Saturday, September 16, 2006

The End of Free Association

by Tibor R. Machan

Not all of the past had been the good old days but in the matter of the right to freedom of association there had been a golden age not so very long ago. What I am referring to is how people could, for a good while, freely associate for various purposes with no one from the outside breaching their terms of association. It is in this spirit, indeed, that divorce, for example, had been legalized against the desires of various religious leaders who wanted to force couples to stay together even when neither wanted to remain married! Even in Ireland and Italy, if I am not mistaken, it is now possible to obtain
a divorce, although people still need to jump some hurdles to do so. (And maybe, if they have children, some of those hurdles are
reasonable -- after all, producing offspring comes with responsibilities one shouldn't be able to dodge.)

But in a different area divorce is more and more difficult to obtain. If you hire someone for a job, the government often forbids you to discontinue the employment relationship even though when it commenced, there was no contract binding either party to continue it in perpetuity. It used to be employment "at will" as far as both the employer and employee were concerned. More and more today, however, the "at will" provision applies only to the employee -- just as if only one of the spouses would have the legal right to leave a marriage.

The same is happening in the rental market. Those who have rented an apartment are often able to remain put even though those who rented to them want them gone and no contract has specified anything different. It is as if the tenants acquired some kind of property right in the apartment just because they rented it for a while, even though by all rights both may sever the arrangement. These days, in many places, it is only tenants who have the legal authority to do this, while if the owner wants the tenant to leave, he or she faces innumerable bureaucratic hurdles. Instead of treating both parties to the relationship as having the basic individual human right to freedom of association, in many localities today only one of them has this right protected by the legal system. They are required by law to prove that they really "need" to evict the tenant, a truly bizarre notion if you ask me.

It is interesting because there's a clear case of unjust discrimination against some, while others are treated as having the right to do as they choose. The apartment owner's right to
discontinue the relationship by following the agreed upon terms is
denied, although the tenant's is upheld. (Yes, it can easily be that the owner will suffer economically if a tenant moves!) But do we hear champions of equal rights speak up about this? Do they protest the outrage of such unequal treatment of human beings -- for example, in the Los Angeles area where tenants receive such legal favoritism all the time?

Unfortunately the practice of treating tenants and renters unequally in the law has an insidious precedent born of sheer sentimentality. Rent control is the culprit. It was started, supposedly, to help out returning veterans who didn't like being subjected to market forces as they coped with their living arrangements. As if those who owned the apartments didn't have their burdens they might have wished relieved as well! Of course they did. The volatility of the free market does not favor anyone, nor does it pick on anyone. Free men and women make choices and change their buying practices. And, also, there are innovators who displace older producers and service providers -- we are all in the same boat, except for a little luck here and there for some.

The same holds for the employment relationship. Just consider --
often the departure of an employee imposes hardship on the employer, yet there should be nothing done to prevent it. Only the acceptance of an offer of a better deal should be able to change matters!

Still, too many people believe that certain others may rightfully be coerced into serving them whether they choose this or not! It is rather mystifying -- certainly seems to go against something
everybody tends to profess, the Golden Rule. Or that everyone
opposes, namely, slavery or involuntary servitude.

Of course, throughout human history people have violated the Golden rule left and right, in big ways and small. And this is still going on, especially among so-called "progressives." Chain the employer, chain the apartment owner, never mind about the gross injustice of it all!

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