Discrimination and the free market: hardly a piece of cake


We read this week that a judge has ruled that a Christian-run bakery discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. I’m uncomfortable with this particular legislation. Some people have been claiming that such a ruling is a victory for anti-discrimination proponents. The irony seems lost on them – that there is still discrimination going on – it’s just that in this case the discrimination is against the Christian couple running the cake shop. The Christian couple’s view on homosexuality isn't one I share, but I defend their right to choose to run their business according to their own religious beliefs and values, and in this case the State should do likewise.

Disapproving customers are free to walk away and shop elsewhere. They are even free to share their disapproval on social media and encourage others to join them in shopping elsewhere. Such responses are powerful in business, because they put pressure on socially undesirable behaviour, and they penalise discriminatory business owners with lost custom, diminished profits, and in extreme cases, bankruptcy.

Any law that makes it illegal to run a business according to your religious beliefs is a law that infringes on the liberties of the business owners in a way that is, in my view, socially undesirable. Saying that, however, doesn’t mean I think all anti-discrimination laws are undesirable - far from it. They just need to be applied more prudently.

As always, society involves tension between a) accommodating people's right to hold views and beliefs, and b) protecting others from unwanted discrimination. It is probably socially desirable for a racist café owner who wants to put a 'No Blacks' sign on his door to be forced not to discriminate. But at the other end of the spectrum it is also socially desirable for another café owner to be allowed to discriminate against under 65s by offering a pensioner discount on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In this case, I prefer the café owner's right to introduce pensioner discounts over any societal claims that under 65s are being discriminated against.

The question the cake shop case elicits is where on that spectrum do religious views sit? I think people's religious views should not be legislated against in business such that their freedoms are encroached upon in ways that are unacceptable. It's quite clear to me that if the choice is between a) forcing a businessperson to make/sell a good they do not wish to, or b) compelling a dissatisfied customer to use another business, it's a no-brainer that society should prefer the latter. A law that effectively wants to commandeer someone's bodies and cake-making facilities is to me far more repugnant than the offence these Christian bakers are supposed to have committed.

One final point: the market does a very good job of weeding out discrimination. Suppose racist Jim opened up a shop in 1960s apartheid South Africa but wouldn't serve any of the majority blacks - he obviously shoots himself in the foot because his restricts his trade options to a minority few and excludes the majority of potential customers.

In short, in a free market it pays not to unfairly discriminate, because whether on large scale or a small one you're going to limit your potential custom. The more socially undesirable your discrimination, or the more people your discrimination negatively impacts, the worse it will be for you. It is no coincidence that the time at which humans started to trade was also the time that we started to become more civilised and improved our methods of co-existence.

To be able to trade in any age, and in particular, the modern age, you need to be able to think of others; firstly, by coming up with something (goods, services, entertainment) that others want; and secondly, by being honest, ethical, friendly, and developing a good reputation for your business. Far from being a vortex of selfish, uncaring and unethical behaviour, free markets necessitate qualities that make trade conducive, with your success dependent (in most cases) on your being a reputable person who welcomes all and treats everyone well.