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The Right to Discriminate

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The barring of women from a golf club may seem politically incorrect to some, but it is not illegal, according to the Irish supreme court. In a 3-2 decision, the court ruled that the Portmarnock Golf Club in Dublin may continue to deny membership to women.

The case arose in 2002 when the Equality Authority of Ireland filed a complaint on behalf of the National Women’s Council of Ireland following similar protests against the men-only membership policy of the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the famous Masters Tournament, in the United States. In 2004, the Dublin District Court ruled that the club’s practice violated Ireland’s Equal Status Law, imple-mented in 2000, and threatened to revoke its bar license if the club did not offer women equal access to the clubhouse, which resulted in an appeal to the supreme court.

The club acknowledged that it discriminated in favor of men, but noted that the anti-discrimination law allows exceptions for all-male and all-female clubs. While the end result was the correct decision, it is too bad that the club’s case had to center on the exception in the law, rather than on the principle that, in a free society, trade is based on contracts and voluntary exchange, and people have the freedom to do what they wish with their private property, even if others disagree with those decisions. To mandate that the club offer memberships to women would have violated the club’s right of contract — to establish its own policies for use of its private property — and would have effectively given the “victims” of discrimination the right of trespass. Moreover, such a ruling would have interfered with club members’ freedom of association.

The beauty of the free-market system, however, is that wherever there is a demand for a good or service, there is an incentive for someone to profit by satisfying that demand. While women may not be able to enjoy membership at this particular club, or others like it, many women enjoy golf just as much as men and there are numerous other clubs eager to welcome them as members because it is more profitable for them to do so, they feel that having both male and female members offers a richer experience and social environment for members, or they simply think it is the right thing to do. Maybe others will operate women-only golf clubs in order to offer a different type of experience and atmosphere, just as many businesses have been very successful operating women-only health clubs. Of course, that does not mean that everyone must agree with an individual’s or business’s views or policies, and others are free to voice their objections or try to influence those policies through peaceable boycott, as long as they do not resort to violence, the threat of violence, or the destruction of private property.

An essential freedom

It is true that discrimination can take ugly forms when it comes to the ill treatment of others because of irrational prejudices, but it is not necessarily a dirty word. We discriminate when we choose the kinds of clothes we wear, the kind of food we eat, the kinds of people we wish to be friends with or date (just think of all the criteria people screen for on the average dating service: gender, sexual preference, age, race, education level, geographic proximity, religion, political views, et cetera), or how we think and act when a shady-looking character approaches us on the street.

In the economic realm, businesses offer different prices to seniors, students, members of the military, first-time buyers (especially for big-ticket items such as homes and automobiles), and so forth. Bars and clubs oftentimes offer waived or reduced cover charges and drink specials to women through “Ladies’ Night” promotions. There is nothing nefarious about these forms of discrimination; they are simply effective marketing and business practices. Those who do find them objectionable, however, are free to patronize other establishments.

The freedom to discriminate does not mean that every kind of discrimination is a good thing, any more than the freedom to abuse alcohol or hit oneself repeatedly over the head with a baseball bat constitutes good sense or morals. And in no case may one use discrimination as a justification to violate another’s rights to his life, liberty, or property. But defending the freedom of others to make bad decisions — again, provided that they do not infringe on the fundamental rights of others — is essential if we are to preserve our freedom to make decisions generally about our own lives and property.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation and a contributor to “The Libertarian Perspective,” a weekly column of free-market, libertarian thought. He holds a master’s degree in economics from George Mason University.