Jeff Jacoby

Indispensable freedom of association

Angelina Jolie is free to choose her mate based on any criteria she chooses. Angelina Jolie is free to choose her mate based on any criteria she chooses. (Associated Press)
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / April 10, 2011

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BRAD ASKS Angelina for a date, but she doesn’t want to go out with him. Should she be legally free to turn him down?

I take it for granted that no one in America thinks the law ought to interfere with Angelina’s freedom to say no. Whether she agrees to date Brad or not is a matter of complete indifference to the government. That’s true regardless of her reason. She can reject Brad’s suit because he’s handicapped, or because he’s Christian, or because he isn’t tattooed. She can discriminate on the basis of race, religion, age, national origin, or table manners. When it comes to friendship and romance, freedom of association — which by definition includes the freedom not to associate — is absolute.

Freedom of association is a core human right, and not just when it comes to dating. It would be unthinkable for the government to meddle in our choice of sports team to root for, house of worship to pray in, or neighborhood to move to.

You are free to join a gay men’s choir because you like being with gays, or to avoid gay pride parades because you don’t like being with gays. You can volunteer — or not — for a political campaign, and your reasons may be admirable (the candidate’s record of public service) or not so admirable (the candidate’s color). The choice is yours.

Freedom of association should be valued as highly in our economic life as it is in our social life. When it comes to choices made by consumers, tenants, and employees, it usually is. The government cannot make you buy from a store you don’t want to shop in — and it doesn’t matter whether your reason for avoiding it is that the prices are too high, the goods aren’t American-made, or the owner is a Jew. The same is true for employees who don’t want to work for an employer, or a tenant who declines to rent from a landlord. They are free to say no, and the law doesn’t inquire into their motives.

That liberty should be a two-way street, but it isn’t. Employers, for example, have nothing like unabridged freedom of association when it comes to hiring. You don’t have to work for a woman if you don’t want to, but a lawsuit awaits any employer who tries to exercise the same freedom. Federal and state laws ban discrimination on a wide array of grounds, and efforts to enlarge the list are never ending.

US Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia has introduced legislation making it illegal to discriminate against job applicants who are currently unemployed. A state legislator in Texas is pushing a bill that would outlaw discrimination against creationists. In Massachusetts, Maryland, and other states, transgender activists want lenders, employers, and landlords barred from discriminating on the basis of “gender identity.’’

It’s easy to understand the desire to protect individuals from being discriminated against unjustly. But are lawmakers truly equipped to decide which kinds of discrimination are reasonable and which aren’t? Does Big Brother know better than the business owner whose bottom line is at stake whether a given applicant is right for a given job? If the government won’t second-guess Angelina’s decision not to date Brad or buy from Brad, why should it infringe on her prerogative not to hire Brad or rent to Brad?

Free and competitive markets aren’t usually thought of as promoting tolerance and reducing bigotry, yet they do so far more effectively than detailed civil rights regulations. Writing in the 1730s, Voltaire famously described the London Stock Exchange as a place “where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.’’ Gary Becker earned the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics in part for demonstrating that discrimination is economically detrimental — free markets penalize employers who discriminate for reasons unrelated to ability.

Freedom of association is indispensable to making a free society work. No culture is without unfairness. But where men and women are unfettered in their freedom to form or avoid relationships with others — socially and economically — tolerance and cooperation increase, and ugly prejudice recedes.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at