Voluntary Association Versus Selective Discrimination

There seems to be some confusion amongst libertarian circles over the difference between voluntary association and selective discrimination. Don’t worry though, Padre Chris is here to clear things up.

Voluntary association is the principle that everybody is free to choose who they want to associate with and who they don’t want to associate with. Period. This means a bigoted asshole can choose not to associate with Muslims and decent human beings can choose to not associate with that bigoted asshole. Selective discrimination differs in that individuals can only choose to disassociate with somebody if their reason is on an approved list. In this case the bigoted asshole can only choose to not associate with Muslims if the people who create the list of criteria put “being Muslim” as an approved reason to discriminate. Other people may also only choose to not associate with a bigoted asshole if the list contains “being a bigoted asshole”.

Libertarianism, due to the non-aggression principle (the only way you can prevent somebody from voluntarily associating with another is to put a gun to their heads and make them associate), mandates voluntary association. However many libertarians mistakenly believe that cases of selective discrimination are forms of voluntary association. That’s what happened with libertarians who supported Indiana’s SB 101. They heralded the law as a good piece of legislation because it allows businesses to not associate with people based on religious reasons. But the legislation contains a clause that lets the state decide whether or not to prosecute somebody for discriminating even if it’s based on religious reasons.

Herein lies the problem. Under the state there can only be selective discrimination. Nobody, for example, is free to not associate with state agents. Furthermore the state periodically either prohibits or mandates certain types of discrimination. In the South many states mandated racial discrimination under Jim Crow laws. Today racial discrimination is mostly prohibited for non-state actors but many states are enabling, and sometimes mandating through marriage and bathroom usage laws, discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. The only thing that has really changed between then and now is that race has been removed from the list of acceptable reasons to discriminate and religion has been moved up the list (I would say added but it’s almost always been there).

Libertarianism, at least the anarchist branch of it, advocates equality under the law. Nobody can have privileges others do not enjoy. In the case of discrimination equality under the law would require that everybody be free to voluntary associate or disassociate with anybody else or nobody be free to do so. None of these “religious freedom” laws accomplish that. They merely grant people of certain religions privileges that others do not enjoy. Libertarians shouldn’t involve themselves in the political discrimination battle unless the result would create equality under the law. In the case of religious freedom a libertarian should only involve themselves if the bill would allow anybody of any religion, or lack of religion in the case of atheists, the freedom to discriminate based on their beliefs and left not exception for the state to intervene.

People should be free to choose who they want to associate and disassociate with. That freedom can only exist under anarchy. But we currently suffer under a state so libertarians must not get suckered into supporting legislation that appears to enable voluntary association but really only allows discrimination in a manner approved by the state.