It’s really quite simple: just ask yourself, “Is this action something that I would willingly do to another person had I the capability to do it myself?” That’s it. Government action, like any other collective action, is beholden to the same moral standards that you would ascribe to yourself or any individual. The government earns no special dispensation or privilege.
This is because that which we call “the government” is not a real thing. That is to say, is has no agency, it cannot make decisions or perform actions, and lacks moral culpability. It is merely a constructed idea, a figment, a generalization born of efficiency. This does not necessarily delegitimize the use of the term; I’m not above referring to the government and the things that “it does”; it’s convenient. But it is essential to always bear in mind that government policies, procedures, and actions are carried out by its agents, who are individuals. When you ask for or expect action from the government what you are truly doing is seeking a proxy to perform tasks that you are either unwilling or unable to do yourself. Is the action something that you would find personally immoral and couldn’t imagine doing yourself in any circumstance? Then why would it be moral to ask someone to do it for you or even to acquiesce to their doing it on your behalf without offering protest?
I believe it to be moral to socially ostracize violent criminals and even to place restrictions on their freedoms, as they have intentionally violated those of others. I’m not able to personally hold a criminal in prison, but I support state agents acting on my behalf because it is far more efficient to collectivize the management of this unfortunate necessity. If, however, I were to learn that my neighbor was growing marijuana in his house, in no way could I determine it to be moral to break down his door in the middle of the night, hold him and his family at gunpoint, shoot his dog, steal his equipment and money, and lock him in a cage. It’s not a question of my personal safety either; even if this hypothetical included the assurance of my own well-being, I cannot for the life of me find any moral claim that would justify that response for that particular behavior. So why then would it be in any way moral for me to vote for or tacitly support the proxy of the state to do such things on my behalf? I submit that it is not.
Gay Wedding Cake
Here’s the short version of the story. Two years ago a lesbian couple walks into a bakery in a town in Oregon and asks the owners to bake them a wedding cake. The owners refuse, citing religious reasons, claiming that because they do not personally condone the wedding of persons of the same sex, that they would prefer to decline the couple’s business so as not to compromise their values.
The couple had the right to be offended, as indeed any person has the right to be offended about anything that personally offends them. One option for them would be to tell off the bakers, storm out of their storefront, tell all their friends of the bakers’ bigotry and suggest that they refuse to patronize the bakery, inspire protests outside the bakery, pay real money to an alternative bakery, get married, and go on with their lives. They did do all of these things and also decided to involve the government by filing a discrimination complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Subsequently, the bakers’ were forced to shutdown their storefront and may have to pay fines totaling $150,000. Similar stories of leveraging government force to punish intolerant businesses can be found around the country, including a Colorado baker, a New Mexico photographer, and a Washington florist who all declined the business of homosexual couples and faced government penalties.
This incident has inspired a multitude of responses: the baker’s are intolerant jerks, the lesbians are bullies, this is an example of the state asserting gay rights over religious rights, the business is private, the business is public, why would the lesbians want to patronize someone who is affronted by their very lifestyle, this was never about cake but about the lesbians/bakers using the interaction for a political stunt, etc. My personal opinion on the matter is that the bakers are foolish for turning down good business. But personal opinion isn’t really at question here; the question is whether these particular circumstances justify state intervention.
Let’s apply this situation to our little rubric that we discussed earlier: would the lesbian couple be morally justified in performing the same actions that the state purports to do on their behalf? The options for the bakers are to bake the cake under protest or to risk the government withdrawing their business license and incurring exorbitant fines. It must be noted that the government has the power to levy fines precisely because it does so with the threat of force. The bakers cannot really choose to just not pay the fines as they risk agents of the state harassing them and possibly, should circumstances inevitably lead to their final conclusion, confronting them at gunpoint and arresting them or even killing them should they resist.
Sound too extreme? Sound like I’m off my meds? No, what I am suggesting is a rational outcome. Ask yourself, why do you pay taxes? Maybe you like to, but most people don’t and only do because they have to. Why do they “have to”? Because people go to jail for tax evasion, and they don’t go willingly, they go because the state utilizes force to put them in jail. People usually just pay the fines, some of them go to jail, they don’t usually get shot. But make no mistake, every law is backed up by the force of the state, and just because people don’t often get killed does not negate that the potential for a violent conclusion is implicit in every government mandate.
Would it be moral for the lesbians to go back to the bakers, demand that the cake is produced, and threaten them with violence if the bakers don’t comply? Would it be moral for the lesbians to forcibly evict the bakers and prevent them from returning to the store they own or consensually rent? Would it be moral for them to hold the bakers at gunpoint and steal $150,000 from them? Would it be moral for you to personally do these things on their behalf? Again, the bakers’ infraction was refusing to labor to furnish a certain type of pastry as part of a voluntary monetary transaction.
No reasonable person could argue that these behaviors are morally justified. If you think you can, I’d love to read about it in the comments, but I cannot fathom a realistic moral code in support of this hypothetical.
So how does it somehow become moral if proxies are involved in the charging and prosecuting of these alleged social infractions and in the enforcement of their penalties? How is it moral if the agents and instruments of force are geographically separated from the focus of the confrontation? Is it somehow ok to threaten someone if the threat of violence comes from an unseen, unknown third party?
The argument in support of the lesbian couple is flawed. Both they and the bakers possess individual natural rights. These rights derive from their humanity; they are not granted by government. The lesbian couple possesses the right to equal treatment under the law. The bakers possess the rights of ownership of self and property. Neither group can morally be denied their rights in deference to the other group. To assert that the bakers should be compelled to make the cake without regard to their willingness to do so is to suggest that the lesbians, or whoever, have a stated right to the labor of the bakers. No one has the right to demand the labor of another person, regardless of compensatory redress. We fought a war and passed a Constitutional amendment to stop people from claiming that as a right. No, I am not equating the scale of forced accommodation with 19th century slavery, don’t be absurd, but I do believe that they, in part, extend from the same false moral claim; that people should be forced to provide labor for tendentious reasons.
Predictably, poorly constructed laws establishing the right to the product of someone else’s labor are leading to ridiculous unintended consequences. Another baker in Colorado is facing a civil rights complaint for not putting anti-gay slogans on a cake for a paying customer. It makes me wonder if the guy asking for the cakes is truly homophobic or just trolling the so-called civil-rights laws to illuminate the absurdity of not allowing a business owner to deny participation in what is otherwise a voluntary transaction.
Let’s just keep it simple: if it’s not right for you to do it to another person, it’s not right to ask the government to do it for you.