Answering the Twittertarians

Sketch of a man writing a complaint

In my last post I made what I thought was a straightforward argument: libertarians claim to be freedom’s ultimate defenders but their actions during the great freedom struggle for Civil Rights show them to be indifferent or perhaps hostile to racial justice as a component of freedom. This is a particular problem for them because they claim to be concerned with freedom. Some libertarians on my Twitter feed raised some objections and I thought I would address their points here since Twitter is hardly the place for a good discussion. So, let’s dive in, shall we?

To take the Twittertarian’s (do you like that? I thought I’d try it out) objections one by one:

1. Libertarians consistently defend government neutrality, property rights, economic freedom. Jackson concludes this makes them racist. That is a “dumb” conclusion.

To be clear: I don’t pretend to read any historical figure’s mind. I do not pretend to know their attitudes about other races in their “heart of hearts.” That’s a mug’s game. More importantly, who cares? What we have is public statements and actions. Those are available for our judgment. What did someone do and did that action show a concern for racial justice or not? That is the kind of question we can answer.

In my post I made no sweeping statements about “libertarians are racists.” I argued that there was some good evidence that the classical liberal focus on “government neutrality, property rights, and economic freedom” historically helped create and maintain the “racist social order” and referenced this post and this post. Anyone who wants to dispute that claim is free to do so with appropriate arguments and evidence.

I also pointed out the following: The book I was reviewing claimed Theodore Bilbo was a racist because he argued for “sending the blacks back to Africa.” I agreed that was a racist position and then pointed out that the “back to Africa” movement was supported by libertarians (F.A. Harper and Murray Rothbard) in the 1960s. If Bilbo was a racist then, it seems to follow that Harper and Rothbard earned the epithet as well. If not, then libertarians should explain why not rather than just saying my argument is “dumb.”

2. Libertarians aren’t really concerned with “freedom” they are concerned with limiting government.

Gimme a break. “Liberty” is the root of the word “libertarian.” (hint: “liberty” is a synonym for “freedom”). Limited government is the means to the end and the end is freedom. How many examples do you need that libertarians claim to be the champions of freedom? How about here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, or here?

3. Leftists and socialists were racists too!

Well, yes they were. I don’t like them either. Historical inquiry is not meant to be a game where we keep score about who was the most racist. I don’t discuss the racism of the left because I’m particularly interested in how the language of “freedom” as defined by libertarians was used against the cause of racial justice. I find this an interesting and understudied problem. And, unfortunately, it is clear that the libertarians aren’t going to honestly tend to their own history as Jacob Levy has urged them to do.

4. Libertarians were actually concerned with civil rights, but Jackson unfairly dismisses these figures as “obscure.”

I can leave it to the reader to decide if the figures trotted out in the book I discussed are important to the civil rights movement or rightfully described as “obscure.” These would include R.C. Hoiles, S.B. Fuller, or Archibald Carey, Jr.  Or whether or not economists Milton Friedman or Martin Anderson, while well-known, played a significant role in civil rights. Or whether or not Senator Robert Taft, who prevented fair employment practices from being implemented, was a civil rights hero. Or whether or not Barry Goldwater’s staunch opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act means he should be taken as a hero for the movement whose crowning achievement was the passage of that Act. I think I’ve gauged them correctly, but if there is evidence of their significant contributions to racial justice, I’m happy to entertain it.

5. Libertarians were not concerned with civil rights per se, they were concerned with governmental over-reach which would have destroyed everyone’s rights! 

I call this the “All Lives Matter!” defense. The problem is that it does not recognize that anti-black racism was a particular form of social oppression that required (and requires) a particular form of amelioration. In fact, libertarian historian, Brian Doherty notes that this libertarian focus on governmental over-reach was precisely what handicapped the nascent movement in the 1950s and 1960s (I’ve quoted him before in this space):

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)

The very focus of libertarians in the decades after World War II is what made them marginal players for racial justice. When present day libertarians argue that they were opposed to Jim Crow, for example, ask them to present writings of the time as evidence. They may be able to find a passage or sentence or maybe even an essay here or there, but the important writings against Jim Crow did not come from libertarians but from mainstream liberals and leftists. (See here, here, here, here, here, for just a few examples).

6. There was no libertarian movement in these decades; maybe a couple dozen people at most. And they weren’t self-identified “libertarians” anyway, at best they were “proto-libertarians.” So that’s why they were an insignificant presence in civil rights.

Dancing Scotsman

Sigh. I wish the libertarians kept an official list of who is and is not a libertarian. Sometimes I’m told Ayn Rand was a libertarian, sometimes I’m told she’s not. Same with pretty much any other libertarian you can list. Libertarians are the masters of “No True Scotsman.” At any rate, Doherty dismisses this excuse in the passage I just quoted above. They were marginal because of their ideas, not because of their numbers.

Putting the Scotsman to one side for a moment, lets consider the paradox that libertarians find themselves. One the one hand, they claim that theirs was a poor, beleaguered movement a few decades ago; just a few lonely voices crying out in the New Deal wilderness. On the other, they claim that their “classical liberal” tradition is an old one and, indeed is the very tradition on which the country was founded. Indeed, the same person who tweeted that there were no libertarians in the 1950s also told me that John Locke, Fredrick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln should all be considered part of the classical liberal tradition. So the tradition is both old, going back to the 17th century, and brand new, only appearing in the 1970s or so.

Our libertarians try to squirm out of this problem by latching on to the elements of the classical liberal tradition that are professed by those who are in no way card-carrying libertarians. This is why they often claim democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “classical liberal” and thus enroll him to their cause. I was told that King’s views on civil rights were classically liberal but his economics were socialist. This move doesn’t work, however. Because virtually all public discourse in the United States of the time was classically liberal in this sense. Everyone agreed in equality before the law, everyone agreed on individual rights, everyone agreed in the right to worship as they choose, everyone agreed to the right to property, etc. Even segregationists could agree on the Fourteenth Amendment, though the claimed its requirements could be met under conditions of legalized segregation. So, no, libertarians, you do not get to claim, as the book I reviewed did, King or organizations like the American Jewish Congress as somehow part of your movement. If they were “classical liberals” then pretty much everyone in the country was, and is, a “classical liberal.”

So, why do we hear that there were so very few libertarians in the 1950s and early 1960s? Because the very things that mark libertarians as libertarians were the things that were not individual rights or equality before the law. Let me turn again to libertarian historian Brian Doherty:

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 gold standard and managed central banking didn’t register any disenfranchised African-American voters in the south (and they don’t do anything about racial gerrymandering today) and they contributed nothing to building an argument against Jim Crow. So, in theory, libertarianism could have been a powerful weapon against Jim Crow. In practice they were not.

Finally, libertarians might have been thin on the ground but those that existed seemed to argue against the ideas of the civil rights movement. For example, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), dedicated to promulgating the economic, ethical, and legal principles of a free society was an early libertarian organization founded in 1946. In the 1950s and 1960s I have found no publications from FEE  directly attacking Jim Crow as a violation of freedom. I have found articles against the concept of equality, a call for a moral revolution with no mention of race, a libertarian platform with no mention of Jim Crow, warnings about the dangers of political organization, warnings against Fair Employment Practices, and F.A. Harper’s praise for discriminationI’ve surveyed the available literature before and my conclusion stands: Once you take away the classical liberal positions endorsed by pretty much everyone, the libertarian movement had no important contributions to make to racial justice and often worked against it. 


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