The State & Discrimination

Image via Wikipedia

One rather important subject is the role that the state should play in regards to discrimination. Put roughly, this is a question about the extent of the scope of the state’s power to regulate citizens.

I will be begin with the obvious: the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion. This would include the military as well as civilian organizations like NASA and ESA. The basis for this is that a democratic state founded on a principle of equality seems to be obligated to provide equal opportunity to its citizens. To exclude certain citizens on illegitimate grounds would be to rob them of the rights of other citizens in an unjust manner and this would, obviously enough, be wrong.

Moving to a bit less obvious realm, there is the public realm that is not directly part of the state. This would include private schools, private companies, other business entities and so on. On one hand, it could be argued that private entities should be able to exclude whoever they wish. For example, female only gyms should be allowed to legally exclude men (which they, in fact, do). On the other hand, even private entities enjoy the benefits of the state and are under its umbrella, so to speak. As such, if they accept the benefits of the state, then they cannot discriminate against the citizens of the state.

Of course, a private entity could refuse all the goods of the state and this would presumably allow them to discriminate.  In short, they would withdraw from the public realm and into the purely private and personal realm. Of course, they would have to refuse everything-road access, police & fire protection, and so on. In fact, they would actually have to leave the state. But then they would be free to do as they wished.

One area where the state seems to have no right to intrude is in the case of purely personal, private relationships. To use an obvious example, a beautiful woman might refuse to date poor or ugly men. She might even refuse to date black men, white men or Jews.  While this would be discrimination, this is entirely within the realm of her private, personal life. As such, the state has no business being involved. Of course, buying into this principle would also involve accepting that many existing laws that limit private behavior would need to be repealed.

Of course, the border between the personal and the public can be debated. For example, suppose that the woman mentioned above runs her own escort service. While she can freely refuse to date ugly men, black men, white men, or Jews does she have the right to refuse a client simply because he his ugly, black, white or a Jew? On the face of it, she would be acting in the public realm (in a business context). As such, she would no longer be operating within the realm of the purely private and personal.

However, some folks do argue that businesses should be largely left alone by the state. In a true free market economy, one might argue, the business realm would be a private matter (they do not call it “private sector” for nothing). As such, businesses could elect to refuse to do business with or hire certain people. Those who are fond of a totally free market but who are not so keen on discrimination would probably argue that discriminatory businesses would be sorted out by the invisible hand. After all, they would be denying themselves customers and employees. There is also the matter of the impact of such policies on the reputation of the business.

In light of the above discussion, one key matter that must be settled is the border between the public and the private. After all, the state seems to have far less right to intrude into private matters.

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  1. I’ve always imagined that in the case of businesses there would be a concept of being open to the general public, the typical example being a store front or shop where people can walk in off the street. In our current culture, there would be quite an uprising if such a shop were to post a sign that excluded a particular race. And yet, I have seen signs that say that service would be refused to anyone wearing a hood, with the implication that such a hood would make identifying criminals difficult. And then, we are already seeing discussion of laws that ban religious head coverings. So, what is there to say about laws that regulate certain kinds of discrimination once a shop opens it’s doors to the public?

  2. It seems that private companies exist for the good of a person or a few people, whereas the government exists for the common good of the nation. If this is assumed, then a private entity should be allowed to discriminate so long as it is not contrary to the common good of the nation. I am not sure discrimination (based on gender, race, sexuality, religion) is necessarily contrary to the common good. Perhaps it happens to be contrary to such a good in our day, but it is conceivable how it could be neutral. The author must prove this claim: “the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion”. Also, to prove compellingly that businesses cannot discriminate while women can (in the context of dating) the author must show the difference between the two. If, as he assumes, the state must monitor itself to prevent discrimination, what does the private sector share with the stae that dating does not share? This article was rather vague.

  3. I think the claim “the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion” has been backed up by a good reason: “a democratic state founded on a principle of equality seems to be obligated to provide equal opportunity to its citizens. To exclude certain citizens on illegitimate grounds would be to rob them of the rights of other citizens in an unjust manner and this would, obviously enough, be wrong”. Of course, understanding ‘equality’ in terms of ‘equal opportunity’ might not be all there is to it, but the claim seems to me to have been justified. More problematic is unravelling the distinctions among what I see as being three levels: the political (the State), the social (society at large hence also businesses), and the individual (the dating scenario).

  4. M.A.,

    That is a challenge. While there are clear cases that are easy to classify, it can get fuzzy at the borders. Not surprisingly, a person’s ideology can impact where she draws the line between them (“the personal is political”, for example). Also, this can impact how a person categorizes certain acts. For example, an American conservative would tend to put sexual orientation into the social realm, while an American liberal might contend that it is personal.

  5. That’s exactly the point. Also, it might be interesting to look at personal ideologies as some sort of catalysts where political, social and personal influences intersect.
    Another starting point would be to consider that in the laws approved and enforced by a truly, perhaps ideal, democratic state, the private sector, i.e., social groups, also finds its expression in terms of such important issues such as sexual orientation, racial equality, etc. There will be arguments and divisions but the democratic process should ensure the widest participation of social groups to the life of the state, hence ways to manage disagreements. I know real democracies don’t exactly work that way, but perhaps they should aspire towards that. Finally, regarding cases such as those of the only-women gym and the dating scenario, perhaps there may be grounds for distinguishing when a case of exclusion is also a case of discrimination and when it isn’t.

  6. One of my favorite areas of comment concerns the concept of the “true free market economy.” I actually have way to much to say about the myths that seem to have developed around this concept. Generally, I believe in a free market–to the extent that such a market makes individuals free. The quality of Government regulation would then be a matter of how it affects that individual freedom. The same is true of any corporate collaboration that increases or diminishes that individual freedom, particularly to the extent that private enterprise begins to act like government, and even worse, a government that doesn’t represent the people. Generally, as priorities go, it is the free market that serves the people and freedom–not the other way around.

    In the context of this discussion, there has been store-front discrimination within my life time, and it was pervasive. While I have no memory of ever having seen them, there were the signs that read “whites only” and others along those lines. But, our history books now tell us that such signs were so common that the class divide was undeniable, and the economic implications, the quality of freedom for those affected is now a key part of history.

    My point, then, is that the conspiracy to discriminate existed at a level where those who chose to discriminate were no longer acting in a manner that properly represented a free market. As such, something had to happen to deal with the manner in which an entire group of people were denied full participation in the market that governed the land.

    But then, there are still significant problems in defining what constitutes a healthy market, let alone a free one. So, I agree that “the border between the public and the private” is something that must be settled in order to properly deal with these issues.

  7. I just wondered how “the state” slipped from being one of the structures used by people who want to help each other, to something that has “rights” (such as “[no] right to intrude”).

    How did that happen?

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