More Libertarians: Murray Rothbard and Competitive Racism

[NB: I quote a lot from Professor Peter Klein‘s comment on this thread regarding Murray Rothbard. I want to make quite clear that my comments about Rothbard are about Rothbard and not about Professor Klein. I thank him for raising Rothbard’s name in this context because he spurred me to write up my thoughts about Rothbard and racism. In no way do I want to impute Rothbard’s beliefs to Professor Klein. Just so we are clear on that.]
Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), has been called “the most gifted libertarian writer of his generation” (p. 251). Rothbard prided himself as, in Nancy MacLean‘s words, libertarianism’s “most scathing guardian of libertarian orthodoxy” (p. 147). He was an “anarcho-capitalist” who believed that all governmental functions should be privatized, including national defense and police forces. Unlike someone like James Buchanan, or indeed, most academics, who often work within institutional structures with other like-minded researchers,  Rothbard worked alone for the vast majority of his career. Nonetheless he produced a staggering number of publications. His first writings, published when he was still a graduate student in economics in New York, were in Frank Chodorov’s analysis, by the end of his career he was championing libertarian politicians such as Ron Paul, paleo-conservatives such as Patrick J. Buchanan, and racist provocateurs such as ex-Klansman David Duke. Of this last’s run for the governorship of Louisiana, the Jewish Rothbard wrote of the most famous antisemite in the US:
It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what’s wrong with any of that?
Rothbard’s extremely rigid views, combined with these worrisome choices of allies, mean that many libertarians try to distance Rothbard from more respectable figures. For example, in our recent libertarian kerfuffle Phil Magness, properly distances James Buchanan from Rothbard’s radicalism. On that same thread I point out what I believe is the case: that there were no libertarians who spoke out against the discrimination or segregation of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s (at this point, notably, Magness goes silent). At this point Professor Peter Klein brought Rothbard back from exile:
Libertarians such as Rothbard were keenly interested in the civil rights movement and had a quite a lot to say about it. Rothbard contributed a 5,000+ word article to New Individualist Review in 1961 on “The Negro Revolution,” describing the civil rights movement, with all its diversity, in great detail ( The article is mostly descriptive and analytical but Rothbard concludes by describing the libertarian position as “oppos[ing] compulsory segregation and police brutality, but also oppos[ing] compulsory integration and such absurdities as ethnic quota systems in jobs.” (BTW on the question of racism and unions, referred to above in the context of W. H. Hutt, Rothbard adds: “some Negroes are beginning to see that the heavy incidence of unemployment among Negro workers is partially caused by union restrictionism keeping Negroes (as well as numerous whites) out of many fields of employment. If the Negro Revolution shall have as one of its consequences the destruction of the restrictive union movement in this country, this, at least, will be a welcome boon.”)
I promised Professor Klein a post on Rothbard’s embrace of Black Nationalism and here we are. The place to begin is with what Rothbard called it in his last public speech: the War for Southern Independence. Those of us who aren’t interested in defending the Confederacy tend to call it the American Civil War.

THE GREAT DISUNION SERPENT, decorated with the single star, which was the sign of the Southern Confederacy.

THE GREAT DISUNION SERPENT:  the sign of the Southern Confederacy.

In 1961, Rothbard laid out his analysis of the Civil War. He put forth many lines of argument that were eventually adopted by the “neo-Confederate” movement in their attempt to bring back the Confederacy, such as the idea that the North, not the South, was to blame for the outbreak of hostilities owing to the “maneuvering of Lincoln to induce the Southerners to fire the first shot on Fort Sumter.” No doubt slavery was an evil, but the Northern Republicans were committed to “old Federalist-Whig principles: to high tariffs, to internal improvements and government subsidies, to paper money and government banking, etc.” Thus, “Libertarian principles were now split between the two parties.”  In other words, high tariffs and greenback currency were as evil as enslaving millions of human beings. It was just too tough to pick a side in this for Rothbard.

The actual secession of the South erased any diffidence Rothbard had about the War, however. He had no doubt whatsoever that secession was the very heart of his libertarianism. Every individual had the right to leave the Nation, “secession need not, and should not, have been combated by the North; and so we must pin the blame on the North for aggressive war against the seceding South.” Rothbard showed no concern that secession would have continued slavery: the right to secede was freedom itself.  By 1994, slavery had disappeared entirely from Rothbard’s analysis of the war except that the North was positively irrational about it whereas the South was just concerned about those darn taxes being too high:

The Northern war against slavery partook of fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle and the birth of a perfect world.

One of the central grievances of the South, too, was the tariff that Northerners imposed on Southerners whose major income came from exporting cotton abroad. The tariff at one and the same time drove up prices of manufactured goods, forced Southerners and other Americans to pay more for such goods, and threatened to cut down Southern exports.

All in all, this seems like an unlikely person to champion Black rights in the 1960s. And yet, Professor Klein is quite correct in his comment when he notes that he was”keenly interested in the civil rights movement and had a quite a lot to say about it.”

Picture of a not-quite-human doll.

The Uncanny Valley

Animators talk about the “uncanny valley“: “the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion (or uncanniness) among some observers.” Rothbard’s essay, “The Negro Revolution” (1963) has this effect on me. It is very much like a Black Nationalist piece of writing, but sufficiently different to be kind of creepy.

Rothbard’s essay absolutely contains the virtues outlined by Professor Klein in his brief comment: the expressed concern for black employment, pointing out the obvious fact that desegregation was stalled, and the concern for police brutality against African Americans. There is no doubt that these elements are all there.

Rothbard’s essay should also be praised by how he granted agency to African Americans. He noted “the stirring of the Negroes themselves against segregation and for egalitarian goals.”  Rothbard noted the first civil rights organization, the NAACP, was the most conservative organization: “The hallmark of the NAACP technique has been to use the courts instead of the streets, i.e. to confine the Negro movement to State processes, instead of direct action by the masses.” But, since segregation hadn’t budged, since the Brown decision almost a decade before, African Americans got “restive and understandably so.” Thus began the wave of the “center” marked by the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The bus boycotts, the sit-ins, etc.  Rothbard was right to note that these were””voluntary actions by the Negroes themselves, casting off dependence on the quiet and seemingly peaceful operations of the State; and as such, they quickly went beyond the established NAACP framework.”  Rothbard argued that each succeeding wave of leadership was more radical than the last. Past leaders must struggle to keep abreast, thus the NAACP had to approve of mass protests in order to remain credible. Rothbard noted that African Americans had finally thrown off the shackles of non-violence and have loudly announced that they will defend themselves against racist police officers and other representatives of the white state. Rothbard thought that we were on the brink of a Negro revolution that may succeed or be defused. For the Black Muslims, and other “more radical groups…it means a ‘Negro nation’ in the Black Belt of the South.”

Despite all this, Rothbard’s essay on the Negro Revolution is remarkably similar to his views on the Civil War. Specifically, in his insistence of the moral equivalence between both sides of the conflict and his belief that secession is always the answer.

Should White People Embrace Black Nationalism?

Rothbard wrote about the Black Muslims:

The Muslims are a highly interesting movement, which received favorable publicity years ago in the ultra-right-wing Right magazine. The Muslims have a far more libertarian program than the other Negro organizations, opposed to compulsory integration. Indeed, as a Negro nationalist movement, they favor voluntary segregation of the races, preferably in a Negro nation in the “Black Belt” of the South, or in a Negro return to Africa.

Let us pass over the ridiculous libertarian notion of “compulsory integration” for a moment. What’s this about “the ultra-right-wing Right magazine”?  Right was one of the first publications of Willis Carto, for decades America’s most effective White Nationalist. Rothbard is referring to Carto’s sponsorship of a number of efforts to send Black Americans “back” to Africa. In this regard, Carto was the epigone of the African Colonization Society (ACS), the 19th century organization that attempted to send “Free Negroes” to Liberia. Carto, along with-the my-god-isn’t-he-dead? Earnest Sever Cox, the architect of the 1924 Virginia Racial Integrity Act, were working with the remnants of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association to sponsor African American migration to Liberia. Throughout the 1950s, Carto (using his pseudonym of “E.L. Anderson, PhD”) advertised these efforts widely in conservative circles. Cox and members of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia testified in Congress for a bill to sponsor migration.

The work of the ACS and Carto in Right are examples of a somewhat different kind of racism than is common in the United States.  Socioiologist Pierre van den Berghe distinguished between “paternalistic,” in which race relations follow the master-servant relationship, and “competitive” in which actual physical separation replaces the elaborate social etiquette preventing race mixing in paternalistic racial systems. In paternalistic systems, the races may live together as long as the rules for the subordination are made clear to all as was common in the Jim Crow south. In competitive/aversive systems, it is denied that the races can live together and full geographic separation is required, which was the ideology embraced by Carto: Black people had to be physically removed from the continent.

Where does that leave Rothbard? Is his “Negro Revolution” advocating a competitive racist ideology? Putting in the context of some Rothbard’s other work may help clarify the issue. Returning to Professor Klein’s comment:

I suspect MacLean is unaware of Rothbard’s position on American slavery, as expressed in his Ethics of Liberty (1982) ( “We have indicated above that there was only one possible moral solution for the slave question: immediate and unconditional abolition, with no compensation to the slavemasters. Indeed, any compensation should have been the other way — to repay the oppressed slaves for their lifetime of slavery.” (He specifically suggests that plantations should have been turned over to the slaves — a position similar to his later view on post-Soviet transition, namely that state-owned enterprises should be privatized by giving equity shares to the employees.)

Rothbard’s position on compensation to formerly enslaved people is ethically impeccable in my view. And since Rothbard held to the Lockian idea that land is transformed into private property once “man” has mixed his labor with it, perfectly consistent with Rothbard’s libertarian ideology. However, Rothbard does not say that these formerly enslaved people can be part of the same community as white people.

Professor Klein notes that Rothbard’s position here is similar to his position after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Accepting this comparison, what does it tell us about Rothbard and competitive racism?  Rothbard embraced the various nationalist movements that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Embracing nationalism was not an accident, it was necessitated by the demands of the libertarian social order. Since Rothbard rejected a national unity based on the coercive tactics of the State, he argued that individuals would band together on the basis of shared cultures and values. The result would be a series of ethnically distinct social units. In 1994 he wrote,  “[O]n rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho-capitalist model, it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have ‘open borders’ at all” since cultural/racial unity would be necessitated by complete privatization of all property (p. 7).

Rothbard believed every race should have its own distinct homeland, and did not seem to understand that competitive racism was, in fact, racism. He asked, “Is a genuine apartheid solution ‘racist’? But what sort of ideologues combine together two very different doctrines: racial domination, and racial separation, and call them both ‘racist’? Why is it ‘racist’ to want to be left alone”? It is racist because it rests on the essentializing of racial identities and the belief that someone of a different “race” cannot be a member of your community. Professor Klein notes that Rothbard was, for a brief time, a supporter of the Black Panthers. His language when he withdrew his support in 1969 was telling:

All this means that we should, at the very least, withdraw our enthusiasm from the Panthers. In any event, it is the responsibility of whites to build the white movement, and to concentrate our time and energies therefore on white rather than black affairs.

The libertarian movement was a white movement and we should stop meddling in black affairs. An added advantage of a Black Republic for African Americans, Rothbard explained to historian Harry Elmer Barnes in 1966 was that “We’d get the Negroes off our backs!!!”

There is little if any evidence that libertarians were concerned about the “governmental coercion” of legal segregation. Just as James Buchanan offered a plan to privatize schools in Virginia at the same time the segregationists were seeking such plans, the much-more-radical Rothbard was happy to endorse Black Nationalism just as White Nationalists were doing the exact same thing. Libertarians claim to put freedom above all else, but they must mean something different than the rest of us do.

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