Culture wars? Let the free market decide

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The culture war has only just begun. This is not a conventional battle of two sides, sparring over rights and the merits of tradition within the confines of civil democratic debates. Sadly, we are in the midst of guerrilla warfare where unpredictable alliances are forming and personal feuds are fought with passion in the public courts and the sphere of public opinion.

The current national tension surrounding sexual and religious freedom raises a tangle of questions that concern public display and private conscience, personal affirmation and self-expression, the merits of the free market, the nature of business-consumer interaction, and the power of big business versus the vulnerability of small mom-and-pop operations. Above all, it raises questions about the meaning of liberty and exposes just how fragile it is.

Currently, the bloodiest battleground is the economic sphere where wedding cake bakers, florists, and photographers are bullied into endorsing practices that may conflict with their religious beliefs, where judges usurp private conscience, local legislators react with clumsy laws that stoke the fires of resentment, and large corporations exacerbate social tension in order to promote their brand.

Theoretically, the marketplace should be an emotionally neutral zone, but it has recently become a battleground upon which to demand social legitimacy and assert personal grievances easily exploited by politicians and profit seeking corporations.

The current debate over economic and religious freedom centers on the question of whether gay marriages, already legally accepted, must now be culturally accepted and personally endorsed by everyone in the marketplace.  Must a Christian baker be legally compelled to make a cake for a gay wedding?  Must the law require that a Muslim religious school hire a transgender cafeteria worker?

Ultimately, economic and religious liberty go hand in hand. While producers might be motivated by personal values to contribute to the economy in their own particular way, the economic sphere is generally an anonymous zone where consumers make decisions based on their personal needs and values.

What drives economic productivity and innovation is largely a desire for profit, the bottom line. Efficiency and profit obliterate many a moralistic clutter. That, indeed, is the beauty of the economic sphere. Allowed to thrive without much impediment, it brings enormous benefits to the majority. In hiring, that means giving the job to the person most likely to do the job well. With focus on the bottom line, there is little room for personal judgment or condemnations of a person’s private choices.

Consumers can, if they so choose, boycott or patronize businesses that refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, and they can choose not to send their children to religious schools that refuse to hire transgender employees.  These choice, within a free market economy, are the best way to influence social change. But legally and forcefully preventing individuals from participating in the marketplace in a manner consistent with their own values poses a threat to freedom in general.

It is, indeed, only in the economic sphere and within a free market that our cultural conflicts can be resolved with mutual respect and healthy competition. Only the full realization of economic freedom and the ability of producers and consumers to act on personal preference can ensure a stable society of free citizens. Only with such liberties protected can people act according to their conscience and creatively contribute to society according to their individual talents and beliefs.

Donald Trump’s current popularity is in large part due to his ability to couch complex issues in simplified and widely appealing terms – he knows his market. To Trump the business man, the bottom line is always key even when approaching complex political and cultural issues. Trump’s approach, which avoids moral posturing, strikes a common cord among diverse groups of Americans who can relate to his bottom line attitude. However, to many Americans things become complicated in the economic sphere is when the business itself is value driven and built on highly personal views.

However, with the erosion of boundaries between the private and public sphere and the personalization of politics, conflicts are bound to multiply.

Today, we are witnessing plenty of passionate protests and an abundance of personal grievances proclaimed in acts of outraged self-affirmation on college campuses around the country. This style of protest has now entered the economic sphere. But can economic freedom survive when new cultural expressions and personal grievances force productivity to comply? A baker might be motivated by his personal religious values to channel his creativity towards making a particular type of wedding cake. His values might inspire his passion and made him seek personal fulfillment in making cakes for certain weddings and not others. Should his rights to act on such personal impulses be curtailed? Most likely, no law or coercion will make the baker change his personal views.  In the end, nobody wins. Once economic liberty goes, anybody could fall prey to majority tyranny and any right of self-expression in the economic sphere is in jeopardy.

The list of the offended and aggrieved will have no end. Clearly, we all find ourselves in environments where we feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, under-served, unserved, or explicitly discriminated against. The beauty of a free market is that we can take our business elsewhere without curtailing the freedom of small business owners.

Can our nation that is made up of diverse cultures and communities survive such bickering, emotional investment in the public sphere, and moralistic posturing? In America, any law that intends to legislate private conscience and personal preference is likely to exacerbate cultural divisiveness without the hope of a positive consensus. Most importantly, such law jeopardizes the American concept of freedom. Only the free market, unimpeded by moralistic legislation, enables a long term modus vivendi with each his own in pursuit of personal happiness.

The same free market rules of “live, and let live” apply to large corporations. In 2012, after Chick-Fil-A’s president Dan Cathy stated his personal support for traditional marriage and the corporation’s foundation’s support of traditional marriage became public, a firestorm of negative public opinion ensued. In a free society, any business owner should have the right to commit his profits to a cause in which he believes.  The key standard of the economic sphere should be the quality of the product, not the business owners’ private causes. Yet still, activists were determined to expose Cathy’s private initiatives for public chastisement. Even Boston Mayor Thomas Menino stepped in, informing the business that it was not welcome in his city. This mentality stifles economic productivity and, alas, robs consumers of choice.

The relationship between economic liberty and cultural diversity becomes more complex when large corporations co-opt cultural division for branding purposes and thus insert themselves into a public debate. Such public posturing, enabled by sheer economic power, can undermine the democratic process of reasonable debate irreparably. In our culture, identity is sought in creating a public persona of the highly personal. Even the mundane products we consume seem like extensions of our private identity. The food we buy, the clothes we wear, the car we drive etc., all are marketed as expressions of our deeper selves, aspiring to be seen and heard. Brands thrive when corporations know how to exploit a fragile cultural environment. It comes as no surprise then that large co-operations are threatening an exodus from southern states such as Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina where new religious freedom laws aim to protect citizens from religious discrimination.

In a free society, corporations have every right to develop their brand as they see fit and to enter the national debate on social and political issues in ways that they believe will maximize their market share. Sometimes they do so successfully,  Other times, they do so with economic repercussion — as was the case with Land’s End celebrating the pro-choice feminist Gloria Steinem. It is always risky for a business to tamper with its accepted brand, in this case a brand that specifically caters to families with children. But in the interest of economic liberty, they are permitted to take any side. The consumer, not the government, must decide the measure of their success. The success of cage free eggs, organic products, even Twinkies, says much about the power of the free market. Soon enough, there will be plenty of wedding bakers, florists, and photographers branding themselves with rainbows.

Liberty, and the choices it generates in the economic sphere, allows for the most diversity and caters most efficiently to personal preference. No use of force or regulation could affect a similarly positive outcome in a country so diverse and so divided.

Bullying through economic legislation and regulation has no place in a free society. This is where the government must step in as an umpire only, creating laws that protect gay couples looking to buy a cake and bakers who want to make only a particular kind of cake. In other words, we need laws that secure everybody’s freedom in the economic sphere.  As citizens, we must demand from our elected officials that they preserve our freedom. And that must mean everyone’s freedom.

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost. Read her past columns here.