Private vs. Public Anti-Gay Discrimination

Over at the Washington Blade blog, Mark Lee raises an important question about the recent Brendan Eich/Mozilla debacle: are we more interested in punishing our enemies than we are about changing the social and political landscape?

He argues, “It is astonishing that in the midst of winning hearts and minds on the most essential elements of equality, some would gamble the goodwill of the many for the pleasure of revenge on the few.”

Michael Hamilton followed up Lee’s point by suggesting that, at very least, gay rights activists might want to refrain from exacting retribution on our opponents until we’ve actually won. Lest we forget, 33 states still ban same-sex marriage.

While it’s possible that those bans won’t survive constitutional scrutiny following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor, we aren’t in a position to declare victory, much less punish losing side. They haven’t lost yet, and we are alienating reasonable people by turning our opponents into martyrs on the altar of political correctness.

So why, given the obvious costs, are many activists spending so much time attacking private citizens and businesses while the battle for legal equality has yet to be won? The answer reveals a growing division between the libertarian and progressive positions in the battle for gay rights, and their different conceptions of victory.

The libertarian argument is that the state should not arbitrarily discriminate against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or expression, because it’s inconsistent with individual liberty and equality on the law. But progressives want much more than an end to legal discrimination–they would like to make sexual orientation a protected class, the way race, religion, sex, and disability are now, and extend non-discrimination laws to private businesses. While important, merely striking down anti-sodomy laws and gay marriage bans is not the endgame for progressives.

gay discriminationAttacking individuals like Brendan Eich, Orson Scott Card, and Dan Cathy* is actually very savvy politics, given what progressives aim to accomplish. There has always been much more public support in favor of banning private discrimination against gays than in favor of legalizing gay marriage.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59% of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, but over 80% think that private businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against gays. Over 70% of conservatives think private discrimination should be banned.

I suspect that heterosexual people can more readily imagine and empathize with the humiliation of being denied service or employment for no reason than the notion of wanting to marry someone of the same sex. Thus, I think it makes a lot of sense for progressives to go after business people who don’t support equal marriage (even if, like Mozilla, their companies have been very good at implementing non-discrimination policies for gays and lesbians) to help them score points against the business community.

nondiscrimination17 states currently allow gay marriage, and when that number reaches 50, the libertarians will have won. 21 states also have non-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, but until that reaches 50, progressives will not be finished.

Philosophically, the libertarian argument for gay rights revolves around limiting the power of the state to promote discrimination, while the progressive argument is about pro-actively using the state to mandate acceptance and punish those (including private individuals and businesses) who have ugly beliefs and attitudes about gays.

I might have more to say about the arguments for and against non-discrimination laws later, but for now, I’ll simply point out that this division is deep and isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

* The Chik-fil-A situation is in fact a bit different because the company itself was actually donating money to some extremely unpleasant groups, including those that expressed support for Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws.

Should Homophobes Be Fired?

I’ve been vocally and financially supporting legalizing gay marriage for a long time, so I’ll admit to some schadenfreude when OKCupid called out Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for supporting Prop 8′s ban on same-sex marriage. But lest we forget, most Californians did. Are we to cut off business, social, and political relationships with all of them?

There’s been a sea change in public opinion about gay marriage in recent years–emphasis on change. In 2004, two-thirds of Americans opposed gay marriage and barely a third supported it. Ten years later, those numbers have flipped.

If you dig, you’re going to find ugly beliefs in most of your neighbors’ pasts. Almost every single American political actor, left or right, has given money to or voted for politicians who opposed gay marriage. Where are the outraged, pitchfork-wielding mobs for all the Clinton, Bush, and Obama voters? Is it just cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy, or am I missing some important moral difference?

I’m strongly opposed to almost all of the policies those presidents enacted, not just their anti-gay positions. Am I obligated to apply a political litmus to the officers, employees, and shareholders of every corporation with which I interact? OKCupid’s CEO has also given money to a virulently anti-gay politician–do I have to boycott them, too?

I have to wonder, now that we’ve hounded him out of his job for supporting a bad law 6 years ago, have we punished Eich enough? How much farther must we pursue him to get revenge? Should he be able to work anywhere? Just how arbitrarily menial and low-profile do his commercial relationships have to become before we admit his politics aren’t relevant?

Then there’s the question of collateral damage: Mozilla is bigger than one man. Do they all deserve to be punished for their coworker’s thought-crime of agreeing with Senator Barack Obama? I made this point during the Duck Dynasty flap:

Did your local Chik-fil-A franchise owner or fry cook deserve to be punished? How about the lighting and sound people who worked on Ender’s Game? At some point you have to stop applying this 6-degrees-of separation-from-bigotry political litmus test in order to engage in associations that have nothing to do with politics. … One of the great things about the market is that it allows people with irreconcilable beliefs to cooperate without knowing or caring about each other’s political or religious identity.

I want to convince people to change their minds about gay rights because love, decency, and respect for the basic principles of a free society demand it. I don’t think I want to win by threatening people, “Recant, or we’ll come after your livelihood, and the livelihoods of everyone you work with.” I also think that’s likely to backfire, by generating mistrust of the rhetoric of tolerance and by turning bigots into martyrs. But maybe I’m just being idealistic.

Private Schools Teach Bad Science? Public Schools Teach Science Badly.

People on the political left often complain about the small fraction of students in America who go to private schools that teach some bad science (creationism and the like). Americans do struggle with science–conservatives with evolution, liberals with heliocentrism–so this is an important issue.

It comes up most frequently in the context of voucher programs and school choice, allegedly as an argument why school choice is unconstitutional or subversive of education, because parents might make the “wrong” choice for their kids. Good thing those nice friendly legislators, bureaucrats, and unions are there to set you dumb parents straight.

While I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that school choice also threatens the bureaucracy’s budget, politicians’ power, and unions’ monopoly, it is interesting to note that this concern about the quality of science education stops before the doors of America’s public schools.

Want more proof our schools are failing at science? Look no further. 78% of Americans either endorse creationism or an "intelligent design" version of evolution. 90% go to public school.

Want more proof our schools are failing at science? Look no further. 78% of Americans either endorse creationism or an “intelligent design” version of evolution.
90% go to public school.

In Politico, Stephanie Simon cants about $1 billion that goes to private schools in 14 states, including–brace yourselves–literally hundreds of religious schools, with thousands of students, which teach some kind of creationism. But she spends no time at all talking about the fifty million students in our 100,000 public schools who are taught science badly–or not at all.

A study in Science found nearly two thirds of biology teachers skip evolution altogether, more than a tenth openly promote “intelligent design,” and less than a third consistently teach evolution. Is it any wonder that 46% of Americans are creationists? Moreover, a new report by the US Department of Education has discovered that “a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.”

Government at all levels will spend $664 billion on primary and secondary education this year, with the result that only one in five high school seniors will be proficient in science. As my former Reason colleague Lisa Snell points out, for minority students and those in poor areas, it’s much lower. Only 4% of African American and 8% of Hispanic high school seniors are proficient in science, while at the fourth grade level, barely five percent of students in Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore are proficient.

Spending per pupil has exploded while tests scores have stagnated.

This is the national scandal that should capture our attention, not red herring sensationalism about a “billion dollars for creationism”–which, as Matt Ladner points out, is much less than the entire annual budget for one school district in Dallas.

The American education system is broken and bankrupt, and the culprits are lucrative union contracts and the flawed “throw money at it” strategy endorsed by the political establishment–not private schools offering parents a way out.

Empirical research suggests that poor students who are given the chance to opt into private schools do better and graduate at higher rates. But even if it didn’t, just what could it hurt to try experimenting? Students are already failing at spectacular rates.

The current approach of more spending, more regulations, more standardized tests, and less choice hasn’t helped students any. Give parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their kids–they could hardly do worse than the politicians have done for them.

House of Cards – Florida: “We Have to Consider Abolishing the Government”

Frank would be proud.

The story of Hampton, Florida, could be the plot for a classic rise to power story–like House of Cards, for rednecks–or, under some interpretations, just the origin story of all government–a bunch of people with guns decide to hold up travelers on the highway.

But as hilarious and impossible as it sounds, this one is true. “I have said it before: It’s something out of a Southern Gothic novel. You can’t make this stuff up,” said State Senator Rob Bradley, whose district includes the city.*


One-square mile “city,” home to marshes, trailer parks, a short stretch of highway, and 477 souls.

In the mid-1990s, the city annexed a tiny slice of federal highway 301; the “government” of three full-time employees hires 17 “volunteer” police to issue approximately†  18,000+ tickets in the last three years, collecting over half a million dollars in traffic fines; police chief assumes title of “minister” and begins holding church services at the ramshackle City Hall; the Hall family seizes “power” (Jane Hall, city clerk; Adam Hall, maintenance operators; Charles Hall, councilman).

Despite the huge cash flow, the city runs a deficit; residents begin complaining about personal use of city funds; government threatens to cut water to troublemakers; a state audit reveals 46% of the city’s water is unaccounted for, funds are missing, and there are essentially no records; city employees say the records were “lost in the swamp”; the county sheriff cuts the Hampton police force off from access to computer databases, radio communications, and use of the jail.

All full-time city employees are ousted; newly elected Mayor Barry Moore (seriously) is arrested for possession of Oxycodone with intent to distribute; the City Council is almost never is able hold elections because no one will run.

State Senator Rob Bradley again: “This situation went on for so long and the mismanagement was so deep, we have to seriously consider abolishing the government.”

I feel like that statement is truer and more generally applicable than he intended. But for this particular band of highway robbers, at least, the end may be nigh.

*Credit for this story, details, and quotes belongs to Lizette Alvarez and The New York Times. Credit for the next hit Netflix series belongs to me and the residents and officials of the city of Hampton, FL.
† Estimate based on the total revenue collected from fines. It seems that nobody knows exactly how many tickets were issued in 2010, because of mysteriously missing records.

Public Choice: The Science of Political Skepticism

The following is a guest post by Professor Daniel D’Amico, professor of economics at Loyola University-New Orleans. He is currently teaching a course at LearnLiberty Academy titled “Lessons From Mardi Gras: What New Orleans Can Tell Us About Society.” It is free and fun and you’ll learn a lot about the social effects of eating babies, among other things.

This weekend is the 51st annual meeting of The Public Choice Society, held in Charleston, South Carolina. The study of Public Choice is quite simply the application of economics to the realm of political decision-making. James Buchanan termed this applied practice “behavioral symmetry.”

Given that economists model market actors as self-interested and responsive to incentives, these behavioral assumptions should be taken seriously when analyzing the decisions of politicians seeking office, policy makers designing legislation, civil servants, and anyone else who works in the public sector. One is not sprinkled with any magical dust of altruism simply because she happens to be employed by governmental rather than private institutions.

In many ways, Public Choice is an ideal counterpoint to politically popular notions of market failure. In short, market failure theory often throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Market failure narratives most often presume that governments are capable of fixing the temporal challenges of market competition.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, largely because governments often fail as badly as (or worse) market processes. In so far as systemic failures of human interaction are the result of the behavioral norms inherent to the human condition – self-interest and responsiveness to incentives – governments and markets will suffer from similar imperfections. Governments, like markets, are operated by the same set of agents – presumably, real human beings.

Hence, many of the major insights of the Public Choice School have resulted from simply comparing the incentives and outcomes of decision-making processes as they occur in markets relative to state-bureaucracies. In markets, entrepreneurs seek profit by providing products and services that meet customers’ needs at the lowest cost.

In contrast, bureaucratic incentives encourage state-actors to seek institutional growth, increased expenditures, and expanded authority, irrespective of customer value. Whatever the majority of average voters demand will be the inclinations of elected policy makers and appointed representatives. If a market manager comes in under budget, the difference is profit, often reinvested, encouraging efficiency and high performance. If a bureaucracy comes in under budget, their next year’s account is often cut, encouraging waste.

It is worth mentioning that Public Choice is much more than just an effective libertarian retort against those aiming to fix market failure through government intervention. It’s called the theory of Public Choice rather than “Governmental Choice” for a reason. Public Choice theory is not inherently libertarian; it transcends libertarianism because it is a scientific investigation of how decision-making processes occur in particular institutional settings. That being said, those seeking to promote change towards a more free society would be wise to learn and study deeply the scientific findings of Public Choice.

First and foremost, Public Choice holds insights not just for understanding the incentives and patterns of operation within governments, but for all group and or collective decision-making endeavors. Peter Boettke is fond of saying, “economics puts parameters on people’s utopias.” Public Choice, as the economics of group decision-making, puts parameters even on libertarian utopias. In short, not all voluntary relationships are sustainable, nor are they necessarily socially desirable from the perspective of liberalism. In other words, even though a grouping of people may coordinate their endeavors with a rhetorical and genuine intent to not advocate state expansion, the mere process of their coordination may create new incentives and opportunities wherein state expansion is more likely. Such is not a matter of ethics or intentions, but one of economic science.

The new libertarian generation is very big, very factionalized, and arguably exposed to a biased sample of social theory relative to previous generations. Most young libertarians today have learned the bulk of their social science from traditional coursework in higher education, the internet, or conferences offered by organizations like LvMI, FEE, IHS, Cato, and SFL. And arguably, there is an under representation of Public Choice insights in the learning pools that younger libertarians drink and swim in most.

This is in part because Public Choice is a bit more of an advanced field relative to other sub-topics in economics or libertarian circles. Its literature and the ideas therein are more complicated than can be given proper attention in a short pamphlet or a weekend seminar. Ironically, Public Choice theory holds critical insights for understanding how the processes of growth, division, success, and failure have and continue to occur throughout the libertarian movement.

For whatever reason, Public Choice theory has been less attended to and appreciated among the new generation of libertarians. To help redress this, here is an annotated suggested reading list and some available resources for those interested in learning more.

1. James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s seminal work The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy is the archetypal text for the entire Public Choice tradition. It’s a dense and difficult read so tread cautiously, but if you aim to claim proficiency in Public Choice, and areas that Public Choice necessarily informs, it’s a must read.

2. When my students express frustration or hit roadblocks in fully understanding Calculus of Consent, I suggest Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups as a sort of primer. Olson’s prose is clear, precise, and a bit easier to follow than Buchanan and Tullock’s, but he is unarguably engaged in a shared research endeavor.

3. If you’re going to study Public Choice at the graduate level, you’ll need a roadmap for how to track the major theoretical insights of the tradition and where they came from. Dennis Mueller’s Public Choice III thuds like a phone book when it lands on a desk, but its usefulness as a reference tool to navigate the literature is unparalleled.

4. I think of Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure as being to Mueller’s Public Choice III as Olson was to Buchanan and Tullock. In other words, it’s a more comfortable and guided tour. Beyond Politics is a great read for motivated undergraduates to get a lot of surveyed material without feeling like they are reading a boring textbook.

5. Gordon Tullock deserves a Nobel Prize. This should need no elaboration, but it is largely because of the insight found in his seminal 1967 article “The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopolies and Theft,” published in the Economic Journal 5(3): 224-232. His larger text The Rent Seeking Society in The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Vol. 5, published by Liberty Fund, is a sort of autobiographical reflection on his theory, subsequent research applications, and the professional responses it inspired.

6. William Niskanen‘s Bureaucracy and Representative Government is a similarly critical text, in which Niskanen outlines and identifies the unique incentives and operations of bureaucratic decision making. It is comparable in importance to Ronald Coase‘s, “The Nature of the Firm” for the public sector. If you’re out to lunch on Coase, be sure to also check out “The Problem of Social Cost.”

7. I tell my students, if your parents doubt if your college economics classes are actually instilling any insight in you, read James Buchanan and Richard Wagner’s Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes before your next visit home and see who has a more interesting and probable understanding of our contemporary fiscal issues.

8. When released, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, was named the best political book of the year by The New York Times. Enough said.

7. Where the asymmetric costs and benefits driving Caplan’s idea of rational irrationality end, Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky’s framework of expressive voting, explained in Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference, complements nicely. Even without tangible or pecuniary cost-benefit paradoxes, stupid voters can still vote for stupid things, and will do so, especially when they feel good about it.

8. Public Choice’s most recent Nobel starlet is Elinor Ostrom. She was a super nice lady who will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure to meet her. Her Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action shows how real civic processes hold a serious and necessary potential for effective resource management.

Daniel D’Amico is the William Barnett Professor of Free Enterprise Studies and Assistant Professor of Economics at Loyola University-New Orleans. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Loyola and his Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University. He is currently teaching a course at LearnLiberty Academy titled “Lessons From Mardi Gras: What New Orleans Can Tell Us About Society.”