Bryan Caplan  

The One Way Conservative Students Are More Libertarian Than Libertarian Students

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Cato's Conservative-Libertarian Debate exit survey is fascinating throughout.  The most striking result is on the following question:
Q23. Do you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow businesses to refuse service to customers for religious reasons?
Survey says:
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The standard libertarian position here, of course, is, "If a merchant turns you away on religious grounds, just take your business elsewhere."  Why would over a quarter of libertarian students think otherwise?  It's tempting to say they're just "pandering to the left."  But if the question were "Should racial discrimination in employment be legal?," I'm confident libertarians would express more agreement than conservatives (though less than 50%, I fear).  My explanation is that many libertarian students let their friendly attitude toward gays and chilly feelings for Christian fundamentalists color their judgment.  Even if individual rights are the foundation of your political philosophy, "Who has the right?" is a far less appealing question than "Who do I like?"


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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Mori writes:

If you're going to post from a day in the future, could you also please include some closing market quotes from top gainers?

Thomas writes:

The millennium is here. We finally agree about something.

E. Harding writes:

My suspicion is many libertarians don't like it because it carves out special exemptions for people they don't much like. If the exemption was broader, I think more libertarians would support it.

Glen Whitman writes:

Although I don't take this position, I know some libertarians who have a problem with making a specific allowance for religious discrimination that is not available for other kinds of discrimination. They see it as giving religion a special legal status. To the extent that see you see equality before the law as a foundational liberatarian principle (as opposed to a mere consequence of our all having the same rights), this position makes sense.

john hare writes:

I'll second Glen. I object to people having rights based on religion that don't apply to the rest of us. I'd be OK with a business that didn't serve fat old white males (me on four counts) because nunya. I would prefer it be in a bold sign in front than a moldering resentment inside.

IGYT writes:

Two alternative explanations:

  • The phrasing "pass a law", rather than simply allow, primes libertarians to skepticism in a way that it does not for conservatives.
  • Quite a few libertarians would not favor such a law if, in addition to competitive businesses, it applies to monopoly providers, especially those who might fall under traditional common-carrier doctrines. (Should the cable company be allowed to do this?) Since the question provides no exception, "all businesses" is a plausible interpretation.

Fewer conservatives, I speculate, are bothered by the latter point because fewer are wonks and some are pleased by anything that pushes gays back into the shadows.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Perhaps the big point here is not "why libertarians, in this issue, are less libertarians than conservatives?", but "why conservatives, in this issue, are more libertarian than libertarians?". And I think the answer is obvious: because we tend to be more enthusiastic in supporting liberties that we pretend to use (and many conservatives agree with the people who don't want to bake cakes to gay weddings, while most libertarians are more "I don't agree with you, but support your right").

If there was a question like "unions should have the right to appeal to consumer's boycotts against employers during labour conflicts", I suspect that "liberals" will be even more libertarian than libertarians.

And could be also interesting to split the question Q23 in different questions, like "businesses should be allowed to refuse, for religious reasons, to serve gay weddings" and "businesses should be allowed to refuse, for religious reasons, to serve unveiled women" (I bet that the libertarianism of conservatives should be higher in the first question than in the second)

Anon. writes:

E. Harding is right. Not only does it carve out a special exception, it carves out a special exception for religion! A more general "freedom of association" wording would have very different results.

RL Styne writes:

Everyone in this thread who thinks some version of "freedom of association" would get more libertarian votes is wrong. Look at the Libertarian Party nominee. He would force Christian bakers to make a cake for a gay wedding. Is that freedom of association? Do you honestly think a majority of belt-way dwelling libertarian millennials would disagree with Johnson? Doubtful.

Brian is right, and I'd love to see a poll of conservative vs libertarian on the gay wedding cake issue.

Swami writes:

I want to reinforce and stregthen the above objections to this post. The classical liberal and Libertarian positions on this issue is to OPPOSE government involvement in who serves what to whom.

I OPPOSE a law which says anything either way about who businesses should serve. Thus my opposition is at a higher level of abstraction. I am not opposing the law because of who it helps or hinders, I oppose it because it politicizes decisions which should not be handled politically. I suspect many others would oppose it for the same reason.

The very specificity of the rule effectively creates a privileged class (private law). Rules should not work this way as it is contrary to long term public interest.

Glen Smith writes:

As a libertarian with many conservative friends, I suspect many conservatives came at this question thinking more along the lines of should a Christian business be lawfully allowed to act in such a manner. They would face no refusal themselves or may have seen themselves in the owner and not the person discriminated against. As a libertarian, I also know that many might take issue with the concept of embedding it in law (assuming law=legislation here) as many would see this as more an issue of natural law as opposed to government edict.

Steve Schow writes:

I'm with Glen Smith. Conservatives answer this question while thinking about the obvious gay wedding cake issue. Do you really think if I opened a coffee shop and casually refused service to anyone wearing a cross they wouldn't absolutely lose their minds?

It's easy to be "principled" when you're the majority.

Mark Bahner writes:
Everyone in this thread who thinks some version of "freedom of association" would get more libertarian votes is wrong. Look at the Libertarian Party nominee. He would force Christian bakers to make a cake for a gay wedding. Is that freedom of association?

No, it's not.

I wasn't at the LP convention, and even if I had been, I wouldn't be able to say what was in the minds of delegates as they voted. However, my guess is that a major reason Gary Johnson was nominated was that he had credible experience in government that no other LP candidate for President had.

Do you honestly think a majority of belt-way dwelling libertarian millennials would disagree with Johnson? Doubtful.

Tell them to come here. I can straighten them out. ;-)

Seriously, it should be possible to convince any person who is indeed libertarian that the government forcing people to associate with other people is wrong. (And it's particularly wrong for the federal government to do so, which is why Gary Johnson's view is particularly problematic.)

ThaomasH writes:

First, as a Christian, (I would hope people of any other religion would feel the same) I find it highly insulting that I might wish to discriminate because of my religion and need that obscene preference protected by law.

Second, as a Liberal, I support a freedom of association exemption from anti-discrimination laws for any individual proprietor/micro business bigots to discriminate for any reason, as such an exemption could do little harm to persons discriminated against while leaving intact the symbolic and "teaching" function of such laws.

Ben H. writes:

In addition to all the good arguments above for why libertarians might oppose such a law, I would add another. To me, advertising oneself as a public business implies a contract: if you want to buy X from me, I will sell X to you. Refusing to then do so, on the basis of whatever criterion, is breach of contract. I do not support a law that allows employers to breach their contracts because of whatever religious beliefs they may have.

If a business were willing to actually put it on the line that they discriminate, with an explicit modification of the implied contract such as a sign in their window that says "we do not serve gay people", then as far as I'm concerned, they would then have the right to refuse service to the specified group. If the proposed law drew the line there – saying that businesses could discriminate, *if* they announced publicly that they intended to do so – that would take me part of the way to supporting the law (except that the objections raised by others above would still be problematic).

Steve Schow writes:
If a business were willing to actually put it on the line that they discriminate, with an explicit modification of the implied contract such as a sign in their window that says "we do not serve gay people", then as far as I'm concerned, they would then have the right to refuse service to the specified group.

Here's a fun game: Have a progressive-minded friend of yours explain why voter ID laws are overly burdensome to poor people, why bakers should have to make cakes for whoever comes in the door, then ask them if they have problems with "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs.

Steve Schow writes:
Q23. Do you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow businesses to refuse service to customers for religious reasons?

Question #23 on an exit survey? I can't blame some people for switching to Kahneman Mode #1 type thinking and not thinking this through.

Also I dislike such a poorly worded question when there is no space given to explain your reasoning. Especially when we are here debating how libertarians are apparently not-so-freedom-loving. How many do you think would have explained "there shouldn't be any law explicitly allowing or forbidding any such thing?" Maybe I'm just being optimistic.

Steve Schow writes:
"Second, as a Liberal, I support a freedom of association exemption from anti-discrimination laws for any individual proprietor/micro business bigots to discriminate for any reason, as such an exemption could do little harm to persons discriminated against while leaving intact the symbolic and "teaching" function of such laws."

When Rand Paul says basically this - that he wants to roll back 1 of the 10 articles in the Civil Rights Act that specifically pertains to private actors - the headline is,

"RAND PAUL WANTS TO REPEAL CIVIL RIGHTS ACT"

We need more liberals like you to get the message out. It doesn't turn out so well when we say it...

Michael M. writes:

Ben H., generally, putting inventory out for display, even with a price tag, is not an "offer". It is merely an "invitation to treat"; the price tag is only a suggested starting point (albeit basically every shopkeeper will honor it if he wants to keep any customers). It is the customer who makes the offer upon presentation to the cashier, and then the cashier "accepts" by taking the tendered payment.

Mark Bahner writes:
When Rand Paul says basically this - that he wants to roll back 1 of the 10 articles in the Civil Rights Act that specifically pertains to private actors - the headline is,

"RAND PAUL WANTS TO REPEAL CIVIL RIGHTS ACT"

That's when Rand Paul needs to stick to his guns (to borrow a phrase).

We need more liberals like you to get the message out. It doesn't turn out so well when we say it...

We need to say it better. We need to use the Socratic method...e.g.:

"1) Do you think the federal government should be all-powerful?" --> Most people will say "no."

"2) Do you think the federal government should be able to violate the Constitution?"--> Most people will say "no."

"3) What about if the federal government violates the Constitution, but it turns out well?"-->People will have a tougher time answering that. They may ask for specifics.

"4) For example, suppose the President bombs people in Pakistan? There has been no Congressional declaration of war against Pakistan, but suppose bad people are killed. Is that OK?" -->I throw this one in just to get people thinking about an issue that I consider one of the most important in the world today...whether the U.S. military is the personal weapon of the President.

"5) Or how about if the federal government claims power under the 'Commerce Clause' of the Constitution that it really doesn't have, but the result is to lessen the number of guns near schools? Is that OK?"

"6) Or suppose the federal government claims power under the 'Commerce Clause' to compel private citizens to serve other private citizens, but the Constitution doesn't really authorize that power? Is it OK for the federal government to violate the Constitution in that case...as long as it promotes non-discrimination?"

Mark Bahner writes:
If a business were willing to actually put it on the line that they discriminate, with an explicit modification of the implied contract such as a sign in their window that says "we do not serve gay people", then as far as I'm concerned, they would then have the right to refuse service to the specified group.

So the business only has the right not to serve those it specifically names in the window sign? Suppose a person comes in naked? Drunk and belligerent? With a dog? With a wolf? In a Nazi uniform? In a shirt with obscenities on it?

Must the business serve all those people, or must it list beforehand every possibility that will cause refusal of service?

Richard writes:

"Although I don't take this position, I know some libertarians who have a problem with making a specific allowance for religious discrimination that is not available for other kinds of discrimination."

How much sense does that make? If government makes a certain profession get a license, then it must make every profession get a license. If government censors one kind of speech through campaign finance law, it's better to censor all kinds of speech?

Libertarians see themselves as "socially liberal" yet at some point socially liberal became the anti-freedom view, as liberals started forcing their acceptance of homosexuality on everybody.

Mark Bahner writes:
How much sense does that make?

Yes, that essentially says that no one should have freedom until everyone can have freedom.

Peter Gerdes writes:

As one comment pointed out the obvious problem with opening up the ability to discriminate in a blanket fashion would pose problems with companies that are in effect monopoly service providers. Imagine if amazon adopted a blanket policy of refusing to sell to some relatively tiny (and unpopular..say the westborro baptist church or fundamentalist lds) group.

So we need to have some of these anti-discrim laws apply to natural monopolies. Also we have to worry about monopolies in geographic areas. It's a problem if every pharmacy in the county refuses to sell to atheists. What about vendors at government owned areas (highway rest stops)?


Crap that means a new agency to determine just which businesses can and can't discriminate. A bunch more paperwork since many corporations will have to file with the agency so it can make a determination. Also with fewer small businesses to object to such laws there would quite likely be more such laws.

Is it really more libertarian to (partially) get rid of such laws?

Tom West writes:

Here's a fun game: Have a progressive-minded friend of yours explain why voter ID laws are overly burdensome to poor people, why bakers should have to make cakes for whoever comes in the door, then ask them if they have problems with "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs.

Actually, that's almost always found in restaurants and food serving establishments - health issues (usually mandated by law).

If you want to tweak the left and many Libertarians, open borders is my cognitive dissonance issue of choice.

Helping the poor? Absolutely. Unless that means I'll be exposed to *more* poverty.

If I'm just poking Libertarians, I'll use "Remove mandatory minimum parking regulations!"

Freedom? Of course, but let's not be absurd.

Mark Bahner writes:

If I'm just poking Libertarians, I'll use "Remove mandatory minimum parking regulations!"

I'm not sure I follow you. Are you saying Libertarians don't want mandatory minimum parking regulations to be removed?

Mark Bahner writes:
Is it really more libertarian to (partially) get rid of such laws?

That question sounds to me like, "Is a little bit of liberty more libertarian than no liberty?"

To me, the answer seems clearly to be, "yes".

Tom West writes:

I'm not sure I follow you. Are you saying Libertarians don't want mandatory minimum parking regulations to be removed?

Every time I've seen it come up here (and anywhere else, for that matter), many people who self-identify as Libertarian get quite upset with those who would eliminate minimum parking requirements for builders.

Of course it would make parking vastly harder - parking is highly over-provisioned and under-charged compared to what would happen if left strictly to the market.

But then again very few of us *any* political stripe choose consistent political belief over what makes us personally better off. Man may be a political animal, but he's not stupid.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

So this is where I feel an econotarian view is a greater good than a pure libertarian view.

Discrimination against African Americans (of course largely a creation of government) in the US became endemic in the private economy. The economy entered an equilibrium where even people who did not want to discriminate in their business could not stop discriminating less they lose white customers. Government action did push the equilibrium into the other state where private racial discrimination is no longer socially acceptable in the private business arena. This worked, and was good for the economy by expanding competition for goods and jobs instead of having smaller separate markets for blacks and whites.

I believe that where government should continue to "push" anti-discrimination should face a fairly strong test of an undesirable discrimination equilibirum - for example, are we really in a situation where almost no baker would make a gay marriage cake, or is that discrimination actually an outlier?


Mark Bahner writes:
Every time I've seen it come up here (and anywhere else, for that matter), many people who self-identify as Libertarian get quite upset with those who would eliminate minimum parking requirements for builders.

That's kind of surprising to me. Minimum parking requirements generally result in a large amount of impermeable surface (bad for stormwater runoff) and contribute to urban heat island effects and sprawl. If libertarianism alone (rejection of the idea that government should tell a business owner how many parking spaces to include) wasn't sufficient reason, the stormwater runoff, urban heat island, and sprawl effects should tip the scale against requiring minimum parking requirements.

Robi Rahman writes:

After reading through the whole survey and then coming to this question in context, it seems like the conservatives support allowing businesses to reject customers on religious grounds because they would be the ones doing the rejecting, and libertarians oppose allowing rejection of customers because they would be among those customers who are refused service.

Tom West writes:

If libertarianism alone wasn't sufficient reason...

My experience is convenience trumps almost anything regardless of philosophy, unless it's part of that philosophy's rituals (for example, exhaustive recycling, church going, etc.). Looking for hard-to-find parking doesn't qualify as anyone's ritual, as far as I know. (Although looking for free parking seems to qualify for a few...)

And if consistency of belief was primary, most of us on the left would support open borders as that alleviates a whole lot of human suffering.

However, that would also force us to live cheek by jowl with poverty, and that makes us feel guilty. Hence support for healthy immigration numbers (so we can feel good about helping others), but not so much that the increased *local* poverty decreases our happiness.

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