By now you’ve already heard about the “backlash” being directed toward the entire state of Indiana over the recent passage of their new religious freedom law. The NCAA is hinting about moving their basketball tournament away. They might even lose their comic book convention. (How much of a “loss” that would be is subjective.) But one of the more interesting threats being made comes from the CEO of online review site Yelp.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman isn’t happy. He penned an open letter on Thursday bashing Indiana’s new religious freedom bill, railing against “laws that would allow for business to discriminate against consumers based on certain traits including sexual orientation.”
The Yelp executive didn’t stop with voicing his displeasure, though. He further hinted that he couldn’t see how he could create, maintain, or expand a significant business presence in Indiana or any other state which instituted such policies. In case that requires translation, he’s saying that he will happily punish everyone in the state by removing or intentionally avoiding the creation of jobs. Isn’t that just a positive, helpful message to send?
But if Mr. Stoppelman can’t be associated with businesses which “discriminate” based on certain traits, then one of the core functions of his own business comes into question. Some of the most popular reviews on Yelp are for restaurants, particularly high end ones where diners expect to pay a hefty price but receive top end quality in return. What’s the problem there? Well, many of those eateries have dress codes for the dinner hour and will turn away people who don’t adhere.
Also, restaurants are well within their rights to set a specific dress code and require guests to follow it. If the restaurant is black tie, and you arrive in a t-shirt and jeans, expect them to ignore you. The dress code is considered part of the restaurant’s ambience, and is legally protected. In short, dressing to meet the classification is considered a choice. If you choose to eat at the restaurant, then you must choose to dress appropriately.
But how should we interpret this in the current era of political correctness? If you are turning away those who are not well dressed, they most likely fall into one category of those people of certain traits, specifically those who can’t afford dressy clothes. And in most cities, which people are most likely to be economically disadvantaged? Minorities! So, by the rule of the transitive property, dress codes are discriminatory against minorities so the restaurant owners are racists. Right? So why does Yelp allow people to write reviews for them?
It’s a categorically stupid argument, but I’ve heard far worse being argued in the name of political correctness. The fact is that the Indiana law is going to wind up being an important milestone for civil liberties no matter which way it goes in the end. We have a situation where activists are claiming that some form of discrimination exists against one subset of people (gays) and are perfectly willing to trample of the rights of another, less politically popular group of people (Christians) if it achieves their long term goals. Passing a law intended to correct this imbalance is setting people’s hair on fire in the usual circles, but it’s going to prove to be an instructive test case.
Beyond all of this, however, I have to feel a bit disappointed that the debate ever had to be constructed as one of religious liberty in the first place. True, the religious liberty aspect of it is an important one and the courts need to speak to it. But underneath it all we’re talking about the freedom of private business owners to conduct their business as they see fit. The hard core libertarian argument which underpins this rests on the fact that a private business can’t actually “discriminate” against you in the same fashion that the government can. For one example, the state can’t pass a law refusing to issue a driver’s license to black motorists. The state holds an absolute monopoly on licenses and the black motorist can’t simply go down the street to Bob’s House of Discount Licenses and get one there.
But a wedding cake is no different than any other food item once you remove the gay marriage element from the equation. Businesses who decide to refuse service to various people will be subject to the same market forces which always apply. If there is a market for any given goods or services and one owner chooses not to capitalize on that market, another will move in to fill the vacuum. If you refuse too many customers you will eventually go out of business, but that’s the nature of the business world. Sadly, the courts stopped defending the idea of free markets in cases where political correctness manages to stick its nose under the edge of the tent many decades ago. But the religious liberty aspect of this case gives it additional legs, so it won’t be batted aside as easily.