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Discounts and a Free Society


We have all been there: a nice restaurant, a quiet evening, a companion of the opposite sex — only to have the experience shattered by loud, ill-mannered, or unruly kids.

From coast to coast, some restaurants have begun placing signs on their doors and menus saying things such as, “We love children, especially when they are tucked in chairs and well behaved,” or “Kids must use indoor voices.”

There are message boards, websites, and even petitions that promote child-free dining.

An online petition was once started in North Carolina to establish “child-free restaurants.”

One “upscale casual” establishment near Pittsburgh, McDain’s Restaurant, recently banned children under 6 strictly in response to customer complaints because the noisy children have become “too much of a bother for the other customers.”

Even the usually family-friendly Disney has a no-child policy at its Victoria and Albert’s restaurant in the Grand Floridian Resort.

And it’s not just restaurants. In 2011, Malaysia Airlines banned infants from the first-class sections of its Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Then last year it banned children under 12 from the upper-deck coach-class section of its Airbus A380s.

But one restaurant in Kingston in Washington state — an Italian restaurant named Sogno di Vino — instead of banning children, has taken to rewarding parents of well-behaved children. After a recent dinner of pizza and pasta, the King family — which includes three children ranging in age from 2 to 8 — noticed a discount of four dollars on their check for “well behaved kids.” “Our server came to our table and just really thanked us for having exceptionally behaved children,” said Mrs. King. One of the family’s friends posted an image of the receipt online where it went viral. The owner of the restaurant, Rob Scott, who said he fondly remembered the King family and its well-mannered children, said he “routinely offers complimentary desserts to customers with well-mannered children, but this was the first time he had actually typed the discount on the receipt.” He further explained, “Sogno di Vino means ‘to dream of wine’ (in Italian); it doesn’t mean Chuck E. Cheese. We love Chuck E. Cheese; they do a great job. That’s why you go to Chuck E. Cheese, so the kids can play.”

Although this is an unusual reason to receive a discount at a restaurant, other factors that result in discounts at restaurants and other places of business are quite common. Some restaurants offer senior-citizen discounts. Others allow children to eat free on certain nights. Many hotels offer discounts to members of AARP. Most companies give their employees discounts. Many bars have a ladies’ night where ladies can drink for free. Some businesses have discounts for paying in cash. By far the most prevalent type of discount is the military discount. Business establishments of all kinds — from restaurants to storage facilities to theme parks — offer discounts to active-duty military personnel. Some sporting events even offer free admission to members of the military.

So it comes as a surprise that not everyone appreciates businesses’ offering discounts — especially when the discounts concern religion.

A little more than a year ago, Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia, Pennsylvania, began offering a 10 percent discount to diners who presented a church bulletin on Sundays. This upset a local atheist, John Wolff, who then filed a complaint in April 2012 with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, alleging that the practice discriminates against him because he does not attend church. “I did this not out of spite, but out of a feeling against the prevailing self-righteousness that stems from religion, particularly in Lancaster County,” said Wolff, a retired electrical engineer, who said he was considering eating at the restaurant but never did. He merely saw the discount offer on the restaurant’s website.

Wolff also contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin, which sent a letter to the restaurant’s owners telling them that the church-bulletin discount was “discriminatory” and “a serious civil rights concern” that violated both the federal Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Sharon Prudhomme, one of the co-owners of the restaurant, said she created the discount program to bring more traffic into the restaurant on what was traditionally a slow day. “I thought it would be nice to do something for Sunday dinners and encourage people to come in,” said Prudhomme, who doesn’t attend church herself. The church-bulletin discount was a marketing tool, not a religious outreach. “We’re the kind of place where everybody can come,” she said of the restaurant. In the past she has offered discounts to senior citizens, early-bird diners, shoppers at local businesses, and Columbia High School students. The restaurant currently offers a free meal on Tuesday evenings to children 12 and under who order from the kids’ menu. Prudhomme has made it clear that she is not discriminating because diners don’t actually have to attend church to get a bulletin. She said area religious leaders told her that anyone can walk into a church building and obtain a bulletin. She considered the investigation of the complaint against her to be “a waste, to actually give it merit.” “I’m an American,” she added, “This is an independent restaurant. I can do as I wish and I’m going to continue to offer the church-bulletin discount.”

Well, it turns out that while Prudhomme is continuing to offer the church-bulletin discount, she can’t exactly do as she wishes.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission approved a Conciliation Agreement with the restaurant in September. According to the Terms of Settlement,

Respondent will continue to give a discount for any bulletin from any group oriented around the subject of religious faith including publications from the Freedom From Religion Foundation as long as they maintain the Sunday discount program.

The restaurant’s attorney commented that the complaint was “a frivolous thing.” “It was really not in keeping with the really noble purposes behind the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act,” he added. “I can’t imagine that those who passed the act contemplated that somebody would try to use it in the future for something like this.”

So what do discounts offered by restaurants have to do with a free society? Everything.

There are two sides of the coin to look at here. On the one side is what we can call moral freedom and on the other side is what we can label economic freedom.

Complaints about church-bulletin discounts have been made before. They are clearly the result of some religious bias, since no such complaints are ever made about senior-citizen discounts or military discounts. But there should be no difference in one’s attitude toward discounts targeted to religious people. Complaining to some government agency about a company’s peaceful and beneficial activity should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

As the twentieth century’s great champion of individual liberty and a free society, Leonard Read, put it, government should not interfere with anything that’s peaceful. Not only because the costs associated with stopping peaceful activity always outweigh the benefits, but also because it is immoral for governments to prohibit anything but fraud and violence. In a free society, individual persons and businesses have the natural right to favor or not favor the members of any particular group, class, organization, race, or religion by providing or prohibiting a discount or anything else that’s peaceful.

The same principle applies when it comes to economic freedom. Contrary to popular opinion, the United States does not have a free-market or laissez-faire economic system where unbridled capitalism reigns supreme. That is a caricature of liberals and a pipe dream of conservatives. Government intervention in the economy — on both the federal and state levels — is the norm. In some sectors of the economy, government intervention is so strong and pervasive that one would think it was modeled after the central planning of the Soviet Union.

For example, about two-thirds of the milk in the United States is produced under the watchful eye of the federal government. The rest is produced under heavy state regulation. In Louisiana last month, the Department of Agriculture and Forestry forced a supermarket chain to stop its weekly promotion of “a gallon of skim, 1 percent, 2 percent or whole milk for $2.99 on Tuesdays, limiting the quantity to four per customer.” It turns out that the Dairy Stabilization Board oversees milk prices in Louisiana. Retailers must mark up milk “no less than 6 percent of the invoice cost after adding freight charges.” So, discount your milk too much and the bureaucrats from the Department of Agriculture and Forestry will send in the milk police.

But it’s not just milk. If the government determines that the price of something is too high, then a firm is charged with the non-crime of price gouging. But if the government determines that the price of something has been discounted too much, then a firm is charged with the non-crime of “predatory pricing.” But under the philosophy of “anything that’s peaceful,” what matters is not whether some government bureaucrat thinks a price is too low or too high, but whether there is a voluntary transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Offering a discount to only one party does not aggress in any way against another party.

The ability to offer discounts on any product or service, at any time, and in any amount, to the general public, or just to certain persons on the basis of their age, sex, religion, or membership in some group is essential to any free society.

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