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Dress Codes and a Free Society

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At first glance, the idea of dress codes seems foreign to a free society. Actually, however, the case is just the opposite.

That truth was manifest most recently at, of all places, a press conference held at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., to announce the inauguration of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. As recounted by Executive Director Daniel McAdams,

The front desk called nervously as we closed in on a half hour before the press conference start time yesterday. Two young men fully dressed in Ron Paul regalia, but unfortunately of the T-shirt-and-shorts variety, were desperate to get into the press conference announcing Ron Paul’s new Institute for Peace and Prosperity. Unfortunately the venue had a dress code, and shorts and T-shirts were definitely out, Ron Paul fans or not. The young men were dejected, pleading with the front desk as I arrived downstairs.

According to the rules of the Capitol Hill Club,

Members and guests are courteously requested to observe the following regulations regarding dress at the Club. Gentlemen will please wear coats and ties in the Main Dining Room. Coats with sport shirts will be acceptable throughout the other areas of the Club. Current trends dictate the acceptability of ladies’ high-fashion attire.

The two young men were able to get proper attire and attend the press conference.

Now contrast that with what happened last year in Cocoa, Florida, a city on Florida’s central east coast.

The Cocoa city council passed, by a 3-1 vote, a “saggy-pants” ordinance in October that was supposed to take effect on January 1, 2013. The ordinance sought to ban pants or skirts that expose underwear or skin more than 3 inches below the waistline. It was to be enforced on streets, sidewalks, and other designated city property. Police were to warn first-time offenders and give them a chance to pull up their pants (or skirts). Violation of the ordinance was to result in a fine of $25 for the first offense, $50 for the second, $75 for the third, and $100 for each time after that.

As to be expected, the ordinance was harshly criticized.

The president of the local NAACP, Alberta Wilson, termed it “nothing more than a vehicle for further harassment of young people.” “I don’t like the saggy pants any more than you do,” she said, but added, “I respect people’s Constitutional rights.”

Other critics of the ordinance said it would give police the right to increase their stopping and frisking of people solely on the basis of their clothing, which could lead to racial profiling. Cocoa Police Chief Mark Klayman acknowledged that the new law would allow police broader power: “This would give the police officers the probable-cause stop. Just like if you stop a car with a tail light out, it can lead to other charges.”

Amid concerns that the ordinance would entail costly legal battles to defend its enforcement, the Cocoa city council repealed the ordinance by a vote of 4-1 in December. Similar attempts have been made in other cities across the country.

The difference between the two dress codes should be obvious.

One is private; the other is public. One is voluntary; the other is mandatory. One has neutral consequences; the other has negative consequences. One is straightforward; the other is subject to manipulation. One is easy to enforce; the other is difficult to enforce. One results in exclusion; the other results in fines. One is compatible with a free society; the other is foreign to a free society.

“No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” — I can remember seeing signs to this effect at the entrance to some business establishments. The ability of any place of business to have a dress code is a mark of a free society. In a free society, private-property rights are paramount. He who owns the property establishes the requirements for entry and restrictions on activities. That is true whether the property is a private residence or a place of business. It does not mean that property owners can aggress against their guests with impunity just because they make the rules. The “penalty” for violators of a home or business establishment’s dress code is exclusion or refusal of service, not beatings, fines, or imprisonments. That is how the state operates. Refusing someone entrance to, or service on, your property is not aggression against him. In a free society there is no right to trespass on someone else’s property.

Even in our only relatively free society, some clubs and restaurants have a dress code. But it is tolerated — even by those who profess to hold to the primacy of private property — only if society at large considers the dress code reasonable, logical, rational, or necessary, not because a business owner has the absolute freedom to decide who wears what in his place of business. But in a free society, a business owner has the right to require formal attire, no clothes at all, or anything in between. That is because in a free society all businesses have the right to refuse entrance or service to anyone on the basis not only of dress, but of height, weight, race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, appearance, marital status, political party, or anything else. It doesn’t matter whether the exclusion or denial seems logical or illogical, reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, or necessary or unnecessary. In a free society, it couldn’t be any other way.

The same goes for the employees in a place of business. In a free society, employers have the absolute right to dictate how employees should dress or not dress — whether or not it is considered reasonable, logical, rational, or necessary to the job. Just as there is no right to employment at a particular business, so there is no right of an employee to dress as he chooses. Not in a free society. That would forever settle the continual complaints and lawsuits concerning the rights of employees to wear religious or political jewelry or attire in the workplace.

But what about public property? What about public schools, parks, libraries, housing, stadiums, and other venues? There can be found at the beginning of every school year arguments about the pros and cons of requiring children to wear uniforms to public school. Libertarians take no sides in disputes of this nature. There is no right or wrong answer to the uniform question. In a private school it is up to the administration; parents who object can send their children to another school. In a free society there are no public schools. Just as there are no public parks, libraries, housing, stadiums, or other venues; they are all private.

A free society doesn’t mean there are no rules, regulations, or standards of acceptable dress or conduct; it just means that government doesn’t decree them.

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