The modern so-called progressive welfare state, while not quite seeking to abolish private property, is certainly redefining the meaning of ownership. It is doing so, among other things, by casting afresh the meaning of rights. Instead of merely protecting the rights of citizens to live free from aggression and coercion, government has ventured into the business of conferring expansive and expensive conveyer belt entitlements, the kind that range from the right to housing, to the right to feel like a cherished member of society. With this mandate, the state must expand and intensify its wealth appropriating strategies, and it must sprout tendrils that reach into the backyards of its citizens. This is the Faustian deal which citizens strike.
In a modern economy, the goods exchanged are not necessarily material; hence government can be said to meddle with private property when it regulates contracts. Indeed, government sets minimum wages, and instructs landlords who to rent to and, occasionally, at what price. It imposes racial and gender quotas in the hiring practices of private enterprise, and in admission to private schools. Neither is it beyond government ken to instruct banks to lend money to certain groups. This erodes “the principle of private contractual freedom…and along with it the institution of property,” writes Richard Pipes in Property and Freedom.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission (HRS) and its attendant machinery helps to enshrine, enforce bogus rights as well as blur the boundaries of private property. Described by Karen Selick in a paper for the Calgary-based Property Rights Research Institute, the HRC imposes “a form of involuntary servitude on certain members of society—the goods and service providers. It transforms others—consumers who belong to one of the privileged minority group—into overlords. The latter have the right to force the former to perform services for them against their will.” “There was a time,” writes Selick, “when this was called “slavery,” but there are not many people willing to call a slave a slave these days.”
Recently indentured is Scott Brockie, a Toronto printer who refused to provide a printing service to a gay organization on the grounds of religious belief. The HRC, incidentally, allows a particularly nasty subversion of due process. A respondent gets none of the mandatory defenses afforded to a defendant under the Criminal Code. Indeed, a Kafkaesque situation.
A priori, the adjudicator sets about limiting the respondent’s freedoms in accordance with Section 1 of the Charter which subjects the freedom of religion, conscience, thought, belief, opinion, and expression to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” And then down the shoot she slides with the “slippery slope” logical fallacy: Allow Brockie to refuse to serve gays, she asserts, and before long there will be “fewer and fewer services available to members of marginalized groups.”
And so, having failed to violate property or person himself, Scott Brockie shifts from peaceably minding his own business and running a private enterprise, to being accused by a quasi-jurist of tampering with the self-worth (another bogus right) of a protected group. It goes without saying that the “potential” harm to dignity (being a ‘right’ as well) was found to outweigh Brockie’s private property rights, freedom of religion and association (for that is what’s at stake). One cannot fail to be bowled over by the delicately calibrated balancing of “competing rights” the adjudicator and the Code have effected.
We come to the darkest corner of the decision: “When he enters the public market place and offers services to the public,” goes the ruling, Brockie, who, by the way, is not a public servant, can no longer expect to practice his religious beliefs by denying services to gays and lesbians. Herewith lies the redefinition of property and the enforcement of servitude. Open up shop and the right of free association becomes subject to the arbitrary intrusion of your new stakeholders; they will duly ensure that contracts you pursue or reject conform to community standards and to their notion of the public good, or else, buddy.
It is easy to lose sight of the issues here. All the same, the complainants in this case don’t have the right to access a printing service that belongs to Scott Brockie. They can petition for it. If refused, they are free to organize boycotts, engage in negative advertising, get petitions signed, or, most productive, take their business to the competition. But in a free society, there can be no place for a coerced, involuntary association between adults, contractual or other.
©2000 By Ilana Mercer
The Calgary Herald