In Defense of Ownership and Conscience

“If you don’t want to serve everyone, perhaps you shouldn’t be in business?”

The idea quoted above has popped up innumerable times in the media. It’s on Twitter, Facebook and other areas, even being posted by many in the media industry.  The quote attempts to be a rhetorical question aimed at shaming business owners who don’t agree with the individual positing the question. It shows a significant cultural misunderstanding about ownership, conscience, and rights in America. I would like to to advance a radical idea for the benefit of the people who live in the various coastal states; and perhaps also for the enlightenment of the liberals in Montana who don’t connect much with actual Montanans. It’s something they might not understand but it is something that the rest of us deal with regularly.  The idea is part of our culture, it is multi-dimensional and cuts across the political parties. Let me describe it.

When starting a business the owner have a tendency to believe that they own it…because they do. This is a hard concept for people who have never owned a business or worked in the private sector to wrap their minds around. The feeling is that when someone pours their sleep, blood, sweat and tears into a product or service, it is something more than “just a business”. It’s more than sandwiches, or auto-repair; it’s more than pizza, cakes and flowers. It is a persons identify revealed in an object for consumption. Life, your energy, and moral conscience are all wrapped up in the product. This feeling isn’t required for small business ownership but it is a common component most small business owners feel. With this feeling of right to ownership comes a belief.  A belief that  the owner can use what they build to exercise their conscience in the world.  The idea that “what I make is me”, in some important manner, and the owner may choose how they impact the world.

Most people support noncontroversial uses of this right of ownership. They support the right of small business owners to expel a rude customer.  They support the right of small business owners to defend against thieves. However, when a small business owner exercises their conscience though act or policy that is disagreeable to a portion of the population, it seems suddenly people who disagree with the specific policy want to remove any ability of the owner to exercise their conscience.  The proverbial “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. It is in supporting things you personally find repugnant which proves your true commitment to this principle of ownership and conscience. I don’t like the Westboro Baptists, if they disappeared from public life tomorrow, nary a tear would I shed. But I support their right to peacefully assemble in public spaces to express their conscience to the community. I personally could not imagine denying my services to someone based on their sexual preference but I support the right of anyone to deny service for any reason. Because I hold creation, ownership, speech and association as a sacred and fundamental human right.

A quick side note, throughout the 20th century liberals rightly stood up to for rights of speech and association for communists. Many conservatives wrongly accused those liberals of being communists themselves if they did so. Liberals should resist the temptation to make the same mistake in characterizing any effort to publicly recognize this right as an implicit endorsement of such activities.

This isn’t a radical idea.  However there is a culture, mostly on the coasts, that tends to undervalue work, ownership and entrepreneurship (with a few exceptions). Thankfully there are many who understand what it means to own a business.  It means that the government local, state or federal; or the People or the collective; do not own your business. The business owners conscience and identity is in their service, and they can no more separate it for the “collective will” than a gay person can separate his or her love for their partner on the alter of political expediency.

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