US Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia introduced legislation last month making it illegal to discriminate against job applicants who are currently unemployed. A state legislator in Texas is pushing a bill that would outlaw discrimination against creationists. In Massachusetts, Maryland, and other states, transgender and transsexual activists want lenders, employers, and landlords barred from discriminating on the basis of "gender identity."
It's easy to understand the desire to protect individuals from being discriminated against unjustly. But are lawmakers truly equipped to decide which kinds of discrimination are reasonable and which aren't? Does Big Brother know better than the business owner whose bottom line is at stake whether a given applicant is right for a given job? If the government won't second-guess Angelina's decision not to date Brad or buy from Brad, why should it infringe on her prerogative not to hire Brad or rent to Brad?
Free and competitive markets aren't thought of as promoting tolerance and reducing bigotry, yet they do so far more effectively than ever-more-detailed civil rights regulations. Writing in the 1730s, Voltaire famously described the London Stock Exchange as a place "where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts." Gary Becker earned the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics in part for demonstrating that discrimination is economically detrimental -- free markets penalize an employer who discriminates for reasons unrelated to ability and productivity.
Freedom of association is indispensable to making a free society work. No culture is without unfairness. But where men and women are unfettered in their freedom to form or avoid relationships with others -- socially and economically -- tolerance and cooperation increase, and ugly prejudice recedes.
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