Truly Free Markets Must Permit Discrimination


Freedom to enter into contracts includes the freedom to refuse, on any grounds.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals will quickly and enthusiastically tell you of the benefits of free markets and liberty; lower taxes, more choice, freedom of expression, no government snooping, and all the other good stuff. But there’s another side to liberty which isn’t so well advertised; the freedom to be a bigot.

Two recent cases have highlighted this issue, each in very different ways. In the US, the Kansas state legislator passed a law touted as protecting religious freedom. Sounds good, right? It does, right up until the point when you learn that it gives business owners the right to refuse to serve homosexuals. In Britain, there was a mini Twitter storm when UKIP councillor Donna Edmunds remarked that in a truly free market, businesses would and should have the right to decide who they would and would not engage with, even if that distinction was based on something as crude as ethnicity.

The Kansas law will almost certainly be struck down by the Constitutional Court, and the Twitter maelstrom quickly petered out (doubtless being drown out by cat memes and instagrams of peoples lunches), but the issues raised remain worthy of discussion, for if libertarian ideas are to become embedded in Britain, we as adherents need to be aware of the perceived negatives.

As Edmunds stated, a free market would by its very nature be free from anti discrimination legislation. It’s unlikely that many businesses would actively choose to narrow its potential customer base, but there would be those that would; for example the owners of a B&B who only permitted married couples to stay. And of course not all discrimination would need to be so overtly stated; a bar could refuse to serve a black, disabled, lesbian, Welsh trade unionists. It wouldn’t need to state which trait triggered the refusal, for privacy too is a central tenant of libertarian belief. Nor would it need to be consistent; the same person could return the following day be served as normal.

The principle defence, for those supporting truly free markets, is that businesses which discriminate would find themselves the victims of boycotts by a public put off by bigotry. Although this is theoretically sound, it is difficult to gauge just how effective this would be. When asked if people would patronise openly racist businesses, presumably most would say no, but as we all know when it comes down to it people follow the path of least resistance. For example poll after poll shows that those questioned believe we should avoid supermarkets and instead support local businesses, yet actual spending patterns show the opposite to be the case. Convenience trumps conviction, it would seem.

Another problem is that those who support the right to discriminate tend to be white middle class males. Although not immune to discrimination themselves, it can’t be denied that this group has the least to fear in an open market. It’s worth pointing out that political activists in general tend to be white middle class males, regardless of beliefs. But lets just say it doesn’t look great when proportionally privileged group call for radical changes that probably won’t hurt them.

However there are numerous potential positives to markets being unshackled from anti discrimination laws. Known racists could themselves be refused by businesses; bus and train companies could refuse to transport EDL and BNP branches to demonstrations. Those wishing to redress disparities in income could offer discounted rates to customers from ethic minorities. Single parents, struggling with juggling a job and child care, could take priority in queues. And the list goes on.

The justification for equality legislation is that it offers the disadvantaged some degree of protection. It takes as given that, when left to their own devices, people cannot be trusted not to be douche bags. And although there is plenty of evidence that certain groups continue to suffer discrimination in all aspects of life, it’s a rather fatalistic view of humanity.

The broader issue in all of this is whether or not we need Leviathan to force us to treat people equally. The answer to that depends on which you value more; freedom or equality. As nice as it would be to have both, that’s sadly not possible; you can be free or you can be equal, it really is a binary choice.


  1. I couldn’t help laughing at this bit:

    “you can either be free or equal”

    oh yh, you can either be discriminated against and therefore free.. or equal and discriminated…

    neither of which makes sense since being discriminated against doesn’t make you free OR equal.. thus rendering the stupid ‘free or equal’ idea pretty much in the bargain basement of arguments.

    • Equality doesn’t exist naturally; therefore it must be legislated for. Such legislation, as the article points out, reduces the freedom of individuals.
      Even those subject to discrimination are free to respond in kind or to express their displeasure; if discrimination is not permitted, it is not permitted to them, either.

  2. ” It takes as given that, when left to their own devices, people cannot
    be trusted not to be douche bags…. [which is] a rather fatalistic view of humanity.”

    Unfortunately, it’s also one supported by millennia of anecdote and observation, not to mention a fair few experimental confirmations (eg Milgram). The instances of humans defaulting to douchebaggery sadly vastly outweigh the instances of humans defaulting to heroism. One can’t seriously subscribe to libertarianism on the right, or anarchism on the left, without addressing that tendency with something stronger than “it’s power structures that make people this way” wishful thinking. (Which, as an instinctive anarchist myself, makes me kind of twitchy.)

  3. Interesting piece indeed. I wonder if the anti discrimination legislation could be considered as ensuring the market is free for the user, as to enable them to choose where to buy from too…


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