Are Libertarian Principles Incompatible with White Supremacy? First Thoughts.

Jacob Levy of McGill University has a thoughtful post entitled “Black Liberty Matters.” Levy forthrightly and forcefully recognizes the troubled history of libertarianism’s entanglement with racism. He correctly notes that “Now, libertarian, individualist, and market-liberal ideas, concepts, slogans, and advocates aren’t alone in having a history that is entangled with white supremacy. Hardly any set of social ideas in American intellectual history lacks such an entanglement.”  Levy reminds us (or reminds me, anyway) that the real opposition is not between libertarianism vs. non-libertarianism but racism vs. anti-racism.

Levy’s essay also helps me clarify what my own project is and is not about. For me, this paragraph was especially stimulating. He frames it in the context of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. He’d read a few reviews and found them “entirely persuasive about Democracy in Chains’ details and core claims alike.” In conclusion he wrote:

I don’t want the convincing intellectual victory over Democracy in Chains to fool us into thinking that there’s no problem. I don’t want the forceful, true, statement that libertarian principles are incompatible with white supremacy to fool us into overlooking a morally compromised history and sociological and psychological patterns about how those principles turn into general political discourse.

Now, regular readers know that there has been no “convincing intellectual victory” over MacLean’s book, a point I will return to at the end of this post. For now I want to ask if it is really the case that “libertarian principles” really are incompatible with white supremacy because we seem to have a paradox.

On first glance, it seems obvious that libertarian principles must be incompatible with white supremacy, or any kind of racism for that matter. Mention to your average libertarian that libertarianism is tied up with racism and he (it is almost always a he) will tell you that a philosophy of individualism cannot be tied up with racism since racism assumes the existence of  groups of people called races and libertarians deny that such groups can exist in the first place and certainly not ranked from best to worst. They’ll point you to Ayn Rand’s 1963 essay, “Racism” with its withering opening paragraph:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

Boom! A philosophy of individualism has no room for racism! It is the worst kind of that libertarian devil term “collectivism!” Thus, it is obvious and evident that libertarian principles are obviously inconsistent with racism.

To simplify what is going on here: many ideas of what we might call “mainline” libertarian (or “classical liberal”) doctrine come from the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). This viewpoint holds that what we call “society” is really nothing more than a collection of individuals: any other groupings of people are fictions, the product of incorrect “collectivist” thinking. Individual rights are really property rights that derive from self-ownership: you own your own body. Individuals obtain property by mixing their labor with the land: they thus make property their own. Property can be legitimately exchanged only through individual agreement. Thus, we have the basis for society: it is a collection of property-owning individuals who interact with each other through a series of agreements and exchanges we call “contracts.”  The “liberty” of libertarianism is thus the liberty to own yourself and your property and exchange it with others as you see fit.

The idea that all individuals have the right to own themselves, whatever property they don’t steal, and to enter into contracts with others seemingly has no place for differentiations based on race: We are all individuals! All this a gross simplification of several hundred years of political thought, but I think it will do for an illustration.

If libertarianism is inconsistent with racism, then why does it have such a troubled past? There’s our paradox: how does a philosophy of pure individualism, that is based in “Freedom!” get tied up with racism in the first place?

Far from providing the basis of freedom for all, Locke’s theories of property and contract were the basis of the racist social order that took root in North America. Locke himself was bound to the colonial enterprise of England including the slave trade. As Robert Bernasconi and Anika Maaza Mann argue:

He was concerned with the freedom and prosperity of Englishmen, and he was not much troubled if they were gained at the expense of Africans in much the same way that, at the time of the American Revolution, white Americans were concerned with what they considered to be their own slavery and not with that of their black slaves. (p. 90)

This racially exclusive concern was not inconsistent with Locke’s theories, it was built right into the theory itself. For, if all human rights are property rights and flow from self-ownership, then your body could conceivably be owned by someone else. According to Locke, the fruits of my servant’s labor are rightfully my property not my servant’s.  And, if there is land just sitting there, uncultivated and unfenced, then it belongs to no one. If I, or my servant, mix my labor with that land then it rightfully belongs to me. The vast expanse of all of North America was free for the taking in this view, since the Native Americans were just wandering around hunting and gathering, not farming (this wasn’t actually true about Native Americans, but just go with it for now). Historian Sean Wilentz puts Locke’s theories into the rough-and-tumble of American politics: it wasn’t just a matter for philosophers and political theorists. Lockean theories “claimed an enormous array of supporters from the early national era down to the Civil War”:

Locke…formulated the theory in ways that permitted, indeed encouraged, the subjugation of a variety of “nonproductive” persons, be they nomadic hunters and gatherers or dependent African slaves. American slaveholders—their property in human beings fully legitimate in all thirteen rebel colonies in 1776—assumed that, as black slaves were themselves property, so their white masters owned the full product of their labor. Slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike discounted the labor of other bound workers, including indentured servants, as well as the labor of wives and children, subsuming and attaching the wealth created by their dependents’ labor to themselves. To the vast majority of settlers, the hunting and fishing economies of the Native Americans plundered resources but produced nothing. (p. 34)

A little closer to our own time, I’ve already discussed how libertarians opposed fair employment laws, Title II of the Civil Rights Act, but supported the creation of separate racial states. I’ve discussed how Milton Friedman continued to claim that the closing of schools for African-American students in Prince Edward County, Virginia was a raging success as late as 2002. I’ve discussed how, despite Levy’s claims of a “decisive intellectual victory” over Nancy MacLean, it is impossible to view James M. Buchanan as anything but a segregationist during the Civil Rights era. Levy is aware of all this (well, maybe he’s unconvinced about Buchanan). He writes:

The public language of liberty in American politics is often not to be trusted. Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing African-Americans don’t count—as if black liberty does not matter.

Why does Levy maintain what the historical record seems to disprove? How can he maintain that libertarian principles are incompatible with white supremacy? The answer is that Levy means something much different from the Lockean libertarianism I have sketched here when he declares that “libertarian principles are incompatible with white supremacy.” His intellectual program is to recover those parts of the libertarian tradition that have been overlooked or ignored both in our political theory and our wider politics in order to find ways to combat racism within a new, reconfigured libertarian theory.

Levy wants to transcend the Lockean theories of rights and obligations to find a different basis for our political order. In his book The Multiculturalism of Fear he writes:

But perhaps another kind of political theory is appropriate to discussions of culture and ethnicity, one that begins with special attention to certain kinds of wrongs and dangers in the world rather than with the analysis of individuals and their rights. Much of this book aims to offer social theory in the tradition of Montesquieu, Madison, Tocqueville, Mill and Acton rather than philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Rawls, though of course none of those thinkers simply falls on either side of such a crude dichotomy.

In particular, I aim to develop a political and social theory of multi-culturalism and nationalism which pays primary attention to the dangers of violence, cruelty, and political humiliation which so often accompany ethnic pluralism and ethnic politics. (p. 12)

I’ve only hinted at the breadth of Levy’s work here, I urge you to seek it out. I’m obviously no political theorist, much less a libertarian one, but Levy’s libertarianism is one that I find very appealing. We can only hope that some of his lessons can work its way into popular libertarian discourse.

In his blog post he concludes:

Reimagining libertarian politics in light of the truth that black liberty matters will take a lot of intellectual and moral work. And this task, reorienting a set of ideas and ideals in light of a morally compromised history, of understanding what lessons need to be learned from it, of separating the arguments for liberty from the yelps, is insiders’ work. No one else is going to do it for us.

The reason I write this blog, and eventually the book I’m working on, is to help uncover the depth of the postwar libertarian movement’s involvement with the politics of white supremacy, an involvement that is deeper and more complex than we presently understand. There is a “small but vocal group of self-identified libertarians who participate in and perpetuate” white supremacy, Levy writes. But that small group used to be nearly the entirety of American libertarianism, both academic and popular. This is why Levy needs to reimagine libertarian principles from the ground up. It is also why Levy’s dismissal of Nancy Maclean’s book is so disappointing. The critics he finds persuasive tend to strawman her arguments. Others, such as those I’ve engaged with here are so overwrought that they studiously ignore the specific claims MacLean makes and the painstaking (and tedious) explanations of her evidence.  (Take a look at this thread if you doubt me).

If Levy is right, that recognizing the troubled history of libertarianism and white supremacy is “insider’s work”, I’m afraid that the task may be impossible; it seems many libertarians will never, ever admit that such a past exists.

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5 thoughts on “Are Libertarian Principles Incompatible with White Supremacy? First Thoughts.

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