The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Profits Before Prejudice

One thing capitalism does is give automatic feedback to businesses. Chick-fil-A is owned by fundamentalist nutters who are as bigoted and hateful as most “evangelicals.”

In the past they gave money to some very hateful religious groups waging war on LGBT people in particular. They cut back some of the more egregious groups they were funding but still had anti-gay fundamentalist groups on their donor list.

Their history of funding hate means each new franchise they open runs into problems with people boycotting it from day one.

Now the chain was founded and concentrated in the American South, the center of most hate groups in the United States. So the penalty of funding hate wasn’t as high there. They could cater to white, evangelical bigots in the South and do relatively well. Provided the company was happy with the minority of the population who are intolerant they could be as intolerant as Jesus demanded of them without paying the price.

But, in the end Chick-fil-A is a profit-seeking company, not some tax-exempt evangelical cult. It profits from voluntary purchases of customers, not donations from individuals terrified they will burn in hell if they don’t donate 10% of their income

The problem is when they expand outside the culture of Southern fundamentalism into the more civilized, educated regions of the world resistance increases and so do their problems. The further they move away from the South the more the bigotry they funded starts to impact their bottom line more and more.

Recently their first franchise in the U.K. faced opposition from the local community — an area with few fundamentalist hate-mongers. The franchise in Reading, England was greeted with public protests and the landlord of the premises being leased by Chick-fil-A said the lease will NOT be renewed for the franchise when it expires.

The continuing resistance to the restaurant chain caused the corporation to pull back on the most egregious hate groups they funded, but they continued to pour money into anti-gay evangelical groups. Now they say they are also ending donations to the anti-gay Salvation Army as well as the anti-gay Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In other words they are cutting back the last vestiges of the hateful views of the founder of the chain.

The Salvation Army continues to deny they are anti-gay in spite of their anti-gay history. It was only a few years ago that I was in a bookstore I owned when an official from a pro-gay church stopped in to look around. He told me of his run-in with the local Salvation Army outlet. His small church got a call from a gay man who had become homeless and was looking for shelter. This church had no such resources and sent him to the Salvation Army.

The church official told me he later got a phone call from the Salvation Army very irate with him, telling him to never send an LGBT client to them ever again. (See our Why You Shouldn’t Donate to the Salvation Army — Ever! for details on why the Salvation Army is not a charity, but a fundamentalist religious sect.)

Republican Mike Huckabee immediately accused the company of betraying “loyal customers for $$.” Gee, a “free market” Republican attacking a business for putting profits ahead of bigotry! That says a lot about Republicans and their fraudulent claims of supporting the profit system and free markets. Huckabee later said Chick-fil-A “surrendered to anti-Christian hate groups.” It still amazes me that if you oppose a group for hating people it makes you a hate group in the eyes of the bigots.

One reality about markets is they tend to undermine bigotry. The more bigoted the company selling the product the fewer customers they allow themselves, and the more people they exclude the lower their profits. Conversely the less prejudiced they become the more they include people in their customer base and the more profits grow. One of the benefits of “greedy” profit seeking is it punishes prejudice and rewards tolerance.

Markets aren’t legislation, in the sense they don’t force people to behave in a civilized manner. What the market does is subtler—it rewards civility and thus is constantly nudging the entrepreneur toward greater levels of tolerance.

Almost 300 years ago the observant Voltaire noted:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word.

Apparently when they profit by cooperation they are more prone to cooperate and less prone to discriminate. Professor Henry Kamen in The Rise of Toleration observed that religious intolerance declined as capitalism expanded:

The expansion of commercial capitalism, particularly in Europe’s two principal maritime powers, Holland and England, was a powerful factor in the destruction of religious restrictions. Trade was usually a stronger argument than religion. Catholic Venice in the sixteenth century was reluctant to close its ports to the ships of the Lutheran Hanseatic traders. The English wool interest spent the first half of the seventeenth century in energetic opposition to the anti-Spanish policy of the government. By the Restoration in 1660 it was widely held that trade knows no religious barriers; the important corollary that followed from this was that the abolition of religious barriers would promote trade.

In his Political Arithmetic, written in 1670 but only published twenty years later, Sir William Petty said “for the advancement of trade… indulgence must be granted in matters of opinion.” Even opponents of trade recognized this true, and said it was one reason to oppose trade. Samuel Parker’s A Discourse on Ecclesiastical Politie [1669], said “tis notorious that there is not any sort of people so inclinable to seditious practices as the trading part of a nation.” The chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley warned, “that the great outcry for liberty of trade is near of kin to that of liberty of conscience.”

The inherent nature of a voluntary exchange is all parties perceive themselves as profiting by it or they would refrain from doing so. Markets mean people suddenly find it in their self-interest to trade with people they would normally discriminate against. And, the fewer businesses “open for business” to all customers the greater the profit potential to be the tolerant exception to the bigoted rule. There is a constant nudging process in free markets toward greater and greater tolerance. There certainly are many strong organizations and institutions—religion, government, cultural convention—mitigating against change but ultimately profit incentives act as a solvent eating away at the conventional and conservative. This is why capitalism is ultimately the most anti-conservative force around, and that’s the reason the conservative Right and Left both attack free markets.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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