There is no easy way for me to go about discussing a subject that I think requires some degree of hard thinking. It is always so when what one is dealing with matters that lie at the foundation of one’s entire mental edifice. Replacing the entire foundation, or even parts of it, is not a task which can be undertaken over the course of an afternoon. In most cases, I don’t think foundations can be reworked; it is best to tear down the whole structure and build upon a new foundation. Keeping that caution in mind, what I want to consider here is one of my foundational principles which is that coercion is wrong.
I think it would be appropriate to quote John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) here:
An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will seek for power: refused the command of itself it will assert its personality by attempting to control others… Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desire; those to whom others will not leave the undisturbed management of their own affairs, will compensate themselves, if they can, by meddling for their own purposes with the affairs of others…Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous…
…among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth, there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another. Their vain fears only substitute other and worse evils for those which they are idly apprehensive of: while every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it) dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.
That quote is from Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869). Those lines are a distillation of what I consider lies at the core of much distress in the world. I think that if sufficient people realize that coercion is wrong, and that individual freedom is an unqualified good, the world would be a better place.
For years I have tried to find an example of a situation which would justify coercion and the denial of individual freedom. I have not found a single one. So I use that principle – coercion is wrong and individual freedom is good – as the touchstone when faced with deciding whether some policy is good or not, or when trying to figure out what my position should be on a specific matter.
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Tanweer Alam pointed me to a news item which reports a study that finds that caste discrimination exists in the Indian private sector.
Two Princeton University researchers, who are studying discrimination in the new market economy, and Indian scholars like University Grants Chairperson Sukhdeo Thorat have found that even in the private sector merit is not always the guiding factor.
Studies that confirm what is common knowledge are useful, I suppose, if for nothing else but to provoke debate about what is right and what isn’t. At the very least, we should think about discrimination a little more systematically. Is it right for the private sector to discriminate? How about the public sector? Is it right for the public sector to discriminate based on a person’s caste or any other attribute not related to the job at hand? What exactly does one mean by ‘discrimination’? And is there a distinction between the discrimination practiced by the state as opposed to that by an individual? Does the state have a compelling interest in discrimination which the individual does not have, and vice versa? Answers will surely differ depending on who is questioned. My answers to them are of the unpopular variety.
The state should not discriminate against a person because each citizen matters as an individual, and the individual’s membership (often involuntary) in any specific group must not either privilege or disadvantage him or her in any way in dealings with the state. Discriminating for or against a person because the person happens to belong to a group is wrong in principle and leads to significant harm in practice. This principle implies that while an individual’s (voluntary or involuntary) membership in any group may be of concern to that individual, that fact should be immaterial to the state.
Thus while I may belong to the minority group of Pastafarians and enjoy the rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges that accompany being a Pastafarian, the state should not take cognizance of that fact. It should treat me just as if there is no such thing as a Pastafarian. To the state, Pastafarianism is something that does not exist and the group called Pastafrians doesn’t concern the state at all.
Policies must not be made that seek to elevate (or reduce) the status of Pastafarians in society. When considering whether a particular person was unfairly treated in the marketplace or wherever, the state should consider that person’s membership (or non-membership) in the Pastafarian group a matter of supreme indifference.
Individuals exist as a fact; groups are an abstraction and do not exist in fact. This is analogous to the existence of the heights specific individuals, whereas the existence of an average height of a group of individuals is an abstraction and there is no such thing as the average height.
To underline my position: The state must stop viewing its citizens as members of various groups; it must only consider individuals and value them equally irrespective of race, sex, or other group memberships. The state must not label anyone as a member of a minority group and then proceed to discriminate for or against them.
There is much more I have to say to the matter of state sponsored discrimination based on group membership. I will not go into it for the sake of keeping this somewhat manageable.
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What about an individual’s right to discriminate against another? I consider it a fundamental right that arises from the foundational principle of individual freedom. Individual freedom arises from the axiomatic position that each individual owns himself and his property. You cannot take away his property through coercion, threat or any physical or mental harm. The individual is sovereign and even the state must not have the power to coerce the individual and take away his or her freedom to own himself or herself and to dispose of his property any which way he or she likes.
(This “his or her,” “he or she” constructs are really annoying. So I will eschew it and stick to the masculine gender with the maintained assumption that I mean both sexes.)
Let me spell out my position here. You, as an individual, are free to not hire me based on whatever attribute you consider relevant. You could say that you don’t like my looks (because you only hire with movie star looks), or that you don’t like Pastafarians (as the only group of people you like are those who have not been touched by His Noodly Appendage), or that you detest me because of my libertarian leanings, or whatever. Whom you hire, whom you marry, whom you sit down to share a meal with, whom you raise a toast with, whom you allow into your house or your business premises, . . ., ad nauseum, is entirely up to you. You, the individual, are the boss; not the state or any other group or individual.
The individual can discriminate against anyone or any group to his heart’s content. That’s his right and I will defend that right because I want that right for myself. I don’t want others to tell me who I should marry or hire or work for, or what work I should do or at what rate I should sell my labor or my property, and so on. This position is what I call “universalizable”: no individual would be unhappy if he were the one enjoying this position, irrespective of how others are situated. So by induction, all individuals would be happy to have the position.
In the world that I would like to live in, the individual must possess the absolute right to discriminate.
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Do I discriminate? You bet I do. Have I been discriminated against? You bet. Is that good? Yes, I think it is good because arranging society where individuals have the right to discriminate is consistent with a free society. It is a better society than one where some have the power to force some others to do things against their will.
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But what about the Pastafarians! I hear the cry go out. Won’t someone think of the Pastafarians? What if everyone discriminates against Pastafarians and don’t hire them?
I suppose we do have to think about the Pastafarians. After all, prejudice against groups is nothing new and lamentable as it may be, it cannot be legislated away. I can force you to hire Pastafarians but then it would be coercion. Assuming that Pastafarians are equally good – if not better than others for having been touched by His Noodly Appendage – and make excellent workers, it is still a violation of your right as an individual to force you to hire them.
So what should the state do, seeing the lamentable widespread discrimination against Pastafarians by individuals? The state should do nothing that forces people to drop their prejudice against Pastafarians. If you refuse to hire them even though they are the best in getting the job you want done, it is your decision and if you suffer commercially, it is your choice. You can decide to hire blind non-Pastafarians to fly your planes, for instance, over perfect-visioned Pastafarians, for all that anyone (other than your passengers) could care about. If your planes crash, its your funeral — you are out of business.
Seriously, though, attempting to legislate against discrimination is a silly idea. If there are more job seekers relative to jobs available, firms will have the luxury of turning down those whom they find undesirable. Workplace discrimination is a symptom of the excess supply of labor relative to demand. Because if demand were sufficiently high, firms that discriminate in hiring would lose out.
The study I quoted above about private sector firms hiring higher caste applicants should make us pause to consider why they do that. First, I think it is because demand for jobs outstrips supply, thus affording firms the luxury of discriminating on non-job related attributes. Second, firms are not facing sufficient competition in the marketplace. This means that even by hiring a less competent workforce, they are able to survive.
This brings us to what I think the role of the state is in general. It should create conditions which are conducive to and consistent with vigorous market competition and high productivity. Those conditions at a minimal include economic freedom for people to engage in voluntary trade. With high productivity and market competition, the balance between supply and demand of labor will be better and those employers who discriminate arbitrarily will go the way of the dodo in the Darwinian game of survival. You don’t need legislation to end discrimination; you need economic freedom.
Now what if Pastafarians are being discriminated against because they don’t have the right qualifications? Well then as a group they have not been putting enough effort at gaining the qualifications, perhaps. So should the state figure out ways to help the group gain the qualifications? The answer is no because the state should not privilege any group. What the state should do is to help individuals if needed, irrespective of the individual’s group affiliations. Absent other reasons, economic barriers are the most significant that prevent individuals from realizing their full potential. The answer to that is to assist those who need financial assistance.
To reiterate my position: The state should forget groups and just focus on the individual. Individuals must be free to engage in voluntary trade and discriminate to their heart’s content.
I have said my piece and now I leave it up to you.