Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

Someone was wrong on the internet the other day. It was me. I was wrong. Howlingly wrong. You couldn’t even see right from where I was standing, that is how wrong I was. I apologize. Behold! My head is at your feet and I am but dust!

It was on Twitter (surprised?) where I was having a lively exchange with some critics of my work on this blog when I wrote:

Libertarians were silent on de jure segregation in ’50s &’60s. I’ve looked. I found nothing. Not. A. Word. Black people didn’t count.

Aha! Phil Magness, with a flourish usually reserved for magicians producing a rabbit from a top hat you would have sworn was empty, immediately produced not one, but two quotations wherein libertarians remarked that legalized segregation was wrong. In other words, it is if I said “All crows are black”  and Phil produced not one but two white crows!  Take that lefty!

Properly humbled, I will now offer a new claim I am prepared to defend:

Libertarians were all but silent about civil rights and race in the Civil Rights era. I’ve looked. I found almost nothing. In one of the biggest struggles for freedom in the 20th century: libertarians did almost nothing.

How I Will Defend my Claim

A portrait of the horse, Silver Blaze

In the classic Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” the key to unraveling the mystery of who stole the eponymous race horse was that the dog did NOT bark in the night time. (No, you don’t get a spoiler alert, the story was published in 1892). To torture the metaphor: The night time = Civil Rights Era (1954-1964); dog = libertarians; barking = defending African-American civil rights. In other words, during the greatest struggle for freedom in the 20th century, libertarians took a pass.

I have read a lot of libertarians of the time and I have not found any real attacks on Jim Crow. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because I haven’t found it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I am making what is technically called an “argument from ignorance” which is, our logician friends will quickly remind us, a fallacy.

As it happens, I’ve written about this problem before and the argument from ignorance is not always a fallacy. Take an ordinary example: you are at a bus stop wondering if the next bus stops at Main Street. You check the bus schedule on the wall of the bus stop and see that Main Street is not listed as a stop. You reasonably conclude that the bus does not stop at Main Street. But why do you conclude that? It is not like the schedule provided you with positive evidence like a sign that read: “BUS DOES NOT STOP AT MAIN STREET.”  All you have is an absence of evidence: there is no evidence the bus stops at Main Street.

Your conclusion about the bus is justified because of the notion that: “If this bus stopped on Main Street, it would be listed on the schedule. It is not listed on the schedule therefore I know it doesn’t stop there.” Perfectly reasonable. Argumentation scholars call this epistemic closureOrdinary people tend to use the phrase: “If it were true, I would know it.” The bus example is a trivial one, but think about drug safety. Our drugs are declared safe through an identical argumentative process. Drugs are tested in various ways to make sure they don’t cause any harm. Once testing standards are satisfied and no harm found, the drug is declared safe simply because it has never been found to be harmful.

So, in order to make my case I need to do two things:

  1. Make a good-faith effort to find evidence. I need to really look for evidence of libertarians joining the civil rights cause. I am trying to deceive people if I make a cursory examination and then declare: “If they had written for African-American rights, I’d know it” simply because I wouldn’t know it.  So I need to demonstrate that I really looked. I try to do that in this post. It is going to be a long ride.
  2. Admit that my claim is provisional and tentative. Sometimes, we know, drugs that are thought to be safe turn out to be dangerous. So, I need to tell you that I may well be wrong about libertarians during the Civil Rights Era. But, the burden of proof has now shifted to my opponents: they have the burden to show that my conclusion is erroneous. Until they produce evidence to the contrary, my claim stands as good.

So lets look at the lines of evidence I have to support my provisional claim.

1.My Own Reading

Lots and lots of libertarian writing is online. The Freeman, for example, is all there. They never discuss civil rights in the time period under construction. Sure, there is a single article by Frank Chodorov right after the Brown decision that basically said, “Yeah, that’s a good decision, let’s use it to privatize schools.” There is another article by noted African-American conservative George Schuyler that argued more or less the same thing. But really? That’s about it. The subtitle of the magazine was “Ideas on Liberty” but apparently when it came to the barriers to liberty faced uniquely by African Americans, they were plumb out of ideas.

The premier publisher of libertarian books for the time period was Caxton Printers. They published books by most major libertarian writers: Garet Garrett, Felix Morley, Ayn Rand, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Robert LeFevre, Roger Lea Macbride… the list could go on. However, titles dealing with the freedom struggle of African Americans are  thin on the ground. Here is a comprehensive bibliography of every title they published between 1946-1963, and here is their advertising flier for “Books for Libertarians” published in 1961. All we are seeing here are book titles, but there is nothing there that seems to address the Civil Rights struggle in any way. Nothing that jumps out at me, anyway. I could well be wrong, and there is a key text in there somewhere that I’ve just missed.

There is another way to find libertarians in the Civil Rights era and that is to look at some standard histories of the movement. No libertarians appear in the work of David Garrow, Taylor Branch, Aldon Morris, Michael Klarman, or Hugh Davis. This absence makes me agree with Eric Foner when he wrote that in the Civil Rights Era, “libertarians proved amazingly indifferent to the denial of blacks’ economic and educational opportunities” (p. 314).

Clearly, my own reading and the description of part of it I just gave is insufficient. There were some libertarian journals and books I haven’t been able to track down or have time to read yet. And there are lots and lots of studies of the Civil Rights Era that I’ve never read. Beside, my Twitter frenemies are always accusing me of “confirmation bias” and seeing only what I want to see, hence maybe you shouldn’t even trust me on what I did read. We need more than this to prove the libertarian dog never barked.

2. Hazlitt, Henry. 1956. The Free Man’s Library; A Descriptive and Critical Bibliography. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Henry Hazlitt was at the center of most libertarian activity of the time. His 1946 book, Economics in One Lesson is still recommended reading for budding libertarians. Between 1946 and 1966, he wrote a regular column for Newsweek (kids ask your parents). His libertarian bona fides appear impeccable to me. He introduced The Free Man’s Library by telling the reader:

This book is a descriptive and critical bibliography of works on the philosophy of individualism. I have applied the term “individualism” in a broad sense. The bibliography includes books which explain the processes and advantages of free trade, free enterprise and free markets; which recognize the evils of excessive state power; and which champion the cause of individual freedom of worship, speech and thought. (p.1)

Here’s a list of over 500 books about “individualism.” Compiled by someone who really believes it. A philosophy of individualism should have a lot to say about race. After all, race is a “collectivist” idea, mainly that groups of people, called races, are real entities. A philosophy of individualism would totally undermine that idea and be a powerful resource for African Americans seeking to bolster their case that they should not be categorized by the group to which they belonged but as individuals.  By 1956, books attacking the idea of race were plentiful. Here’s a partial list:

All of these books, by undermining the race concept itself, would certainly be relevant to a critical biography on individualism. How to choose from among them? But perhaps the best resource at the time would be:

Myrdal’s massive text was the source for America’s “race problem.” It contained all the details on the oppression of African Americans on every possible topic: schooling, religion, labor, economics. Nearly every social scientist who studied race (and some who didn’t) took part in Myrdal’s study and there were five additional specialized volumes that spun off from it. Anyone concerned with race in the US would have drawn upon it or, at the minimum, acknowledged it as the definitive statement documenting the harms of the collectivist race idea.

You are ahead of me, I know—Hazlitt mentioned none of these works. Or any other work that dealt with race. He managed to track down and list any book with the thesis that “Taxation is theft” (seriously, how many of those do you have to read before you get the point?). He managed to include a bunch of union-busting books. He managed to recommend Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of our Time which regular readers will recall recommended a return to monarchy (p. 104).  He also recommended a volume of John Calhoun’s writings: Calhoun, he noted,

openly defended slavery as a positive good, and frankly repudiated the doctrine of human equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. This fact has thrown into undeserved neglect his brilliant defense of States’ rights and the rights of minorities. (p. 52)

He also recommended a biography of Calhoun for everyone (p. 172-3). I dunno, libertarians; Calhoun is looking more like a “lodestar” for libertarians all the time.

There was one book on Hazlitt’s list that dealt with the race concept from a scientific point of view. Hazlitt recommends Edward M. East’s Mankind at the Crossroads (1923) which he calls “An authoritative study of the population problem” (p. 65). Of all the scientific books that Hazlitt might have recommended, some of which I listed at the beginning of this section, he reached back three decades to recommend one from one of the most racist eugenicists of the twentieth century.

My Twitter libertarian frenemies often lay this statement down like they are trumping my ace: “Hey! Eugenics was a leftist/Progressive program! How come you never talk about that, huh? How come?!” Believe me, telling a historian of American biology that the Progressives pushed eugenics is the ultimate coal-Newcastling. To paraphrase Severus Snape, we’ve known that since before you were born. When I tell them I’ve written a lot on that subject they often ignore me and change the subject.

Not all eugenicists were concerned with race, but East certainly was. In 1919 he wrote:

But in reality the negro is inferior to the white. This is not hypothesis or supposition; it is a crude statement of actual fact. The negro has given the world no original contribution of high merit. By his own initiative in his original habitat, he has never risen. Transplanted to a new environment, as in the case of Haiti, he has done no better. In competition with the white race, he bas failed to approach its standard. But because he has failed to equal the white man’s ability, his natural increase is low in comparison. The native population of Africa is increasing very slowly, if at all. In the best environment to which he has been subjected, the United States, his ratio in the general population is decreasing. His only chance for an emended survival is amalgamation (p. 253)

[As an aside, my spellcheck catches “negro” as a spelling error, insisting it needs to be capitalized. In fact, the capitalization of “Negro” was a battle waged by African Americans of the early 20th century. East’s use of the lower case is a studied, but subtle, insult.]

I don’t have the specific book Hazlitt recommended, Mankind at the Crossroads, and it doesn’t appear online [Edit: I was wrong again!]. We’ll have to settle for the assessment of Michael Yudell in his terrific book, Race Unmasked:

East, the pioneering population biologist whose experimental work showed how Mendelian inheritance “could account for an almost continuous array of variation,” also authored the racist tome Mankind at the Crossroads. In the chapter “Racial Prospects and Racial Dangers,” East wrote in typological terms about the fixity of differences between black and white populations: “The Negro as a whole is possessed of undesirable transmissible qualities both physical and mental, which seem to justify not only a line but a wide gulf to be fixed permanently between it and the white race.” According to the geneticist Bentley Glass, “No one went farther than East in lending his authority to racist and social prejudices.” While this point is debatable…East certainly was among the most prominent racists among the generation of geneticists who were helping to develop population genetics.

The Progressives may have pushed eugenics before World War II but I seriously doubt that many were pushing racist books from the 1920s in 1956—especially since East’s views had been thoroughly and soundly refuted by the books I listed at the beginning of the section.

Hazlitt found room for dozens and dozens of books decrying taxation as theft, but couldn’t find room to include even one anti-racist book. Even though Hazlitt was a libertarian of almost unmatched public fame of the time, even though his critical bibliography was touted in The Freeman, even though it contained 550 books and not one dealing with exclusively race (or civil rights for that matter), it is still only one source. And, I certainly haven’t read all of these books, maybe some really are attacks on the race idea. Mises’s Omnipotent Government (1944), for example, has a section that attacks Nazi race doctrines and Hazlitt lists it along side Mises’s other works. So maybe other books in Hazlitt’s list contain similar attacks. But, if they are there, they seem a very minor presence.

Can we look elsewhere? Yes, yes we can.

Broad Surveys of Libertarian Publications

Librarians are awesome. Anyone writing any kind of scholarship owes librarians and archivists a great deal. One of the lesser-known tasks librarians sometimes undertake is to survey publications in specific areas and produce reports for researchers. In 1960, two of these hardworking librarians produced a report on The American Right Wing that surveyed an incredibly broad range of right wing publications:

The publications which these groups sponsor range all the way from the earnest, smudgily mimeographed Voice of the Hour put out occasionally by Captain Edward Miles of Rally Point, U.S.A., to the handsome quarterly Modern Age: A Conservative Review, edited by Russell Kirk. There are many well-written and well-edited weekly, bi-weekly, and fortnightly journals of general political comment, such as William Buckley’s National Review, Alice Widener’s U.S.A., David Lawrence’s U.S. News and World Report, Frank Hanighen’s Human Events, Fulton Lewis, Jr. ‘s Exclusive, Merwin K. Hart’s Economic Council Letter, Dan Smoot’s Report, Edward Rumely’s Spotlight for the Nation. There are monthly magazines as dignified as Leonard Read’s The Freeman and Robert Welch’s American Opinion, as startling as Russell Maguire’s American Mercury, as new as William Stephenson’s Virginian, as old as Gerald L.K. Smith’s The Cross and the Flag, as unilateral as William Dudley Pelley’s Valor and Over Here. (p. 3-4)

They pretty much touched all bases of the right wing publications, libertarian and otherwise. In this broad survey, the authors conclude: “There are certainly some right wing organizations that favor integration, but none has come to light in the present survey” (p. 44). Libertarians were just like pretty much every other right wing writer of the time: no firm stance in favor of integration. This finding was reaffirmed in a 1999 survey of the libertarian press in the 20th century:

In this 70-page survey of the themes in libertarian publications, civil rights does not appear as a topic. Race appears three times: twice when they quote Rothbard, and once when they quote the Libertarian Forum in 1974: “Holding that ‘injustice can be redressed only for the individual who suffered it, and retribution can justly be exacted only from those who caused it,’ the Libertarian Forum rejected all quotas based on race, ethnicity, or sex.”

That it was 1974 is important. I have an idea that libertarians suddenly discovered race as a topic in the 1970s when they began attacking affirmative action. Under Jim Crow, they were all but silent about legal racial distinctions, but once affirmative action got into gear, they were suddenly all about using their individualist ideology against such legal racial distinctions. Daniel Rogers wrote about:

The rapidity with which conservative intellectuals and policy makers who had once defended the historical and social necessity of racial distinctions moved to embrace as their own the language of equal individual chances that had once seemed so threatening. (p. 127)

Rodgers’s view is buttressed by the last survey of libertarian publications that I will discuss:

This was no comprehensive guide, but rather an introduction to the literature for budding libertarians. It was published by the Institute for Humane Studies, founded by our old friend, Baldy Harper. Unlike all the other surveys I, uh, surveyed, this one has an entire section dedicated to “Race and Ethnic Conflict.” But the compilers obviously could not find anything in “Classical Liberal Scholarship” before 1980. Other sections recommend titles from the teens through the fifties, but when it comes to race, libertarians had nothing to say until they began attacking affirmative action. A cynic (me) might posit that libertarians were unconcerned with race until race consciousness began threatening white privilege. And luckily a couple of black scholars like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell were willing to attack affirmative action for the libertarian cause. Of course that is what a cynic (me) might posit. I welcome other interpretations.

Anybody still reading? Good. Moving on.

Doherty, Brian. 2009. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. New York: Public Affairs.

Brian Doherty is an editor at the libertarian Reason magazine so he’s a libertarian insider. His book is the best history of movement libertarianism of the 20th century we have. It clocks in at almost 750 pages, but he’s such an engaging writer that it feels much shorter. He’s done extensive research, read hundreds of books and articles and visited dozens of archives. While he’s a libertarian insider, he shows us all the squabbles and missteps of the movement. While he his sympathetic to the libertarians he writes about this is no hagiography and he paints a very vivid and detailed picture of his subjects.

Radicals for Capitalism says nothing about the Civil Rights movement or libertarians’ place in it. There is no mention of Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr., Central High School in Little Rock, the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, or the Civil Rights act. What did libertarians focus on in the 1950s and early 1960s when this freedom struggle was going on? This:

The nascent libertarian movement argued over compulsory taxation, the morality of the cold war, and such recondite free market economics debates as the gold standard versus managed central banking, passing around (and ruthlessly editing) suggested reading lists for the proper understanding of individualist ideas and history. (p. 225)

The struggle for freedom was going on all around them and  it seems they were completely and utterly oblivious to it.


I set myself two tasks in this post. The first was to show that I have made a good-faith effort to find evidence for libertarian involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I hope I didn’t tax your patience too much with my attempt to show that, “If it was there, I would know it.” I’ve looked. It isn’t there. Second, to admit my conclusion is provisional. I ask, I invite, I beg you to prove me wrong. Show me what I’ve missed. Despite my belief they played no part for African American rights, I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

Finally, a caution. Doherty is well aware that the reason that libertarians played no part in the civil rights movement was not because of their small numbers or marginal status among intellectuals. It was rather, because of their cramped (my word) view of “liberty”:

Libertarian thinkers and institutions were generally concerned, by their nature, with issues of government acting where it didn’t belong. This made libertarians and libertarian ideas—for reasons that go beyond their general cultural peculiarity and outsider status from at least the 1940s to late 1970s—far from major players in some of the biggest arenas of sociopolitical ferment of the 1960s and 1970s: the women’s rights, civil rights, and black rights movements. (p. 524).

As a libertarian himself, he is worried that the traditional libertarian ideology will not speak to those who have traditionally been ignored by it:

Still, American blacks or women, Americans who like reading odd and unpopular things or who want to marry outside their race or within their gender might find libertarian complaints about government growth silly. Most of them certainly feel freer in many important ways than they would have in the nineteenth century, regardless of the size of their tax burden or the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act or banking secrecy regulations. Libertarians risk losing credibility with a substantial audience by not recognizing that some types of highly valued liberty are flourishing outside the movement’s primary concerns with the size and activities of government and by pretending everything is horrible and on a steady decline when it comes to our freedoms. (p. 527)

This is why Jacob Levy asks libertarians to forthrightly recognize the problems the ideology has had with race in the past and the need to rethink libertarian ideology.  Denying this past is not tenable. Finding scattered quotations from long-forgotten speeches or letters in the archives where a libertarian mentions that Jim Crow is bad is hardly evidence that libertarians were actively involved in the African American struggle for freedom. Prove me wrong.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

11 thoughts on “Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

  1. Thank you for writing this, John. It’s actually of use. Specifically, I’ll be sure to reference it the next time someone touts Nancy MacLean’s claim that “Nothing energized this backwater movement like Brown.”


  2. Pingback: Gary Becker and the Economics of Discrimination | Fardels Bear

  3. Pingback: Ayn Rand on Racism | Fardels Bear

  4. Pingback: Objectified Inegalitarian Objectivism | Head Space

  5. Pingback: On the Prehistory of Holocaust Denial | Fardels Bear

  6. Pingback: Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around | Fardels Bear

  7. Pingback: Vice Chairperson of the Libertarian National Committee Invites Racists to Join the Libertarian Party | The Progressive Army

  8. Pingback: Vice Chairperson of the Libertarian National Committee Invites Racists...

  9. Pingback: The Return of Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era | Fardels Bear

  10. Pingback: Answering the Twittertarians | Fardels Bear

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s