Misconceptions of Freedom of Association


Freedom of association is an incredibly effective method of asserting one’s moral and cultural values. It is a means of resolving disputes peacefully, rather than violently.

Freedom of association, by definition, is an individual’s right to associate (or not associate) with other individuals or groups. This includes any organization or business that the individual owns and/or controls. An individual, as a business owner, can decide to provide service to some and deny service to others. A group of individuals, as leaders of an organization, can set the rules to determine who is and who isn’t eligible to join.

Freedom of association does not mean an individual has a right to associate with others that do not want to associate with them. It is the same as any formal contract. Both parties consent, or it is invalid.

Ultimately, freedom of association, on a grand scale, is solving problems culturally rather than politically. It is a set of rules for the game of conflict resolution. Instead of using legislation and the political system to enforce social taboos, freedom of association relies on cultural forces and social ostracism to sort right from wrong.

Unfortunately, when many people think of freedom of association, they immediately think of businesses denying service to people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

But of course, in such a society, they would then use their own freedom of association to disassociate with those businesses by boycotting them and encouraging others to boycott them, and then freely associate with the competitors of those businesses.

We see this now in today’s “culture war” where people are fighting their battles not with violence, but through market forces and through social ostracism. And as terrible as this conflict can be at times, it is infinitely preferable to more violent means, whether it be Antifa groups attacking people in the streets, or political action forcing businesses to associate with certain customers and organizations to include certain people.

Conflict is inevitable, and even the best methods of conflict resolution will lead to some unfair and unjust outcomes. While it is not perfect, freedom of association is undervalued as a means of solving problems in society.

Dealing with “hate speech” is a perfect example of the necessity for freedom of association. There will always be social taboos and what these taboos are depends on the culture. But it is how a society deals with these social taboos that is important.

Dissociating and ostracizing people that preach terrible views is much more preferable than “hate speech laws” that fine or imprison people for statements they make.

As has already been admitted, this is not a perfect or foolproof mechanism. It is terrible to see people being fired or smeared for an out-of-context statement made years ago on social media. This is social ostracism (and thus freedom of association) in practice. However, the point remains that being unfairly targeted by social ostracism is much more preferable to being unfairly targeted by hate speech laws and/or violent mobs.

Take Richard Spencer as an example. Few people would agree with much of what he says. Most had never heard of him before he was attacked on inauguration day. And yet numerous people jump to his defense when he is physically attacked and threatened by Antifa, because they understand that problems of speech are not to be solved with violence. They will continue to oppose his ideas peacefully through freedom of association, but will side with him when violence is brought into the equation.

Without freedom of association, cultural forces are traded for political forces.

When legislation prevents people from solving disputes peacefully, violence becomes inevitable.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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