TAMPA, April 6, 2013 ― If my colleague Chris Ladd had written the usual, libertarians-are-racists screed, it would be unworthy of a response. But he didn’t. In fact, his piece “How Libertarianism failed African Americans” is a thoughtful and philosophically consistent argument that clearly disclaims any accusation that libertarianism is inherently racist.
But it’s still nonsense. That it is eloquently stated makes it all the more harmful.
Ladd’s premise is that racism and Jim Crow presented libertarianism with a dilemma. Libertarians oppose all government interference with freedom of association and free markets, but blacks were being “oppressed” by the voluntary choices of white people not to serve them. Therefore, libertarians had to choose between staying true to their principles or supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which meant granting the federal government the power to override private decisions.
Most libertarians don’t oppose most sections of the Act, which prohibit governments from discriminating. They oppose those sections which allow the federal government to prohibit private decisions based upon race. Ladd recognizes this distinction, claiming “African Americans repression rose not only from government, but from the culture and personal choices of their white neighbors.”
First, Ladd’s history is completely wrong. Like many conservatives and liberals, Ladd sees libertarianism as a subset of conservatism, an “extreme” version of the conservative philosophy which supposedly advocates a market economy. For him, libertarianism traces back only as far as Barry Goldwater and became an independent movement in the early 1970’s when anti-war conservatives formed the Libertarian Party.
Libertarianism does not follow at all from conservatism. It is the philosophical child of classical liberalism, which struck an uneasy alliance with conservatism during a few, short periods in the 20th century, after the liberal movement completely abandoned individual liberty. The so-called “Old Right” should really be called the “Middle Right,” because conservatism has meant bigger, more interventionist government for most of American (and world) history.
Conservatives throughout history have favored an all-powerful government, usually aligned with a state religion, because they perceive man as Thomas Hobbes did. Man’s natural inclinations are so depraved that only a government that “keeps him in awe” can counter the natural state of “war of everyone against everyone.” Left to his own voluntary choices, man will always attack his neighbors, break his contracts with them, steal their property and oppress them.
Libertarians see the nature of man the way John Locke did. Locke recognized that man was capable of both good and evil. His natural state is a state of reason, but he will sometimes abandon reason and aggress against his neighbor. Government power should be limited to defending individual rights when one person or group aggresses against another.
During the early American republic, this was the central conflict in American politics. The conservatives at that time were Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists. Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans were what we today would call “libertarians.” They are the true origin of the American libertarian movement.
Whenever asked about the proper role of government, Jefferson articulated the basic premise of libertarianism. “No man has a natural right to commit aggression against the equal rights of another and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”
To refuse to sell your product to someone is not aggression and therefore beyond the authority of government, according to this theory. But libertarians find racism and segregation as distasteful as everyone else. Is there really a dilemma here?
Ladd’s argument proceeds from the conservative view of man’s nature and the Hobbesian solution to deal with it. Ladd argues that segregation would never have ended in America if the federal government was not given the power to override the free choices of individuals.
Actually, both liberals and conservatives base their arguments for the Civil Rights Act’s power over private decisions upon this assumption. While it may sound reasonable to the uncritical ear, it cannot withstand inquiry by the mind, because it begs an obvious question:
If segregation was the result of the voluntary choices of private business owners, then why were Jim Crow laws necessary to force them to segregate?
The question answers itself. Obviously, there were at least some business owners who wanted to serve blacks equally with whites. Perhaps they were a majority, perhaps a minority, but enough wanted to do so that racist legislators had to pass laws to stop them.
In other words, the libertarian perception of reality is more accurate than the conservative or liberal.
So is the libertarian solution. What if the Civil Rights Act were more libertarian, prohibiting governments from being racist but leaving private decisions up to individuals? That question also answers itself. Some business owners would refuse to serve blacks and some would serve everyone. Some employers would hire the most talented employees and some would turn down superior black candidates because of their race.
Anyone who has ever run a business knows which group the market would allow to survive. The Civil Rights Act actually gives racists cover because it doesn’t let the market weed them out. It has also spawned a whole new set of reasons for racial resentment because of affirmative action and other derivative legislation. Like all government solutions, it produces more of whatever it “declares war on.”
Libertarianism didn’t fail African-Americans. Government did, as it has failed us all.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.