Economy & Business

New York City Thinks It Has Power to Tell Businesses What They Can’t Sell

People stand outside a Prada store on 5th Ave. in New York City, November 29, 2013. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The potential for infringement on individual liberty and free markets is self-explanatory.

New York City’s Commission on Human Rights apparently believes that it has the right to stop private businesses from selling things that it considers to be offensive — and worse, at least one company isn’t pushing back.

The commission, by the way, is an oversight agency that’s tasked with making sure that everyone follows the city’s anti-discrimination law — which, as Reason’s Robby Soave notes, is astonishingly broad.

In a piece published Wednesday, Soave recounts how the agency recently used its power to stop Prada from selling dolls that it had determined were racist caricatures that looked similar to blackface.

The dolls had first become the subject of controversy back in December 2018, after civil-rights lawyer Chinyere Ezie shared a photo of them on social media. Ezie’s post, in which she stated that she was “shaking with anger” over them, went viral — prompting Prada to apologize and pull the dolls from shelves.

“The resemblance of the products to blackface was by no means intentional, but we recognize that this does not excuse the damage they have caused,” Prada said in a statement at the time. “We will learn from this and we will do better.”

Unfortunately for Prada, however, this wasn’t enough. Ezie still filed a complaint. What’s more, the commission sent Prada a “cease and desist,” and it had been investigating the company over the issue for the last year — until the two entities finally reached a deal on it just last week.

The deal, the New York Times reports, includes a promise by Prada to send all of its New York City employees — and its Milan executives — to sensitivity training. Prada has also agreed to allow for external oversight of its business for two years, and to hire a diversity-and-inclusion director (one that has to be approved by the commission) who will be responsible for “reviewing Prada’s designs before they are sold, advertised or promoted in any way in the United States.” If you think that sounds like an absurd task for a single individual, you’re not alone: The Times piece itself notes in parentheses that, considering “the hundreds of products Prada creates every season, this is a pretty extraordinary task.”

Now, I’m not going to weigh in whatsoever on whether Prada should have been selling those dolls. Actually, I don’t think that anyone sane could see this story and think that that was what we should be talking about here. The point is that the New York City government should never be able to tell them that they can’t.

Make no mistake: I completely agree with Soave when he calls this “naked authoritarianism.” Essentially, according to this precedent, your freedom to decide what products to sell in the financial capital of the world is completely up to the whims and sensibilities of the assortment of individuals that make up one of the city’s commission. The potential for abuse is obvious; the potential for infringement on individual liberty and free markets is self-explanatory.

What’s more, it’s totally unnecessary. Advocates for this draconianism, of course, would probably tell you that it is a paramount provision, crucial in stopping companies from being able to peddle racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive merchandise.

But is it? Is there really no other solution?

Think about it: For leftists, the equation always goes like this: “We must achieve X; therefore, the government must do it.” That is, objectively, a logical fallacy.

In fact, I can’t think of a better example of something for which government intervention is completely unnecessary than in the case of preventing businesses from selling potentially offensive products. Social-media mobs and other forms of public pressure move businesses to take action — to apologize, to remove offending items, to take steps to do better — all the time. (Unaware? Check out this example from a hoodie-related H&M controversy last year. Or this Ralph Lauren one from last month. Or, you know, what Prada already did by apologizing, pulling, and examining themselves, before the government got involved.)

The free-market solution to this issue isn’t just effective . . . it’s unrelentingly effective. I am self-aware enough to know that my libertarian views automatically mean I’m going to be on the no-government-involvement side of more issues than the average American — but, when it comes to this issue, it isn’t even a matter of whether government involvement is necessary (or whether disregarding the Constitution is needed) to achieve a higher, more important goal. No, on this issue, it’s quite clear that that private sector is already more than taking care of the problem. In this case, it’s obvious that the only possible justification for this would be a desire for government to control everything — regardless of the constitutionality or of the ability of the private sector to do what it’s doing without the measure.

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