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The Chick-Fil-A Controversy

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The Chick-Fil-A controversy provides a good example of how differently statists and libertarians view the concept of freedom. By the term “statists,” I’m referring, of course, to both conservatives and liberals.

The controversy arises out of statements opposing gay marriage made by Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy. The statements have caused public officials in various cities to consider denying Chick-Fil-A permits to operate its restaurants within their cities.

Generally, conservatives are lining up on the side of Chick-Fil-A, agreeing with Cathy’s position that marriage is an institution involving only a man and a woman. Therefore, conservatives argue, city officials are wrong to deny Chick-Fil-A a permit to operate restaurants within the community.

Liberals generally are taking the free-speech route. They’re saying although they disagree with Cathy’s position, Chick-Fil-A has the right under principles of free speech to take any position he wants. Therefore, liberals are saying, city officials should not deny Chick-Fil-A a permit to do business.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?

Neither liberals nor conservatives address the fundamental issue: What business does the state (including the city) have issuing permits to do business?

After all, isn’t that the kind of thing that’s done in communist countries? Go to Cuba. Go to Vietnam. Go to China. In order to engage in private business, a person must secure permission from the state. That means a license or a permit. It means that a person must ask, beg, plead, or bribe government officials for the privilege of opening and operating a business.

What do libertarians say? We say that engaging in economic enterprise isn’t a state-granted privilege. It’s a fundamental, God-given right. The state has no more business granting permits to engage in economic enterprise than it does granting permits to engage in intellectual enterprise.

Liberals seem to get that principle in the area of speech.

Suppose, for example, that someone were to propose the idea of having the state license the publication of books. Before anyone could publish a book, he’d have to secure a permit from the state.

While my hunch is that conservatives would love the idea, liberals would go up in arms over it. They’d say that people have the right to publish and read any books they want, no matter how offensive others might find them. They’d say that what a person publishes or reads should not be subject to majority vote. (Of course, liberals aren’t entirely consistent in this area. Like conservatives, they favor the licensing of radio and television networks and stations.)

Why isn’t what a person does with his own money as important as what he wishes to publish or read? It’s his money, after all. It doesn’t belong to others. It doesn’t belong to society. It doesn’t belong to the collective.

The money is the owner’s private property. Why should he have to get the state’s permission to invest it anyway he wants? Why should he have to get the state’s permission to offer goods and services to others in the marketplace? Why should he have to get the state’s permission to sustain his life though labor?

Ultimately, in a free market — that is, a market free of government interference — the consumer is sovereign. He can refuse to patronize any business he wants. We see that phenomenon in the Chick-Fil-A controversy. Many consumers who disagree with Cathy’s position are choosing to boycott the restaurant. That’s their right, just as it is the right of others to choose to patronize the restaurant.

But what statists just cannot see is that a person’s right to open and operate a business is as fundamental as a person’s right to boycott a business. Neither one of them should have to get the state’s permission to engage in what is purely peaceful behavior.

When it comes to freedom, this is one of those blind spots that characterize both conservatives and liberals. Sure, most of them will go out of their way to profess their allegiance to “free enterprise,” while at the same time supporting the power of the state to deny people the right to engage in enterprise. Statists simply cannot see that it is impossible to reconcile the principles of free enterprise with an economic system in which businesses are not free to operate without permission of the state.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.