Commentary

The Ingrained Intolerance of Liberal Tolerance

Yet another important facet of individual liberty disappeared with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of legislation protecting people’s right not to be forced to violate their religious principles while doing business. The governor has decided: Hang out a shingle and you must leave your deepest beliefs at home. We all are slaves to the political zeitgeist.

The issue in Arizona was not a lack of tolerance by those in business. There is no dearth of firms across Arizona willing to serve gays. Even among those not in the forefront of gay rights, the opportunity to make a little money is a strong incentive in a weak economy. It seems doubtful that gay events go without because of bigots run amok.

We all are slaves to the political zeitgeist.”

Instead, the real question was tolerance for those in business. Why are you expected to abandon your conscience the moment you step into the commercial world? Why is it mandatory to violate your liberty in order to protect the wishes of others?

Indeed, why would a gay couple want, say, a Christian opposed to gay marriage to photograph their wedding or prepare their cake? It hardly seems the best way to ensure a satisfactory job. One suspects that it is an exercise in humiliation, an attempt to force those with unfashionable scruples to affirm what they reject. It is, in short, a calculated effort at intolerance.

Obamacare’s contraception mandate has a similar effect — and almost certainly received such vigorous support on the left for precisely this reason. Everyone, except in the narrowest religious circumstances, must provide/purchase health insurance that covers contraception (as well as sterilization and abortifacients).

Contraception is not even a typical insurable event, since it is not an unexpected and unpredictable costly occurrence, but a normal, voluntary, and inexpensive choice exercised by the policyholder. “Insurance” just spreads the cost to gays, celibates, infertile, elderly, and others who don’t use contraception, raising premiums for everyone. Moreover, the vast majority of plans already offer coverage, if for no other reason than that pregnancy is expensive, so the provision likely pays for itself.

Even in the few instances when no insurance coverage is available, contraception is well within most people’s means. In fact, the unofficial spokeswoman for forcing everyone else to pay for her sex life was a Georgetown University Law School student who managed to pay for an extremely expensive legal education.

But the point was always state-mandated intolerance rather than health care. The objective was to force Catholics, mostly, and the few fundamentalist Protestants who hold similar theological views, to pay for what they oppose. In fact, there is no better way to humiliate those you hate. It is pure and unadulterated intolerance, the ultimate Washington triumph: Make those you despise pay for what they despise.

When government was small the regulatory state was nonexistent and unavailable to routinely turn intolerance into law. People were largely left alone to manage their own lives. Want to photograph a ceremony which you abhor? Up to you. Want to offer health insurance, let alone include contraception in the policy? Up to you.

That’s what a free society is all about.

Of course, those who are on the receiving end of social disapproval typically — and understandably — don’t like the result. But no one has a “right” to be served by any particular person. Forcing someone into servitude is infinitely worse than simply finding someone else to do the job. The right response is to change social attitudes. My friend Sheldon Richman at the Future of Freedom Foundation pointed to the use of “boycotts, publicity, and ostracism” to penalize those who refuse service. Activism in response to discrimination is why gay marriage has gone from a policy fantasy to dominant law in just a few years. And why government has gone from banning contraception to mandating contraception coverage.

Unfortunately, throughout history the newly empowered almost always learn the wrong lesson. Rather than overturn discriminatory laws and create barriers to new state injustices, such groups typically grab control of the state and use law for their own advantage. Hence state persecution of the New Mexico wedding photographer who felt she could not promote gay ceremonies which she believed to be wrong and the Oregon baker who refused to provide cakes for the same purpose. Other celebrated cases include a Hawaii bed and breakfast and Kentucky printer.

The principle runs both ways. Why should gay bars be forced to employ straight bartenders? Moreover, argued my Cato Institute colleague Ilya Shapiro, “gay photographers and bakers shouldn’t be forced to work religious celebrations, Jews shouldn’t be forced to work Nazi rallies, and environmentalists shouldn’t be forced to work job fairs in logging communities.” Government should not force anyone to leave his or her conscience outside when arriving at work.

In practice, leaving business people alone wouldn’t change life very much. Advanced industrial capitalism allows most people to make most economic decisions without fixating on the behavior, beliefs, or character of the person with whom they are dealing. I don’t know if the clerk at the gas station where I stop is cheating on his wife. I don’t know if the owner of the used book store where I cogitate is gay, straight, or bi. I don’t know if the manager of the grocery store where I shop is a warmongering neocon or a big spending redistributionist liberal. And I’m happy I don’t have to worry about such matters when filling an auto gas tank, purchasing a favorite history book, or buying a gallon of milk.

Nevertheless, some decisions are more uncomfortable than others. Most photographers probably don’t care about the person’s background when taking their portrait. Covering a wedding — actively participating in and celebrating the ceremony — is different. As a writer, I have ghosted articles for people of varying political views. But there are boundaries that I would not transgress.

Despite the public hysteria generated by the Arizona legislation, it merely expanded existing law which bars government from imposing a “substantial burden” on religious practice without a “compelling state interest.” That hardly seems unreasonable. What is unreasonable is the obvious desire of so many people to interfere with religious faith with which they disagree.

Worse is the refusal of politicians like Gov. Brewer to stand for freedom of conscience. Worst may be the wild applause she received from the left, for which promoting “tolerance” has become a cover for spreading virulent intolerance, as well as from the unprincipled right, including corporate America and establishment politicians led by failed GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Any large, diverse society will find people at frequent odds, believing and behaving differently. In the main, government should leave them alone to find their own way. Especially when most basic freedom of conscience is involved. Tolerance is a cardinal virtue.

Indeed, liberty of conscience under girds all human freedom. Such liberty is inherent to the human person, not a privilege granted by the state. If Americans really believe in freedom as they claim, they should respect religious beliefs — especially unpopular ones, as in this case.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).