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On the Right Not to Bake a Cake

Groom Figurines on Wedding CakeAs I’ve argued, although a cake baker ought not discriminate against gay couples for being gay, he nevertheless has a moral right to do so. This is an application of the right to property—the right to use the product of one’s effort as one sees fit. Correspondingly, government has no moral right to force a cake baker (or anyone else) to do business with a gay couple (or anyone else).

Unfortunately, Colorado government (like various other governments) now violates the rights of business owners to operate their businesses as they see fit in this regard. And the Denver Post editorial board is happy about that:

Sometimes the rights guaranteed to individuals collide in uncomfortable ways.

The conflict over whether a Lakewood baker [Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop] was justified in refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is one of those conflicts.

We were glad to see the state’s Civil Rights Commission [recently] uphold a prior ruling that the baker was wrong in turning away Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

In addition to being wrong, the editorial’s language is imprecise: The so-called Civil Rights Commission did not rule that “the baker was wrong” (he was in fact wrong); rather, it ruled that government will punish the baker if he does not bake cakes for gay couples. There is a world of difference between a private individual condemning some action as immoral, and the government punishing that action. Of all potential immoral acts, government should prohibit only a small subset of them: specifically, those that violate rights—which means those involving the use of initiatory physical force (including fraud and the like).

The Post’s claim that a gay couple has a “right” to force a baker to bake them a cake—and that this is a “collision” of rights—indicates that editorial’s authors have no idea what rights are.

Rights are moral principles defining a person’s proper freedom of action in a social context. Rights derive from man’s need to pursue life-promoting values; his basic means of identifying and pursuing such values is his own reasoning mind; and a necessary condition for acting on his judgment is his freedom to use the product of his effort as he sees fit. This latter gives rise to the right to property.

That business owners have property rights means that they have a moral right to operate their business as they see fit (provided they respect others’ rights)—and that no one, including government, has a moral right to force them to do otherwise.

The actual collision in this case is between one man’s moral right to run his business as he sees fit, and the government’s illegitimate use of force to stop him from acting on his judgment. That is not a collision of rights, it is a violation of rights—a violation perpetrated by the government.

Rights properly understood cannot collide. Either a person has a right to a given action or use of specific property, or he does not. If he does, no one else can have a right to violate that right. However we evaluate the baker, the government in this matter is in the wrong.


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