Jul 16, 2015

The Market Doesn’t Care, and That’s a Wonderful Thing

The market facilitates cooperation without regard to our political disagreements.

The market doesn’t care one bit about your feelings. By the same token, it doesn’t care about your political beliefs. It doesn’t care about your favorite baseball team either, except that it will be happy to sell you some merchandise thereof. (It will even do the same for Yankees fans.) The market only cares about what you have, about what you want, and about what your various price points are.

For the most part, the market’s blithe indifference is a quiet, almost unnoticed blessing. It lets each of us get what we want, with relative ease and efficiency, despite our many disagreements about imponderables. These disagreements would otherwise cause us severe harm.

Once in a while, though, and particularly in the culture wars, this doesn’t hold true. Both sides have lately had their complaints.

On the right, the complaint is that bakers, photographers, chapel owners, and others in the $53 billion wedding industry are now being asked to serve same-sex clients. This they would rather not do. (Complaints about the sincerity of their complaint are easily dismissed: It is not for anyone else to tell them what their religion entails.)

The market doesn’t care one bit about the traditionalists’ politics; it would simply impose a few well-defined costs on them, in the form of lost sales and perhaps a damaged reputation. We understand that traditionalists are happy to absorb said costs. Gay couples, meanwhile, would have no shortage of other providers to choose from in the $53 billion wedding industry, and it’s not as if wedding services are provided on an emergency basis.

In short, the ethical problems are exceptionally few, and matters ought to end there. But sometimes the traditionalists are not being asked so nicely. While the market doesn’t care one bit about our politics, it does still respond, at times, to the impositions of public policy. And here is where the left’s complaints begin: The market ought to care about people’s politics, they say. And if it doesn’t, then we need to make the market care, particularly when it’s a question of how one treats gay and lesbian potential clients. Everyone should have an equal right to your cake!

As for me, I’d like to think that gays and lesbians can overcome prejudice, and even overt discrimination, without the benefit of nondiscrimination laws.

I’d like to think this because that’s more or less how it actually happened. It’s not libertarian fantasy. It’s actual, real-world history. The story of integrating gay and lesbian people into American life took place in millions of private, unheralded decisions, in a few thousand corporate policies, and – largely as an afterthought – in a couple dozen highly visible but highly inconsequential state laws. The private sector led the way and got no credit. The government followed reluctantly after, and everyone treated it, and only it, like it had done something courageous.

Even back in 2003, when no states had same-sex marriage, and when more than a dozen states still had sodomy laws (!) almost 300 of the Fortune 500 companies had formal, written nondiscrimination policies in place, and almost 200 of them offered domestic partnership benefits. And things have only gotten better – much better – in the meantime. The private sector has always taken the lead.     

That’s because we all reap benefits, regardless of our politics, from the existence of a market order that is crassly indifferent to whatever we care about in our private lives. The market just doesn’t have the time for this unrelated stuff, and thank goodness it doesn’t. We would all regret it if ideological purity – or sexual purity, or purity of any sort – became the price of doing business, or if we stopped to ask too often about the worldviews, the bedfellows, and the other foibles of those with whom we traded.

Traditionalists, who would like to discriminate against gays and lesbians, should be permitted to do so. It’s not that they’re doing anything noble or even efficient. They are behaving both contemptibly and to some degree inefficiently when they discriminate. (Note that they impose externalities on others, for the sake of a benefit that they alone consume, namely the satisfaction that they take in discriminating. If they could take this satisfaction from some other act, the externality might disappear. They might also be better neighbors.) In a better world, this sort of behavior would not exist. But by the very same token, we should not prohibit it – doing so would also shrink the extended economic order, the one from which we all benefit regardless of belief.

We are all crazy by someone else’s lights. By our own lights, we may sometimes seem exiled to a planet full of crazies. We should be careful, then, not to purchase a small amount of symbolic protest at the price of a large amount of gains from trade. We may be on the offensive today, against what we view as the absurd politics of our bigoted neighbors. But tomorrow, someone will come asking about us, and perhaps they will boycott us as well, for reasons that we cannot fathom. Barriers to market entry should not be so easily had: Much of what we do in the way of social coordination consists of strategically ignoring everyone else’s odd, indefensible, reactionary, bigoted, hair-on-fire leftist, or otherwise totally inexcusable beliefs or practices. The market is how we lunatics all get along despite ourselves.