by Pierre Lemieux

“…there is a difference between moral outrage against treating individuals as mere members of groups…and the glorification of a romantic idea of mob inclusion, which is just another face of groupism or collectivism.”


Like most people I know and legions I don’t know, I reacted with outrage to the case of two black men expelled from a Starbucks in Philadelphia. They were waiting for a third party before ordering, and asked to use the bathroom. Starbucks’s policy is not clear, but lingering customers are certainly welcome. What seems clear is that the two young men might not have been asked to leave and arrested if they had been of the right color. They were later released and the police apologized.

My moral outrage was vindicated, with a vengeance. The inclusivity crowd exploded with anger, perhaps even more so because Starbucks has made “inclusion and diversity” a battle and marketing cry. Remember three years ago when the company introduced a program to start conversations about race with customers? After Philadelphia, the company promised to close the 8,000 U.S. company-owned stores for an afternoon of racial-bias education.

I don’t know if you are as inclusive as I am, but I can’t help feeling some sympathy for the poor employee (sorry, the “partner,” as the company calls them) who, in Philadelphia, called the police, perhaps not knowing they would be arrested. The diversity crowd asked that she be excluded from Starbucks’s inclusivity forever, but it is not clear if she was fired or just moved to another Starbucks location. My point is that there is a difference between moral outrage against treating individuals as mere members of groups, which is what seems to have happened, and the glorification of a romantic idea of mob inclusion, which is just another face of groupism or collectivism.

Note how companies like Starbucks are motivated by purely commercial reasons to offer quasi-public spaces for people to hang out. To the extent that public places are public goods, these companies are private producers of public goods. This is to be celebrated.

Yet, exclusionary rules are clearly necessary for peaceful and efficient coexistence in society. Individuals may naturally exclude whom they want from their circles of friends. Not everybody can be allowed into a Starbucks bathroom, if only because there would soon be no Starbucks bathroom and no Starbucks. With the current opioid crisis, many public venues lock their bathrooms lest addicts go there for shooting up with their drugs.

Rules of exclusion are most efficient if left to conventional development or to ordinary contractual relations, which let private discretion deal with different local circumstances. Private property itself is defined in terms of the freedom to exclude, and its efficiency largely comes from this feature. You and I can live in the same society because your living room is yours and mine is mine.

Whether or to which extent private racial discrimination should be banned or allowed is an important question which has become difficult to discuss openly. But much private discrimination is still allowed. It is only discrimination on the basis of some criteria that is prohibited. The criteria, however, have been subject to mission creep, from race to sex, age, sexual orientation, gender self-identification–and the sky is the limit.

When private discrimination is allowed, an individual who discriminates has to pay the cost of his discrimination. For example, if a business owner discriminates against some group of potential employees who are as productive as others, he deprives himself of productive employees and profit opportunities. (See Gary Becker‘s The Economics of Discrimination.) This general phenomenon reduces irrelevant discrimination while respecting the preferences of all individuals equally.

One general feature of the diversity crowd is that its typical member prefers political solutions to issues of inclusion and exclusion. In reality, government has been, and still is, the worst excluder. In the heydays of racial discrimination, public services were the worst discriminators and laws also imposed discrimination in private venues. There is even a word (of non-American origin) for forced, public discrimination: “apartheid.” It is true that public exclusion criteria have moved from race to new politically-correct identities, which mainly means that the content of political correctness has changed.

Consider how government treats its own non-paying customers: it puts them in jail for tax evasion. In other cases, though, government is very inclusive with non-paying customers, when they are part of groups that are deemed too poor or are favored for other political reasons.

Exclusion criteria change over time, but they are nearly always more dangerous when they are public rather than private.

Nearly everywhere in America (and elsewhere in the civilized world), individuals are forbidden to patronize smoked-filled rooms or even to build their own. Busses, trains, and airlines are even prohibited by law to reserve a section for smokers. Vaping is banned too, which suggests that the reason is not some externality making nearby people drop dead. Or consider the discrimination against those who want to import freely from foreigners with whom they have struck a mutually agreeable bargain. For example, foreign pick-up trucks are hit by a 25% duty, which of course pushes up the price of domestic ones too. Or think about laws that exclude workers who don’t have the proper occupational licenses or who are otherwise forbidden to sell their wares. No need to invoke cocaine or prostitution: remember Eric Garner, killed by New York City policemen while arrested for selling contraband cigarettes. And so forth.

Starbucks is much softer, and its exclusionary criteria are different. Five years ago, the company “respectfully” asked ordinary citizens not to come armed, which discriminates against all its customers who want to exercise their 2nd-Amendment rights (although admittedly the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether carrying is covered by the constitutional provision). I have this lingering suspicion that not many rednecks and cowgirl-baristas are hired at Starbucks. But there are good reasons to respect the Starbucks’s private right to discriminate.

On the other hand, it is a crime–not the violation of a polite exhortation–for any ordinary citizen, even if he has a concealed-carry license, to bring a gun into a post office or even on its parking lot. It is true that many USPS employees have literally “gone postal,” while nobody has ever “gone Starbucks.” Still, it is not very inclusive to prohibit customers from carrying in post offices.

For the inclusivity crowd, only the forms of exclusion they consider bad are defined as discrimination. The forms of discrimination they like are actually called “inclusion,” like when they defend, in the very name of inclusivity, the forcible exclusion of people with different opinions who exercise their free speech rights. The main problem with this ideology of exclusionary inclusivity is, as I suggested above, that it is a political ideology, which calls on government to intervene. It is not just moral outrage.

It is a defendable and respectable view that the public sector should be the domain of non-discrimination; and private activities, as the word “private” suggests, the domain of (allowed) discrimination. It should be for each individual to choose whom to include and whom to exclude from his own voluntary relations. This view would still justify moral outrage when discrimination or exclusion is the product of collectivist bigotry.

The invasion of the field of inclusion-exclusion by government diktats is a recipe for social strife. The more private discrimination is evicted by public apartheid (in its most general, not necessarily racial, sense), the more certain groups will rightly feel excluded. Affirmative action is one sort of exclusionary inclusivity. Perhaps this partly explains the rise of populism.