I am inclined to believe that most people do. I, for example, believe that The Simpsons is a superior TV show than Family Guy. Those who disagree (my girlfriend included) are simply misinformed. The truth of this claim seems so self-evident to me that those who believe otherwise are doing a great disservice to themselves, their families, and the world, by continuing to believe what they believe. As such, it is understandable why I have an impulse to say that they shouldn’t be allowed to prefer Family Guy to The Simpsons.
If everyone were like me, the world would be a better place. But we live in a world with diversity of opinions. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get everyone in the world (or country, or state, or county) to agree with me that The Simpsons is the superior cartoon. Even if I were able to get a law passed which forbade individuals from preferring Family Guy, there would still be people out there who did it anyways. Badasses.
As such, I have only limited means with which to enact my program of changing hearts and minds. But I do have means. For instance, I can point out the not-so-subtle instances where Family Guy recycles a joke that was executed more brilliantly on The Simpsons. I can also encourage more Simpsons-watching; having enough faith in both the correctness of my opinion and my girlfriend’s intelligence, I am confident that some reeducation will successfully convince her of the error of her ways.
What I cannot do is commit acts of aggression against her – for instance, I cannot compel her, “Clockwork Orange” style, to be “re-Neducated”. Anyone can plainly see that this would be both immoral and ineffective.
So why do so many people consider themselves morally superior by advocating acts of aggression against people who believe or behave in a way that they do not approve?
Many conservatives think that they are acting in a morally justified manner when they vote, campaign, or otherwise use political means to make it illegal to use drugs or marry someone of the same gender. Many liberals think they are morally justified to do the same in order to prevent people from engaging in mutually beneficial business arrangements, selling their labor at an agreed upon price, or discriminating against certain groups of individuals.
All of these people have come to devalue the right of free association (banning the use of drugs is not necessarily an example of ignoring freedom of association, but free association is none the less a solution to the problem of drug use – see below). The right to associate with whoever you want is a critical freedom; denied this, you are effectively a slave.
In Defense of Walter Block
In January 2014, the New York Times published a libelous article intended to promote the idea that libertarians are a bunch of evil, religious fanatics who would like nothing more than to bring slavery back to America. In this poorly researched and venomous smear campaign masquerading as journalism, several leading libertarians were attacked, including Rand Paul, Lew Rockwell, and most importantly, Walter Block.
According to the NYT, Dr. Block claimed that slavery “wasn’t so bad”, and provided no additional context whatsoever. But context is quite important, as you can see based on what he actually wrote:
“Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory. It violated the law of free association, and that of the slaves’ private property rights in their own persons. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, then, to a much smaller degree of course, made partial slaves of the owners of establishments like Woolworths.”
The steaming pile of shit that Sam Tanenhaus and Jim Rutenberg wrote for the NYT set off a firestorm of controversy, including more attacks against Dr. Block and his good name. I need not go into more detail about the situation, but you can catch up here if you are interested.
The fact remains that Dr. Block is 100% correct. Even the slaves that were treated relatively well were still victims of a serious aggression against their right to associate freely. The conditions don’t matter; the essential characteristic of slavery, what makes it a despicable thing, is that they were forced into the arrangement.
To drive the point home further, imagine the following scenario: you’ve been married ten years to a woman (man) whom you love and are happy to be with. One day, some large men grab you out of your home, drag you to another location 1000 miles away, and force you to marry Kate Upton (Christiano Ronaldo). Your condition has materially improved. None the less, you are still the victim of a heinous crime, and I doubt anyone would disagree with this contention (except, of course, in jest).
And in the case of American chattel slavery, people were not forced to marry Kate Upton – they were forced to do backbreaking labor without pay. Clearly, these are far, far worse conditions, but it is the same moral principle that has been violated in both cases. The violation is to a greater degree in the case of chattel slavery, but it’s substance is the same.
Dr. Block’s critique of the Civil Rights Act is not that black people ought not to have rights. This should be obvious, given the full context included above. On the contrary, Dr. Block, as well as all consistent, committed libertarians are among the staunchest supporters of equal rights for all.
Unfortunately, the Civil Rights Act did not give black people equal rights. Black people already had equal rights, which happened to be consistently violated. What the act did do was to ban (via force) discrimination based on certain arbitrary characteristics, including race, sex and nationality.
A ban on discrimination has very serious implications. To demonstrate, I will quote at length Dr. Block himself:
“The point is that free association, one of the bedrocks of the entire libertarian edifice, is a bulwark against slavery. On the other hand, the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1964 undermines free association. It forces Woolworths to associate with people against their will. Thus, very paradoxically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 supports slavery. It does so by undermining free association, the violation of which allows slavery. Our friends on the left, amongst whom we must include writers for the New York Times, are thus placed in a bit of a logical quandary. They, of course, as do all men of good will, oppose slavery. But, in their support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they attack the law of free association. Logically, they cannot have it both ways. When it comes to slavery, they defend the law of free association, which would allow the slave to quit or not be enslaved in the first place; all well and good. But, when racial discrimination is under discussion, they reject the right of the Woolworths of the world to invoke that self-same right of free association, which would allow discriminators of that ilk to refuse service (decline to associate with) people with whom they do not wish to interact. It would appear that New York Times editors and journalists do not appreciate or even comprehend sarcasm.
But is it not unfair, and harmful, to racial minority groups to allow bigots to discriminate against them in lunch counters, or in employment, or in any other way? No, no and no. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have done more than any other two scholars to demonstrate the falsity of this sort of reasoning. If white owned restaurants do not wish to serve black people, the latter will be more desperate, willing to pay more than otherwise, to be able to purchase meals. Thus, profits in doing precisely that will rise, and other entrepreneurs, both white and black, will have more of an incentive to provide such services. If employers discriminate against black workers, this will drive down their wages to lower levels than would otherwise obtain. This, too, sets up enhanced profit opportunities for yet other firms, to hire these people. If some transportation companies insist that African-Americans ride only in the back of the bus, others will spring up to attract such customers; they will earn higher profits, at least initially. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works all throughout the economy. Racial discrimination is impotent to really harm its targets. Why, then, did this aspect of laissez faire capitalism not actually function in the south in the early part of the last century? ‘Twas not due to any “market failure.” Rather, the free enterprise system was not allowed to function, due to Jim Crow laws. For example, in order to set up a competing bus company, one that would allow black people to sit in any section of their vehicles, permission had to be obtained from state(ist) authorities, the very people responsible for the Jim Crow back of the bus law in the first place. Nor must it be thought that initially black people would have to suffer from higher lunch prices, lower salaries, sitting in the back of the bus, etc. These are only theoretical possibilities, if entrepreneurs do not take advantage of profit opportunities. But we have a name for businessmen of that type: bankrupt. For a more detailed explication of the economics of discrimination along these lines see my 2010 book on this topic, here, here or here.” [emphasis in original]
I’m sure that this view is rather controversial. Pointing out the obvious flaws in the Civil Rights Act is a prime violation of the political correctness that has effectively become a religion in the Western world. Hell, I may be making a poor life choice by opening myself up to attack by publicly defending this view. Nevertheless, understanding this point is critical if the world is to move past slavery, racism, and violent aggression, a goal which I, Dr. Block, and most of you out there would agree with.
What Can Freedom of Association Do For You?
We have demonstrated that violations of peoples’ right to freely associate is a way to subtly reintroduce a form of (more mild) slavery. You could call this the negative argument for free association. But there is also a positive argument, which is what we will explore next.
Put simply, if the freedom of association were actually respected in modern society, everyone would have the opportunity to live exactly how they want.
If I want my kids to grow up learning the values that are fundamental to me (i.e. having the correct beliefs about cartoons and their quality), I could make that happen. I could, for instance, move to a housing complex where one of the rules is that for every episode of Family Guy that is watched, there must be two episodes of The Simpsons watched to counterbalance it. Similarly, I could enroll my children in a school that embodies values similar to my own. Perhaps their school policy is that teachers are required to show their students The Simpsons whenever they come to school hung over and just want to put on a video.
The example is, of course, absurd. Nevertheless, any violation of my right to do such a thing is morally impermissible. If someone put a gun to my head and said “I will kidnap you and lock you in a cell if you move into that housing complex or enroll your kid in that school,” it would be clear who acted immorally. Similarly, if someone pointed a gun at the owner of that housing complex or school and didn’t allow them to have that policy, this would be equally as immoral. Remember: everyone who lives in that housing complex or goes to that school is there voluntarily.
Unfortunately, all statists advocate for precisely this kind of immoral action.
Consider the conservative who is disgusted by the idea of gay marriage. By supporting a government prohibition on gay marriage, they are using violent force to prevent people from associating freely. As with all violations of the freedom of association, this behavior is despicable.
Conversely, and with exactly the same force of logic, a gay couple cannot morally compel a photographer to work at their wedding, or a baker to make their wedding cake. Forcing another person to work for you in this way merely reintroduces slavery into the picture. The difference between this and chattel slavery is one of degree, not of substance (and yes, for the record, I believe it is a large degree of difference).
But there is a very simple solution to these issues: allow people to associate freely. People who have a moral objection to gay marriage can form their own voluntary community where gay marriage is not recognized. This community would have every right to require some kind of proof of not being gay married in order to get in, and could kick people out for seeking a gay marriage. But the community can NOT prevent gay people from getting married when those people have not already affiliated themselves with said community. Similarly, gay people who are getting married can NOT compel someone else to work at their wedding. They can, however, freely seek out the photography or baking services of anyone they so choose, and no government or individuals can morally prevent them from marrying and seeking out these business owners.
How about another example? People who don’t like drugs can voluntarily join a community of like-minded people, and make it a violation of the community’s rules to possess drugs. To this end, they have every right to require drug tests upon admission to the community and periodically throughout, or to have security guards search through each member’s home for drugs, expelling those members if drugs are found. So long as no one is compelled to join this community and that the community does not forcefully insert itself into the lives of non-members, everything about this arrangement is a-okay! For people who truly abhor the use of drugs, a voluntary community like this would be far more capable of maintaining a drug-free environment than a government that has the same rules, but compels people to associate with it and abide by those rules involuntarily. Good luck trying to stamp out all drug use all across America!
In Israel, there are communities called kibbutzim, which operate on socialist principles. Those who want to live under this kind of economic arrangement are free to do so, and to sever that arrangement at will. Contrast this with the Soviet Union, where everyone in a given geographic area was forced to live by these principles. I don’t need to tell you which of these was the morally sound arrangement, not to mention the more successful one. Even as a die-hard libertarian, I would like to live on a kibbutz for a couple months as a cool life experience – but compelling me to do so would be pure evil.
And so it goes this way for any opinion, economic, social, religious, or otherwise. People ought to be able to form communities with whatever rules they want, and to associate (or not) with whomever they want. There could be communities of all fundamentalist Christians. There could be gay-only communities. There could be drug-free communities and free-drug communities. There could be communities comprised entirely of racists, communities where racial tolerance is mandatory, and communities of only black people, Hispanic people, nudists, women, or midgets. There could be communities where a preference for The Simpsons is strongly enforced, and rival communities (led by heathens such as my girlfriend) where only Family Guy is considered acceptable.
There could just as easily be mixed communities without any of these restrictions, or with any combination of them. Given today’s cultural environment, I would expect that the majority of communities would generally be tolerant and have a minimal number of restrictions. This would cater to the majority of people who aren’t bigots and don’t have any particular interest in restricting the lives of others. And because they would enforce the fewest restrictions, they’d likely be the cheapest as well. Oh, and there’s no reason why these communities need to be geographically separated per se – they can be if they want, but civil associations with different rules could still be interspersed among each other.
The key to all of this is free association, and, more fundamentally, the idea of self-ownership and the protection of property rights. No one may compel anyone to do anything else against their will. The restrictions in any of the examples above would have to be applied only to those who voluntarily agreed to abide by them. Any other arrangement involves committing acts of aggression against innocent people.