Greg Abbott of Texas and Gavin Newsom of California are about as far apart on the political spectrum as two governors can be. But they have at least one thing in common: Both are pushing the heavy hand of government into the affairs of private businesses to inappropriately affect cultural change.

Last weekend, Newsom, a progressive San Francisco Democrat, signed a law requiring large retailers in California to have gender-neutral sections of their stores for certain children’s items, including toys. And on Monday, Abbott, a right-wing Republican, signed an executive order outlawing Covid-19 vaccine mandates by private businesses for their employees. 

On the effect of these mandates, I don’t care about Newsom’s. On Halloween, my son will be dressed as Thor, and my daughter will be going as Fancy Nancy — finding costumes is faster with gender-specific aisles. The same goes with buying toys. But it would only be a minor inconvenience to take my kids to gender-neutral aisles.

Abbott, on the other hand, is making it harder to end a public-health catastrophe that has resulted in over 700,000 deaths in the U.S. He is also adding to the politicization of vaccines, which could lead to reduced compliance across the board, and less protection against a range of diseases. Given a choice between seeing unisex baby clothes at Target or seeing polio return to the U.S., well, which would scare you the most?

But as a matter of economic liberty and the appropriate role of the government, both of these moves are troubling.

A simple truth that, to my surprise, needs to be often repeated: Businesses are the private property of their owners. The liberties of businesses to do what they wish should be violated only for compelling reasons. For example, banning discrimination on the basis of race, sex or religion is crucial to maintaining a just society.

Micromanaging how a store’s shelves are stocked is clearly overreaching. Are separate aisles for girls’ and boys’ toys really such a grievous violation of equality that the government is justified in interfering with the right of business owners to do what they wish with their own property?

Progressives will be comforted that some business are moving toward gender neutrality on their own. In 2015, for example, Target announced that it was moving away from gender-based signs in its stores. Customers that place particular value on gender neutrality in merchandizing will be more likely to shop at Target than at stores with a traditional presentation of goods. If stores find they are losing business to Target, then more will adopt gender-neutral practices. The market will work.

Banning discrimination in employment contracts is similarly crucial to social justice. And people who have a sincere religious opposition should not be required to take a vaccine as a condition of employment. But employment relationships are voluntary associations, and as a general matter the government should not be micromanaging their terms. Some large companies in Texas, including American Airlines and AT&T, are already rolling out vaccine requirements. Others are not. If people in the nation’s second-largest state don’t want to take the vaccine, they are free to work at a company without a mandate. They don’t need the governor reaching into boardrooms and instituting his own HR policies, overruling the wishes of corporate owners.

Abbott’s move also sets up a clash with President Joe Biden’s requirement that businesses with 100 or more employees require their workers to be vaccinated or to be tested weekly for Covid. Businesses are caught in the middle. By introducing policy uncertainty, Abbott is making it harder for companies to do business. Biden’s mandate is an overreach for the same reason as Abbott’s: Businesses should be free to decide on employee vaccine mandates, one way or the other.

Both governors are violating the property rights of business owners to advance cultural agendas. Newsom wants to be seen as a hero to progressives by advancing evolving norms around gender. Abbott wants to champion the GOP’s views about personal liberty. Regardless of the merits of either cultural agenda, it is harmful to use government power over businesses as a tool to achieve them.

Businesses are not actors in a morality play. Those that have adopted vaccine mandates are doing so because they believe it will increase their profits. Those that haven’t are motivated by the same concern. The same goes with gender-based merchandizing.

This may seem irresponsible — but the primary social responsibility of businesses is to make profits. Deciding how to do so is the prerogative of their owners.

If you want to have a prosperous society, then to the greatest extent possible businesses need to be free to run as their owners see fit. And if you want to maintain political freedom and a government of limited powers, then — as these episodes show — you have to maintain fidelity to economic liberty, including the property rights of business owners.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”

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