Friday, September 10, 2010

The right to discriminate against customers

I hope my bitterness isn't showing.

When I was in cub scouts, our den spent two weeks writing, building and practicing all of the components of a puppet show. We had a big cardboard box we made into a theater and the puppets were static figures on the end of popsicle sticks.

Attending the puppet performance meant my mom and I had to delay an extra day to leave for a family trip up north. It was held in the middle school gymnasium.

So after the performance, I asked my Mom what she thought of our work. I've never forgotten the conversation that followed.

She was unable to make any sense of the puppet show because a small pack of screaming infants were running lose the entire time. The audience could see the sloppy figures we made, but no one could hear a word of the script we had written. All of that effort was wasted.

Angered, I asked my mother why people would bring unruly infants to a live performance. She said it was a family event, so all children are welcome.

That never sat right with me, and a news story this week has touched off the debate about what right people have to be free of disruptive children.

The Olde Salty's Restaurant in North Carolina printed off some signs saying screaming children will not be tolerated, and the staff will evict any table that includes an unruly child. Children in general aren't banned - but the ones who make a scene are asked to leave until they calm down. Angry parents have said restaurant owner Brenda Armes is discriminating.

And they're right.

Just as customers are free to discriminate against restaurants they don't want to patronize, businesses should be free to turn away customers they don't want. In this case it's clear that Brenda Armes does not have some deep resentment of children - she just wants her customers to have an enjoyable atmosphere. She use discretion to sort out the troublemakers - people who are caught in the act of disrupting others.

The weird defense of some offended parents is that they can't control their children - a mild admission of irresponsibility. However, how does that justify bringing loud children into unwelcome restaurants? If I had a dog that leaks a thick, black ichor everywhere I go, I would not take it over to a friend's house. How would saying "I have no control over how much slime comes out of my dog" change the fact that I am harming others?

The popular culture has learned the term "externality" from economics in terms of corporate pollution, and it applies equally to this case. A screaming child destroys the enjoyment of the strangers around him or her. Those people have not been presented with a choice to be in that situation, or reaped any benefits from the child. They are paying a cost for an action they had no role in.

Two sides of the same coin

The right for businesses to discriminate was recently mishandled by Rand Paul. Simply put, businesses already have an incentive not to discriminate - it hurts profits. Even racist business owners know that dollar bills spend the same, no matter who they came from, and it's foolish to turn paying customers away. This is well understood by multiple Nobel Prize-winning economists, including Gary Becker and Milton Friedman.

In addition, customers will avoid businesses that they think unfairly discriminate, so being caught discriminating is a dangerous game.

The market does a good job of preventing discrimination. It does an even better job when the public opposes discrimination, such as the modern opposition to racism. This is compared to government solutions to discrimination, which only kick in when it becomes politically popular. If the public supports racism, then the government will pass things like Jim Crow instead.

While the market failed to prevent "whites only" businesses in the South, government action didn't prevent it either because that's what the public supporte.

Gay marriage supporters do not pretend that a majority of the public support their position. They are counting down until that shift happens to change the laws. Why? Because when government is allowed to be involved in discrimination, the side it chooses depends on the whim of the public. Institutional discrimination and anti-discriminatory laws are two sides of the same coin.

Government involvement in discrimination also has other consequences; false positives, fraudulent accusations, firms need to spend resources to protect themselves from these mistakes and some firms are discouraged from hiring the targeted groups to protect themselves from hiring a potential liability.

There are also the losses of freedom to business owners. Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute asked:

Suppose you're an Italian restaurateur and you want to have only Italian men as your waiters because that's the ambience you want. Shouldn't you be able to do that?
By the same token, I would be opposed to a law banning screaming children from all restaurants. It should be the choice of business owners to keep out people they think will disrupt customers. If it turns out the policy was a mistake, the loss of business will force the owners to repeal their own rules.

But they can't change the law if hurts their profits. They may end up going out of business.

But profits are up

Back at Olde Salty's Restaurant, the decision to discriminate has not hurt profits. Brenda Armes said sales are up. Some of this can be attributed to all the media attention her restaurant has received, but most of it appears to be because customers like the policy.

After all, don't people without children have the right to a restaurant where they can be left in peace? It's clear enough people want it.

Last year I went to the midnight release of Watchmen. Half an hour in a baby started screaming in one of the seats. I realize it's hard to find a babysitter that late, but when you become a parent you have to make some sacrifices, such as not being able to see a movie the split-second it's released.

Shouldn't the theater owner be able to have a policy keeping young children out of movies for adults? Movie goers were mad that these people were not thrown out. As a customer, would you be more or less likely to attend a movie theater that banned all loud people, regardless of their age?


  1. I would question the desire to bring a baby to a movie with violence and nudity...or at least with a bunch of loud noises.

    This is Joel

  2. Mommy and daddy government know best-WRONG!!
    Mommy and daddy government should keep their
    noses out of peoples lives.