When Freedom Isn’t Free
In Britain, compulsory virtue stifles individual liberty.
14 April 2010 City Journal
Liberal reformers, who might once have wished to extend the realm of liberty, now wish to restrict it in the name of compulsory political virtue.
There was a perfect recent illustration of this in Britain. An evangelical Christian couple, the Wilkinsons, ran a bed-and-breakfast business in a place called Cookham. They refused a middle-aged homosexual couple, Michael Black and John Morgan, accommodation because they believed that homosexuality was wrong; it is condemned in the Bible.
The spurned couple said that they felt like lepers; moreover, they felt that their legal rights, enshrined in the Equality Act of 2006, which makes it illegal to discriminate in the provision of services on the grounds of “sexual orientation,” had been infringed, and they complained to the police. As yet, no prosecution has followed. But shortly afterward a senior politician, Christopher Grayling, who might be a minister in the next government if David Cameron wins the forthcoming election, said that he thought that the owners of bed-and-breakfasts ought to be allowed to refuse homosexual couples if they so wished.
From the furious denunciation that Grayling’s remarks attracted, you might have thought that he had advocated medieval punishments for homosexuals. Instead, he was merely pointing out that the law as it stands is tyrannical, and that in a free society not everyone will make the same moral judgments. It is a necessary condition of freedom that private citizens should be allowed to treat with, or to refuse to treat with, whomever they choose, on any grounds that they choose, including those that strike others as repellent. Freedom is freedom, not the means by which everyone comes to precisely the same conclusion and conducts himself in precisely the same way.
The depressing, and perhaps sinister, aspect of the public commentary on the case is how largely it has ignored the question of freedom. For liberals, it seems, any trampling on freedom or individual conscience is now justified if it conduces to an end of which they approve. Thus liberalism turns into its opposite, illiberalism.
Messrs. Black and Morgan, who said they felt like lepers and went to the police as a result, condemned themselves out of their own mouths. They said that they had been together for decades, and that this was the first time they had ever experienced what they called “homophobia.” Not only does this suggest that the Equality Act was not, even on the false assumptions of liberals, necessary, but it means that anyone more mature than they would simply have found somewhere else to stay for the night.
Moreover, to waste police time on such a matter in a country with the highest crime rate in the Western world is nothing short of scandalous, a manifestation of the worst kind of inflamed egotism.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is The New Vichy Syndrome.