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Democracy vs. Property

On the Masters Controversy.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 10, 2003

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Democracy vs. Property_James Leroy Wilson-On the Masters Controversy. Augusta National, the Georgia country club that annually hosts the prestigious Masters golf tournament, is under fire because it has no women members. Heading the protests is Martha Burke, president the previously unknown National Council of Women's Organizations.

The issue is one, as Burke has put it, of "democratic values," vs., as I put it, "property rights." That is, should not Augusta be obliged, morally if not legally, to have a non-discriminatory membership policy?

The views of the mainstream and "neo" conservatives on this issue are muddled at best, as it must be from a viewpoint that tries to reason logically from status quo prejudices. Hence, they view that gender- and racial-discrimination is wrong. To them, Martin Luther King Jr. was right about judging people by the "content of their character." They accept "civil rights laws" which attack property rights and create thought crimes, by forcing a property owner to do business with someone he or she would prefer not to do business with.

But when it comes to new issues, like municipal bans of smoking in bars, or this Augusta controversy, they become private-property libertarians. In some ways, they have a point. If they think smoking is no big deal, or find nothing wrong with gender discrimination in what is essentially a social club (albeit one with an event that generates millions of dollars), then the values of freedom of association and property rights outweigh the pleas of those who want integration. Nevertheless, the principle they adopt is that current conditions are fine; no further legislation is necessary. They protect private property rights not out of principle, but only because they see no reason to change the status quo.

Against this is our nation's increasingly democratic character, from which voting rights have been extended from policies of exclusive property-ownership qualifications, to one where people without property can vote. Some of these changes can be seen in the transformation of the Electoral College, to direct election of Senators, to women's suffrage, and the Voting Rights Act enforcing the 15th Amendment. Add to this, fairly lax immigration standards and fairly easy citizenship (and therefore voting) qualifications, and nationally reducing the voting age to 18.

The ideal to be striven for in democracy is equality - complete social equality and as much economic equality as is realistic. Where each one has equality of opportunity, even if that requires the government or other social institutions to help some more than others. (Notice how many church denominations and universities are, and least on paper, committed to "diversity," that is, committed to social equality for people of all ethnic, economic, and gender classes.)

It is to be predicted, then, that those without property could exert their power through democratic government to force integration, to force private property owners to associate and do business with unwelcome guests. The democratic mentality and morality has so infused the American conscience that debates over affirmative action have only to do with what kind of social equality should our democracy have. Mainstream conservatives believe that any form of racial or gender "profiling" in the awarding of state privileges and benefits are counter-productive to the true principle of equality underlying democracy, whereas the Left believe special considerations for historically underprivileged groups and poor is essential to the preservation and enhancement of - you guessed it - democracy.

Ms. Burke has so far tried to use persuasion and economic pressure in the private sector to encourage Augusta to change its policies. And for that, she gets partial credit for trying to affect social change without resorting to the coercive and totalitarian powers of court orders or legislation to get her way.

That said, she loses points on the issue itself, because she is arguing on the wrong premise. All human action is based on the idea of private property. Even if human beings are categorically denied by the State the complete enjoyment of the products of their labor and trade, they nevertheless treat whatever crumbs they are entitled to keep as their own. And they at least treat their own beliefs, integrity, dignity, and self-esteem as their own. The question is, how does Augusta's policy, a covenant or contract voluntarily agreed to by its members, exercise coercive power over others? How does this exclusion of women members hurt any woman in particular? And if it doesn't hurt any individual in a grouping of individuals, how does it hurt the group (women) as a whole?

The only plausible answer comes from the exclusionary nature of property rights, particularly real estate property. In an anarchic society, owners of property would be recognized by their occupation of, productive labor from, and ability to defend, that property. The existence of land property - real estate - that denies free entry, is a partial restriction of an outsider's right to freedom of movement. But that doesn't mean the restriction is unjustified. Where it would be "unjustified" is if the real estate owner decides to horde and spoil the productive resources of his land instead of trading with it. In that case, the self-interest of his heirs, renters, and outside traders will lead to an eventual revision of his foolish policies.

In a society with government, i.e., in a society in which one organization has a monopoly of force and expropriation (taxation), you tell me: is it wise for that government to respect the free actions of private property owners, or to enact legislation forcing freedom of movement and forced integration? The answer must be the former, because the actions of private property owners are in accord with the way people really act. The more government tries to supercede the laws of human action, the more short-sighted and unpredictable that action becomes.

And this is where Ms. Burke is wrong, even though she hasn't resorted to legislation. The actions of Augusta have not harmed any women in particular, nor of women in general. She is trying to introduce what is, by its very nature, a foreign moral standard into the science and practice of human action. Democracy, the ideal that anyone can enjoy the fruits of everyone's else's income, and occupy everyone else's property, all in the name of social justice and equality, is completely out of step with the rational mind, which treats one's own body, labor, and values as sovereign. No man was coerced into joining Augusta, nor can he be coerced into leaving Augusta. Augusta is the product of willing, voluntary agreements. If it is morally wrong for men to have a club, what kinds of exclusive -discriminatory - relations can possibly be right? Ought not every person be entitled to the rights and privileges of every other "exclusive" contract and covenant, such as a marriage? Or is it better stated that each person has exclusive rights to those agreements one voluntarily joins?

Just as coercion - manipulation by force- does not work because what is done only grudgingly causes only bitterness and dissension, so it is true that other forms of manipulation can not work. To blackmail Augusta's members through threats of economic boycott, or to appeal to the values of democracy which are foreign to human nature - in short, to have Augusta admit women members not willingly but only grudgingly, will not be a step forward for society or for civilization.

It is encouraging that, so far, Augusta has stood its ground. Does that mean I agree with Augusta's exclusion? No; it doesn't matter to me either way what its policies are. But I know that such decisions, all decisions, are best made internally, independent of coercive and manipulative outside forces.

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