Dan Popp
The unspeakable right
By Dan Popp
November 24, 2012

The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. — John Locke

When Christian employers protested the new federal rule that they provide insurance for services that violate their consciences, the most horrifying thing was the solution. President Obama assumed that Americans would accept his bullying of insurance companies if he paused his bullying of churches. And it seems he was correct.

For the moment, we still have some freedom of religion, but no "freedom of business." That's not what the Founders called it, of course; this is simply the fundamental right of all human beings to acquire and use property. James Madison warned, "That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions...deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called."

Thomas Jefferson spoke of "the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." In today's English, we have the God-given right to work hard and think hard to serve our fellow man for financial gain, without government interference or redistribution of the proceeds. "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?" Jesus said in a parable (Matthew 20:15, NASB).

Imagine that you own a café. Now imagine that you just don't like bald men; you don't want them in your establishment. A follicly challenged gentleman walks in. May you ask him to leave? Ah, that would be discrimination. Yes, it would. Now answer the question. Is it not lawful for you to do what you wish with what is your own? We see the evil of bigotry, but miss the evil of allowing government to dictate what citizens may and may not do with their property. Many Americans have come to believe that they can rectify the irrational decisions of some café owners by destroying the rights of all café owners.

Must the café sell what the government tells it to sell, at prices the government decrees, to the customers that the government dictates, using the employees and the tools and the materials and the methods that the government approves? Granted, all of those intrusions may be "for a good cause." [1] Each rule may prevent certain repugnant and shortsighted choices. But isn't the result fascism? What's the next step; government mandating that individuals come in and eat your corned beef hash? Ha ha.


Ultimately, there's no authority to force an insurance company to do business with certain people, until a certain age, on a policy that includes government-specified services; or to forbid it to charge differently for different risks; or to make any other demands regarding its services or rates. Government's only interest in the matter is to enforce contracts — that is, to prosecute and punish fraud.

The counter-argument is that, regrettably, we need to curtail business owners' rights for "the public good." (This would mean that you lost rights by buying the café — ridiculous.) I agree that no proprietor should discriminate against anyone. That's an injustice, some will say, that society must not tolerate. I'm saying there's something worse.

A bigoted owner will bear most of the costs of his poor judgment himself, in the form of reduced income and bankruptcy. In contrast, the costs of heavy-handed government fall on everyone — even on people who will never hear of this café. Those costs include decreased productivity, lower efficiency, resentment and friction in the workforce, resources diverted to lawyers and other experts, higher prices to patrons, higher unemployment and more business failures — all of which lead to a reduced standard of living for the entire population. In short, the community is harmed, not helped, by negating the rights of some in the community.

I need to make a critical distinction. It's very much the government's job to prevent businesses from pushing costs onto others — by polluting the water or air, for example. But if that is so, then justice demands that government prevent others from pushing costs onto businesses. These costs might include fuel efficiency minimums for carmakers, cost-shifting shell games for insurance companies, and affirmative action quotas for café owners. Again, good intentions are not an excuse. It cannot be government's purview to force anyone to use his property as non-owners see fit. A government that doesn't protect property has no legitimate purpose.

Economically speaking, rewards and consequences must fall on decision-makers. (Remember the subprime mortgage meltdown?) Politically speaking, government must protect property rights even though many of us may be mortified by how some owners exercise their rights. And spiritually speaking I have the responsibility — and therefore the right — to steward what God has entrusted to me. The state has no authority to interfere in that relationship. In the final analysis, this shocking and unspeakable right of business owners to run their own businesses is not secondary to religious freedom — it is a religious freedom. Christians who defend only the rights of explicitly "religious" firms don't understand the nature of property rights.


[1]  I've explained elsewhere this barbarian use of "good" as if it were a moral imperative though it is untethered to, and actually opposed to, the moral law.

© Dan Popp


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