Few words are so maligned today as “discrimination”. Discrimination is considered a horrible evil, to be prevented at all costs. Speculation abounds about discrimination against all sorts of groups. There is concern over discrimination against women, against homosexuals, against foreigners, against certain races, against old people, against young people, against disabled people, against religious people, against atheists, against almost every imaginable group in society. In all this, it is implicitly assumed that discrimination is inherently wrong, detrimental, and unjust.
This idea is completely false. In reality, discrimination is not only beneficial, but of vital importance. To discriminate is nothing more than to distinguish between two or more things and to treat them differently. To survive, we must distinguish between food and non-food items. Thus, when we eat bread, we discriminate against rocks. Among the category of food, we further distinguish between foods we want to eat and those we do not. These valuations are personal and depend on every individual’s preferences. Thus, Alice might be a vegetarian and discriminate against meat, while Bob might be a body-builder and discriminate in favour of foods with high protein content, which include meat.
Everyone accepts this readily when it comes to discriminating between things. No one finds anything amiss when Alice buys margarine, thus discriminating against butter, or when Bob buys a bottle of Coca Cola, thus discriminating against Pepsi. Similarly, discrimination arouses no ill-will when directed against non-human animals. No one would accuse a cat-lover of speciesist discrimination for preferring cats over dogs, or an equestrian for preferring horses over cows.
Even among human beings, many forms of discrimination are seen as perfectly acceptable. The above examples of discrimination against things were in actuality discrimination against people, at least indirectly. Discrimination against Pepsi is really discrimination against the stockholders and employees of the PepsiCo corporation.
We also discriminate in who we become friends with, who we spend time with, which authors’ books we read, which restaurants we frequent, which career we choose, where we live, and so on. In all this, discrimination is normal and accepted, as long as we discriminate for socially acceptable reasons. Rebuffing Alice’s attempts at becoming friendly with you and avoiding her company in favour of spending time with Bob is considered acceptable if you find Alice boring, annoying, rude, or disagree with her on matters of politics or religion. But if you prefer Bob because Alice is female, black, or homosexual, this is considered a grave injustice and you are marked a sexist, racist, or homophobe, the lowest of the low.
But why should that be? Why are some characteristics fair game for discrimination, whereas others are taboo? Surely that’s a rather arbitrary standard. One possible difference is that these taboo characteristics are things one is born with and did not choose. But there’s no good reason why that should be the decisive difference. When Dave the Discriminator expresses his preferences, it doesn’t matter to him whether the object of discrimination could have changed anything to reverse his judgement. There isn’t any rational justification for regarding some forms of discrimination as legitimate and others as illegitimate.
We can certainly disagree with certain values that Dave holds, but we must still respect his judgement as being valid for him. If he doesn’t want to be friends with a black woman because she’s black and a woman, then that’s the way it is. Maybe we can convince him that these values are inconsistent with some other values he holds and thus convince him to change his mind. But in the end it is he, and he alone, who must decide on his own values.
If he is steadfast in his racism and sexism, then we should in fact support his decision to avoid associating with women and blacks. It will make him happier and blacks and women will probably not want to associate with him anyway.
Thankfully, no one is advocating for laws which would outlaw this kind of discrimination. But when we enter the business world, things look very different. If Dave is the owner of a business, then his determination not to hire any blacks or women will draw even more ire. Aside from societal condemnation, there are also laws against this kind of discrimination in most countries. In other words, Dave is no longer free to buy whatever labour services he likes best, but is compelled not to take into account certain characteristics which are important to him.
Such laws are harmful to everyone. They are obviously harmful to business owners whose freedom and property rights are curtailed. They are also harmful to those who would, in the ordinary course of events, be favoured by discrimination. After all, discrimination against someone is simultaneously discrimination in favour of someone else. And even the person who would normally be discriminated against doesn’t necessarily gain from anti-discrimination legislation. Most people wouldn’t want to work for someone who hates them. If Dave is forced to hire a black woman to avoid being sued for discrimination, he will resent that fact and likely take out his frustration on his new employee, who, because Dave has had to keep his bigotry secret, will have no idea why her new boss treats her so unfairly. She would probably have been better off if she had known Dave’s opinions in advance so that she could look for a different job instead.
Another problem is that unlawful discrimination is almost impossible to prove in most circumstances. Did Dave hire Bob instead of Alice because Bob is a man or because of some other characteristic? There are a myriad of factors that go into making these decisions, and many of them are difficult or outright impossible to measure objectively. Some of these factors are not even consciously considered. Entrepreneurship is as much an art as it is a science and gut-feeling plays an important role in making decisions, but cannot adequately be defended in court.
Allowing law-suits for discrimination further clogs up an already extremely inefficient, slow, and expensive court system. And even if we assume for the sake of argument that certain forms of discrimination should be stopped, nothing good is ever likely to come from anti-discrimination legislation. Any court ruling in such a case would be based on speculation, rather than hard evidence. It is practically never possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that illegitimate discrimination has taken place. But due to political pressure, courts will tend to adopt laxer standards of guilt, thus opening up the door to false convictions.
In private life (and that includes market activity), discrimination is unavoidable. Any attempt to curb people’s ability to discriminate means restricting individual freedom. Anti-discrimination laws do not lead to a more just society. They are a step toward tyranny and oppression.
The only place where certain forms of discrimination should not be allowed is the state. While most human interaction is voluntary, interaction with the state is not. The state’s actions consist of violence and coercion, so at the very least they should be applied equally to all citizens. Limiting the range of state action is generally good for precisely the same reason that expanding the range for private action is good. A special tax on one particular group in society, or a special law that grants certain privileges to another group would be an abomination. Aside from being unjust, such discrimination also breeds resentment and hatred and can lead to social unrest.
To illustrate this, let’s examine some examples of private and governmental discrimination. Take for instance the policy of some airlines that men are not to be seated next to an unaccompanied child. I personally see this is a stupid policy. There is no good reason to treat all men as potential child abusers and child abuse is very unlikely to happen amidst a crowded plane.
But even though this policy may be based on irrational fear and bigotry, what harm is actually done to men? Men who are asked to change seats based on this policy might feel humiliated and offended, but that’s just about all there is to it. Having your feelings hurt should never be a criminal offence. Seen objectively, the airline company is simply making use of its property in the way it sees fit. No man’s right is being violated here. No one has a right to fly on someone else’s plane without the owner’s permission. When buying a plane ticket, every customer agrees to certain terms, and in the case of some airlines, that includes that men aren’t allowed to sit next to unaccompanied children. Men who don’t like this are free to choose another airline. If a sufficient number of men do so, airlines will have a strong incentive to revise their policies to be less biased. This need not be a majority. If even five per cent of men discriminate against airlines that discriminate against men in this way, it will make a noticeable impact on the balance sheets.
Now, consider the different retirement ages for men and women that exist in many countries, especially in Europe. For example, in Austria the retirement age is 60 for women and 65 for men. The gap is 62 versus 67 in Israel, 60 versus 57 in Ukraine and 65 versus 60 in Poland. So despite women living longer, they get to retire earlier and thus get much higher benefits from the official pension fund.
Against this discrimination, men are powerless. Unlike the previous example, this is a coerced relationship. People are compelled to pay into the pension fund while they work. Short of emigration, there is no opportunity to abstain or to choose a different fund. Whether or not such coercion is justified is a separate topic, but given that the government will enforce participation in these schemes, the least they should do is apply basic rules of fairness and not burden men with an unfair disadvantage just for being men.