The problems with ‘Add the Words’

Wayne Hoffman Articles

Discrimination harms society as well as the people victimized by it. We all suffer when people are denied employment, housing, transportation or any other services because of who they are, how they look or act or what they believe. This does not mean that government action can cure the problem.

In fact, government action can make things worse.

That’s why the attempt to “add the words” “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s human rights law is disheartening and misguided.

First, understand that making discrimination illegal actually encourages racists, sexists, and other discriminatory individuals to keep their motives hidden. By using the threat of prosecution or penalties to make people pretend to be inclusive, government doesn’t stamp out bad motives; it just encourages people to hide their true intentions more effectively. That also makes it hard for potential employees, tenants and customers to know with whom they’re doing business. If someone hates you or hates what you believe in, do you really want to be their customer? Or their employee? I’d rather not spend a dime with people who discriminate against me or a class of people.

What about the people adding the words is supposed to protect? Are they more likely to be hired if this bill becomes law? While some might say yes, I would argue that the opposite is true. Employers are actually incentivized not to hire people from protected classes because employers understand the problems associated with releasing someone from employment when that person could file a complaint with a government agency. The employer won’t say it, and the would-be employee may never know it. But that’s the unintended consequence of this kind of policy.

Under a free market, and especially in this modern era of instant communication and feedback, discrimination by individuals and businesses can still be rapidly curtailed because customers can boycott those who engage in disagreeable practices. How long would a restaurant stay in business if its owners explicitly banned one race of people from eating there? It would be protested immediately, blasted and lambasted on social media and in the news, and that business would either change its ways or shut down.

Finally, the very fact that this bill has been introduced and is being seriously debated is kind of a slap in the face to Idahoans. It implies—wrongly—that Idahoans are nasty people who would discriminate against their neighbors unless the government intervenes. The vast majority of Idahoans are good-hearted people who have absolutely no inclination to turn away prospective customers or tenants. The rare exceptions would be effectively revealed (and punished) by a free market, even if we never add any words.