03 November 2005

The Virtues of Discrimination

There was once a day, even in my brief life experience, when it was a compliment to call somebody a discriminating person. This was to suggest that they were astute enough to distinguish sound ideas and activities from frivolity. Unfortunately, it is increasingly becoming a criminal indictement to be considered discriminating.

Two recent articles, one on Rosa Parks and another on Greek ostracism help to illustrate that discrimination is one of the cornerstones of a moral, free society. This is as true for god-fearing societies as much as for their atheist counterparts.

In a free society where goods and services are produced privately, voluntary discrimination acts as a regulator of behaviour. It financially punishes businesses who discriminate on arbitrary racist or sexist grounds by reducing their revenues and profits, allowing them to be overtaken by their non-racist, non-sexist competitors. Only by securing government regulations and legal enforcement of irrational discrimination can the impartial hand of markets be stayed from punishing such irrational policies as racism and sexism.

The Rosa Parks article linked above illustrates this poigniantly by reminding us that the private bus owners and drivers protested and resisted the Jim Crow laws that required blacks to give up their seats because of both the injustice and the marginal loss of revenue that such laws entailed. Even if some bus operators were personally racist, their desire for profit led them to oppose racist practices that would reduce their revenues and profits.

In a free market, businesses are successful proportionally to the number of customers that they can please and have every incentive to treat customers with respect, even when a customer is wrong or impolite. Maintaining a positive reputation is paramount to developing a large, loyal customer base, even if that involves some minor losses along the way. The liberal product return policies and satisfaction guarantees offered by most successful American businesses attest to this fact.

Conversely, the right to descriminate allows businesses to refuse service to those who are excessively rude and abusive. This forces such unpleasant people to either be polite and respectful or lead a lonely life of ostracism. The Rosa Parks incident demonstrates that self-interest keeps businesses from discrimating arbitrarily, but does not discourage them from refusing service to abusive customers whose presence is both unpleasant and unprofitable. Businesses will only refuse service when the amount of additional revenue the refused customer might bring them is outweighed by the trouble or cost of dealing with the customer.

Private citizens should and do also discriminate. They should choose wisely which establishments they patronise and whom they associate with. This is - thankfully - still generally legal, though there is strong societal pressure to encourage such discrimination to be applied irrationally. For example, consumers are encouraged to make decisions based on the location of the product producer rather than the quality and price of the products. This is usually packaged as "Buy Scottish" or "Buy American" type campaigns that ignore quality in favour of blind patriotism. There is also often a sense of guilt brought upon the successful to "give back" to the poor, suggesting that they took something from them in the first place or contributed to their miserable condition when neither may be the case.

For discrimination to function properly, two things need to change. Firstly, it has to be perfectly legal for all private businesses and individuals to discriminate on whatever grounds they see fit. Secondly, it is vital to minimize the presence of the state in the economy. The state does not have the same right to discriminate as long as it is funded involuntarily by taxpayers. Because they have paid for the services of the state via their taxes, all tax-payers conceivably have some right to expect access to all state-provided services.

A resounding re-instatement of the right of private individuals and industry to discriminate will cause a renaissance of good-manners and morality, not the opposite. It is no coincidence that the times when it was a complement to be discriminating corresponded to times when people feared less and respected one another more. Let us all be more rationally discriminating.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I have noticed the creeping bi-lingualism of American business - press one for Spanish, press two for english, bi-lingual packaging, etc.

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