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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/28/10

Property Rights and Public Accommodations

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In the early sixties, the young black students in the South had had enough.

Enough separate drinking fountains, enough all-night drives because no motel would provide a room, and enough refusal of service at restaurants and lunch counters.

"Screw this," they said, and so they sat at Woolworth's lunch counters anyway, where they were taunted, spat upon, beaten, and arrested.

The white restaurant owners resisted, most notably one Lester Maddox in Atlanta who stood at the door of his Pickrick restaurant, axe handle in hand, threatening to use it on any black citizen who might attempt to enter. Enough white Georgia citizens were sufficiently delighted by Maddox' act of defiance that they elected him Governor of the state.

But the students persisted, organizing "freedom rides" throughout the south, where they were joined by supporters of all ages and races from around the country until, at last, they prevailed. In 1964 the Congress of the United States passed the first Public Accommodations law, which stipulated:

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, ... without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Today, the right of all persons to access to motels, restaurants, transportation facilities, etc., is settled law and is accepted throughout the land by most citizens.

"Most," but not all. Among the remaining dissenters is Rand Paul, a libertarian and the Republican candidate for the Senate in Kentucky.

Racial discrimination in public facilities is morally wrong, Paul agrees, and those who disapprove have a perfect right to boycott establishments that discriminate.

But the property rights of the owners, he insists, are sacrosanct. And however much we might deplore and protest the owners' decision to refuse service on the basis of race, the facilities are still private property and the owners have the indisputable right to do with their property as they wish.

The Myth of "Absolute Rights."

The moral center of libertarian dogma is a triad of rights: the rights to life, liberty and property. William Bayes (348) expresses the dogma with admirable clarity: "Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty and property without your consent...."

This proclamation is accompanied by a qualification the so-called "like liberty principle:" You have "the right to live your life as you choose so long as you don't infringe on the equal rights of others." (Boaz, 59). As we shall see, this qualification proves to be the undoing of libertarian absolutism.

An unyielding defense of property rights runs afoul of an inescapable moral conundrum: anyone who holds more than one moral principle must face the possibility of a conflict of principles, whereby one principle might have to yield to another. I call this "the moral relativism of conflict." And as Charles Frankel wisely pointed out, the person who attempts to escape this dilemma through an unyielding adherence to one and only one principle is not a moralist, the correct description is "a fanatic." Moliere's "Misanthrope," whose single moral precept was to never tell a lie, is the classical example of a fanatic.

For example: If you are asked directly by a Mafia hit-man the location of his intended victim, do you tell the truth? In fact, in defense of the target's "right to life," you are morally required to tell a lie. In fact, the law so stipulates, for if you tell the truth you will be charged with being an accessory to murder. A scene from the sixties movie "Dr. Strangelove" exemplifies another such conflict: Is it permissible to steal coins from a Coke machine in order to make a phone call that saves the world from nuclear annihilation?

Libertarians cannot escape from this "relativism of conflict," for they insists upon not one, but at least three fundamental principles: the rights to life, liberty and property.

And yet, David Boaz, in his Libertarianism A Primer, proclaims that "Fundamental rights cannot conflict. Any claim of conflicting rights must represent a misinterpretation of fundamental rights." (Boaz, 89) Boaz offers no defense of this dogmatic pronouncement.. Small wonder. It is indefensible. Talk to a libertarian for a few minutes, and if he affirms that all persons are entitled to equal rights (the "like liberty principle") and if that libertarian has even a modicum of moral rationality, he must yield on this point. For consider:

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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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