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Libertarians and Civil Rights

21 May 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

A friend just called my attention to something I wrote a year ago and a commentary by Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Cato Institute that illuminates yesterday's discussion of Rand Paul's view of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Here's what I wrote in a Forbes column last May:

At the liberaltarian dinner, many of the liberals persuasively argued that the pool of freedom isn’t fixed such that if government takes more, then there is necessarily less for the people. Many government interventions expand freedom. A good example would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was opposed by libertarians like Barry Goldwater as an unconstitutional infringement on states’ rights. Yet it was obvious that African Americans were suffering tremendously at the hands of state and local governments. If the federal government didn’t step in to redress these crimes, who else would?

Since passage of the civil rights act, African Americans have achieved a level of freedom equal to that of most whites. Yet I have never heard a single libertarian hold up the civil rights act as an example of a libertarian success.

One could also argue that the women’s movement led to a tremendous increase in freedom. Libertarians may concede the point, but conservatives almost universally view the women’s movement with deep hostility. They think women are freest when fulfilling their roles as wife and mother. Anything that conflicts with those responsibilities is bad as far as most conservatives are concerned.

Here's is Wilkinson's commentary:

I think part of the problem is that if you hold up the Civil Rights Act as an example of libertarian success, most libertarians will deny that you are one. I think both the Civil Rights Act and the women’s movement did in fact lead to tremendous net increases in liberty. I think Bruce makes an excellent point. Federal intervention, while certainly limiting freedom of association and trumping more local jurisdictions, resulted IMO in an overall increase in freedom. That many traditional libertarian conservatives, such as Goldwater, seem to have been willing to sacrifice a great gain in overall freedom in order to maintain status quo levels local self-rule seems to me to betray a commitment to ancient ideals of liberty as community self-government in conflict with the modern idea of liberty as freedom from coercion.

Southern strand of "libertarianism"

I consider myself libertarian (emphatically small-l) and have always been mystified/angered by what is a southern strain of libertarianism that blissfully ignores actual history in favor of Lost Cause myths (eg that the "War of Northern Agression" was about "states rights" or somesuch nonsense) and ideological rigidity/blindness.

It took this country 100 years to actually enforce the libertarian promise of the 14th Amendment -- the creation of essentially dual citizenship (federal and state) -- and have the federal government be the active guarantor of ITS citizens liberties vs states and localities that would deny those liberties.

Did the feds overreach a bit when they finally did decide to enforce the 14th amendment - re the direct descendants of the very people the 14th Amendment was intended to help? Probably. But after 100 freaking years - replete with all the sleaziness/chicanery/corruption and downright evil that was involved in preventing it from being enforced - so what?!? The overreach is nothing compared to the prior failure (underreach to the point of complicity).

The core libertarian political principle of our constitution is imo - that individual liberty is best protected via checks-and-balances of competing governmental entities. A neutered fed is as dangerous to that as a neutered state -- even if the main problem we have today is the latter.

For some moron to invoke "libertarian philosophy" to defend or excuse the sleaziness/chicanery/etc of Jim Crow laws - or pretend that "a bit more time and things would have worked out ok" is repugnant.

It is the one thing I really despise about Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell and ilk. They completely ignore actual history -- and pretend that 100 years of failure didn't even happen. Merely in order to be consistent and to provide a (perhaps unintended) wink-wink justification to the remnants of racist dinosaurs (who have always been pro-big gummint and enemies of individual liberty).

And no -- I don't consider that fault of RP etc to be fatal. I supported him in 2008 - and contributed to his campaign - and was very active in other groups. Would vote for Rand Paul in KY this year. And generally think that the cocktail-party "libertarians" that infest DC (and do absolutely nothing except worship the dingleberries of monopoly privilege - while smoking dope) are even worse.

the slippery slope

"I'm a libertarian...but...." is a very common out. Everyone is scared of folks who are seek consistent adherence to a set of principles rather than relativistic reactions. The principle at question in this case is the limitation on the use of force by the government against individuals who are otherwise not harming anyone. Once exceptions are allowed, the slippery slope knows no end. In this case the means, the use of governmental force to require individuals to trade with one another (e.g., I must sell you a milkshake or else), has no objective limitation, only a relative limitation dictated by whoever is in power (or on the Supreme Court) at the moment. The particular end, racial equality, is unquestionably noble. The means, of course, are obviously quite problematic and in addition have been counterproductive in so many areas of society. Restricting non-discrimination to government would have been much less painful and likely more productive. Instead, we have the clear outcome two and a half generations later of the tragic inner city conditions, and continued horrible and occasionally violent racism in the countryside. Unintended consequences are the rule, not the exception.


It is unclear to me how requiring private business to not discriminate has led to "tragic inner city conditions." Did it perpetuate violent racism? I can see how in theory this could happen, but I can also see the argument being made that it quickened a radical reduction in violent racism, as for the vast majority it normalized cross-race interaction.

Clearly a stretch :) ...the

Clearly a stretch :) ...the point is that the U.S. has segregated neighborhoods, schools, churches, and so forth...the inner cities are only now recovering with gentrification after the initial white flight. There are clearly signs that things are better, even in the deep south, with only occasional draggings behind trucks and so forth. But this path is not all clearly the most efficient means to the end, and certainly has attendant social costs. However, the bottom line is that allowing the use of force to require private individuals to trade with each other simply has no limit.

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