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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/28/10

Property Rights and Public Accommodations

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Is there an inviolable right to own a tactical nuclear weapon or to manufacture explosives in one's basement? This violates the neighbors' right to life. Is there a right to run past a "No Trespassing" sign to rescue a drowning child or an infant in a burning building?

The law permits such exceptions; it is called a "defense of necessity." Is a person permitted to steal a loaf of bread to avoid starvation? To condemn such an exercise of one's "right to life" is too much even for the dogmatic libertarian. Yet David Boaz' evasion of this trap is curious, and ultimately inconsistent. On the one hand, he writes that "[property] rights cannot apply where social and political life is impossible," (Boaz 86) which is to say that property rights are not absolute. And yet, earlier in the book (37), Boaz, citing John Locke, writes that the rights to life, liberty and property are "prior to the existence of government thus we call them "natural rights,' because they exist in nature." This latter pronouncement would seem to indicate that because property rights are "prior to government," a starving person is never justified in saving his life and that of his family by stealing the property of another. But does not the libertarian also insist that the right to life is also "prior to government"? Thus the libertarian offers no resolution to this conflict between the rights of life and property.

Which brings us, at last, to the right of access to public accommodations.

Admittedly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 curtails the absolute property rights of the owner of a motel or a restaurant, etc. But the act does so to affirm and protect the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness of those who would otherwise be discriminated against. For racial, religious, or other discrimination is a fundamental insult to the dignity of the affected individuals and a validation of their second-class citizenship. This is intolerable in a civilized society. The libertarian agrees: "The ethical or normative basis of libertarianism is respect for the dignity and worth of every (other) person." (Boaz 97)

By defending the right of the owner of a public facility to deny access "on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin," the libertarians repudiate their proclaimed adherence to the "like liberty principle" and they betray an absence of that most fundamental of moral sentiments, empathy. In other words, they fail to comprehend what it is like to be the victim of discrimination.

Martin Luther King's elaboration of this point, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," is unsurpassed in its force and eloquence:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "n-word," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

The Upshot

As a youngster, I was taught that virtue in the individual and justice in the state consisted of the triumph of good over evil. But then I entered the university and studied philosophy, where I learned that the moral life is not as simple as that. For, in addition, virtue and justice can also consist in making the optimal forced choices among several competing "goods" or among several necessary evils what moral philosophers call "tragic choices." These include engaging in a defensive war to resist aggression, performing an abortion to preserve a woman's life, stealing food to avoid starvation, and requiring the owner of a motel or a restaurant to serve all customers regardless of their race, religion or national origin.

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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