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Genuine freedom of choice includes the right of individuals to discriminate between choices, and not simply the freedom to choose between limited options the liberals deem fit for social use. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Genuine freedom of choice includes the right of individuals to discriminate between choices, and not simply the freedom to choose between limited options the liberals deem fit for social use. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The liberal moral police

Bleeding heart liberals are out to dictate what should be acceptable to everyone in society

A Muslim-only apartment complex set to be developed in Greater Noida hit news last week, bringing with it some opinion on the reasons behind the development. On the one side are those who wish to see this as yet another step towards Muslims asserting a separate identity. Others, however, believe Muslims faced with discrimination against them are left with no choice but to form their own ghettos. The latter is the more politically correct stance that many within mainstream media have preferred to hold onto for long now. But as with many inconvenient truths that find no space beyond social media circles these days, there are often concrete reasons behind social biases.

But if Muslims seeking separate housing are bigots or the victims of mass-discrimination is really beyond the point. What is actually worrying about the whole episode is the call from self-righteous liberals for anti-discrimination laws to end housing discrimination. No longer should exclusive housing enclaves based on caste, religion or other criteria be part of a truly multicultural India, they say. If the dream of these liberals were to come true, as it has in many countries in the developed world, no longer would landlords be free to dispose their property as they wish. But that is seen as too little a price to pay for the almighty moral stamp of approval coming from the champions of multiculturalism.

Despite concerns of bleeding heart liberals, the disposition of property is best left to landlords for the simple reason that they face both the benefits and the costs of their own decisions. This, in fact, underlies the very basis of free choice. People should be free to pick and choose on all counts as long as they are willing to take full responsibility for their own choices. What, however, seems to be the liberal agenda is taking active steps to discourage discrimination based on what they deem as unfair counts like religion, sex, language, ethnicity, etc. These groups supposedly ought to live together to make the liberal ideal of a multicultural paradise come true. But this course of action represents nothing more than forced integration of widely divergent social groups.

If choice were indeed limited to what the liberal moral police deemed to be okay it would represent nothing more than an illusion. Free choice then would be no less a joke than it would under moral policing by orthodox religious groups that liberals often loath. Genuine freedom of choice includes the right of individuals to discriminate between choices, and not simply the freedom to choose between limited options the liberals deem fit for social use. In fact, such discrimination is implicit in many of life’s choices, starting from choosing a potential mate to hiring the right workers. The liberal case may well be it is discrimination based on unmeritorious characters like skin colour, sex, caste, economic class etc. that should be condemned and stopped by the state.

Indeed, if the liberal moral police were omniscient, the rest of society could simply play to their tunes. But, quite often, the practitioners of discrimination are more right in the choices they make, even when it is based on social prejudices. It would be nothing less than paternalistic to assume that the multiculturalists know local conditions that go into rational decision-making better than people on the ground. This is not to say such choices are never in error. The crucial point is that free choice imposes costs and benefits where it lies, thus providing the incentive to change behaviour. A landlord refusing to offer his services to a particular group pays the economic cost of it when a competitor eats into his profits. An employer ill-treating his workers pays the price for it when the worker chooses to join hands with the competition.

The economics of discrimination pioneered by American economist Gary S. Becker documents all this. In India, the case of the empowerment of Dalits is perhaps the best example of the increased cost of discrimination fostering fast social change. As the economy became increasingly liberalized in the last two decades, the opening up of alternate job opportunities allowed repressed Dalits to move to better jobs (and thus improve their social stature) while also making their erstwhile masters to increasingly accommodate Dalits or lose out on their services.

With reference to housing in particular, it is undue trouble caused by a tenant that has to be balanced against potential income though him. Prima facie, this decision is best left to landlords who possess the best incentive to make the right call. But more importantly, such free choice would also make discrimination based on “unfair" grounds more difficult as the cost of discrimination is directly borne by the landlord. This is why political action is often the refuge of those wanting discrimination without incurring its costs. Just think of political systems that perpetuated slavery and feudalism in the west, and the caste system in India.

Individuals also possess the tendency to associate with similar fellow beings in a manner that reflects their own social and economic concerns, as demonstrated by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling in his segregation model. Private covenants specifying rules within private housing societies is another way of resolving future conflicts. For instance, a Brahmin society wishing to maintain its exclusivity may (through the means of a covenant) bar residents from selling property to non-Brahmins. Communities formed of voluntary individuals, in other words, can decide on property matters better than both bleeding heart liberals and religious groups that call for coercive political action.

None of this is to deny the rights of liberals dreaming of a bright multicultural future. They should very well be free to create a multicultural society of their dreams, but well within their own means and through voluntary choice rather than using the state to impose their wishes on the rest of society. Liberals should also be free to propagate the merits of such a setup. But Brahmins, Muslims or any other community (religious or otherwise) wishing to form their own ghettoes should be left equally free.

Natural Order runs every Monday, with a libertarian take on the world of economics and finance.

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