26/

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

3 thoughts on “Arizona and Religious and Personal Liberty”

  1. I think the religion and politics in the Arizona matter is concisely framed in your line: “A successful society balances the interests of individuals and society.” While we agree the preferable and efficient solution would be better accomplished with a free market, Arizona social conservatives used a political intervention into the marketplace to deny an individual’s equal treatment by conflating religious practice with commerce. In the fairly recent past, we have seen similar dire warnings (from fundamental religionists) of the decline and fall of Western civilization and the contradiction of literal biblical premises if blacks were allowed equality; or if women were allowe to vote.

    Thanks for referring E.J. Dione’s (WaPo 2/26/14) article which cites More and more this becomes the untenable blotch on the Republican/conservative brand that panders to social/theocratic issues and primaries; and virtually guarantees a rejection by the growing discontented independent more concerned with the burning issues of failed economy and failed wars and loss of privacy/liberty at national election time.

  2. My comments following (which cites) should include…”Campbell and Putnam wrote in a 2012 article in Foreign Affairs, “ ‘religion’ means ‘Republican,’ ‘intolerant,’ and ‘homophobic.’ Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious.”

  3. Warren –

    I agree with you in principle, but like many libertarian thought exercises, what seems self-evident on paper gets rather messy when confronted with real life instances. Suppose my husband and I are driving across the Arizona desert. The fuel gauge is pointing ominously toward “E.” A sign ahead says “Last Gas for 50 miles.” We pull in and the attendant notices our flaming gayness and says, “We don’t serve your kind here.” We wouldn’t be in much of a position to let the market punish him for his ignorant bigotry. There’s no alternative gas station to shower with our gay dollars. We’re stuck with no gas in the desert with a homophobe.

    There’s a difference between letting individuals pick and choose their associations with others, and passing a law which singles out one specific class of people in a secular society and basically gives the general public license to deny them services that they can’t deny to others. That is state sponsored oppression.

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