Another Distorted History of Libertarianism and Racial Justice

The Dismal Science

OK, it is the Dismal Swamp, but YOU try to find a picture of “The Dismal Science!”

Chapter 7 begins with classical liberalism, a doctrine Zwolinski & Tomasi argue gave birth to libertarianism. They argue that

“Historically, this individualism drove opposition to racism and collectivism in every form. Libertarians believe that individuals have rights, and these rights are universal, with no regard for distinctions of race, class, sex, or creed. Yet this same individualism obscures for libertarians the harms that racism and sexism impose on individuals as members of groups.” (pp. 220-1)

In this account, a libertarian focus on individualism means that it might overlook racism and sexism but, in principle, libertarian doctrines are absolutely opposed to such “collectivism.” “This individualist worldview—shared by all the classical liberals” they claim, “was fundamentally egalitarian. Differing experiences and circumstances, not differences in nature, best explained the variations in aptitude observed in society.” They try to prove their point with a couple quotations from Adam Smith to that effect. The problem is that a couple of quotations from a single author cannot support the claim that “all classical liberals” were “fundamentally egalitarian.” While slavery was an ancient practice, racial chattel slavery, based on property rights was the product of those very classical liberals. While Zwolinksi & Tomasi claim that classical liberals were the radicals who spoke out against racialized slavery, this view is difficult to sustain given the abundant evidence to the contrary. For example, John Locke was involved in the slave trade and his theories were used to justify the dispossession of American Indians of their homes. As one author put it, “Locke’s reputation as the champion of liberty would not survive the contradictions in which new world slavery ensnared him. Evidence for this may be found in Locke’s reception, including by Southern apologists for slavery” (p. 493). Thomas Jefferson, a classical liberal if there ever was one, was not only a slaveholder, but famously endorsed “Negro” inferiority as confirmed by his scientific investigations.

This is especially the case given the historical near-consensus, based on many more texts and sources than Zwolinski & Tomasi offer, that “in all its radicalism, the paradox we face consists of this: the rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery are the product of a twin birth” (p. 37). As Tyler Stovall documents, liberal worries over slavery were more metaphorical than actual because “when Enlightenment writers talked about the evils of slavery they did so only in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense. The symbolic enslavement of Europeans by religious and royal oppression rather than the actual enslavement of Africans in the Americas was far and away their primary concern.” (p. 107).

Stovall also highlights another tendency that Zwolinski & Tomasi share with other libertarians writing their own history. Libertarians tend to seize credit for ideas, movements, and victories that rightfully belong to someone else. This can happen through retroactive baptism: declaring past figures as “libertarians” when those figures might not have claimed such a label for themselves (ie: MLK was a “libertarian). It can also happen by simply ignoring the complexities of the past and claiming that it was the libertarians, all along, who were alone, or at least the most important figures fighting for freedom. This is especially obvious in the case of anti-slavery movements, as Stovall explains:

The challenge to white freedom that at times came from radical and progressive forces, often those with a working-class social base. As we have seen so far, despite their denunciations of slavery liberal intellectual and political movements usually failed to challenge it effectively and take a frontal stand for freedom for all. This failure in large part arose from a resistance to challenging property rights, and slaves constituted one of the most valuable types of private property during the era of liberal revolution. Social and political movements that challenged the right to private property were in contrast more likely to embrace the idea of freedom for all. This was certainly not always true, but as the example of the French and Haitian Revolutions demonstrates, the impulse for universal freedom usually came from the Left. (p. 123)

Zwolinksi & Tomasi ignore all of this literature (and I’ve only given you a tiny slice) that challenges their view that classical liberalism was an egalitarian doctrine. In its stead, we get two quick quotations from Adam Smith meant to document a couple centuries of thought from hundreds of classical liberals. The worst aspect of these sins of historical omission come a few pages later, when Zwolinksi & Tomasi briefly discuss Jacon Levy’s essay, “Black Liberty Matters,” which I wrote about here. Levy’s essay argues that, in libertarian thought, “liberty” more often than not, meant “white liberty” and that libertarians had best take that “morally compromised history and sociological and psychological patterns about how those principles turn into general political discourse” much more seriously than they have been. Zwolinski & Tomasi fail to take up Levy’s challenge; at the end of their discussion of his essay they conclude “Libertarianism may be logically and morally incompatible with white supremacist structures and tactics–but it does not always seem that way (p.251, their emphasis). But the history of classical liberalism’s responsibility for the rise of racialized slavery with its emphasis on property rights that extended to the right to own human beings cannot, and should not, be dismissed as only seeming to exist. Zwolinski & Tomasi’s distorted and truncated history of their “Liberty Movement” is the seeming: the ugly history of classical liberalism’s creation of racialized chattel slavery is the reality–a reality they hide from their readers.

The Radical Abolitionists

In the previous section, Zwolinski & Tomasi excommunicated many classical liberals and libertarians by simply ignoring historical figures and ideas that would complicate the simplistic history of their chosen ideology. In the section on the Abolitionist movement in the U.S. Zwolinski & Tomasi engage in some Baptism of the Dead by recruiting 19th-century Abolitionists into libertarianism. Two of the key figures they declare libertarians, William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Wright were fierce opponents of slavery as well as anarchists, to be sure, but Zwolinksi and Tomasi do not really supply evidence that they were so because they held any of the “six key commitments” fundamental to libertarianism. We are told little, if anything on Garrison’s views on property rights or free markets, for example. As they note, “Garrison and Wright fused anarchism and abolitionism through their religious vision of godly government” (p. 227). There is little evidence that these two figures came to anarchism and then joined it with their religious convictions rather than their anarchism simply arising out of their religious belief entirely. Again, we need more evidence that these figures deserve the label “libertarian” before we retroactively baptize them as such.

Zwolinksi & Tomasi do not address the large, and growing, literature that show American slavery as part of free-market captialism. They also ignore how ideas about the sacredness of property and the free market were enrolled in defense of slavery.

Over time, Southern proslav­ery figures extolled the positive aspects of the continued existence of racial slavery in their region of the country at the expense of the negative aspects of its abolition. They argued that the institution was congruent, not incongruent, with the uniquely liberal and progressive qualities that antebellum Americans attributed to their own national experience, thereby denying that the “American exemplar” and “human progress” arguments were necessarily antislavery in scope. (p. 119)

If we measure famed Chief Justice John Marshall with the tools that mark libertarians (property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order), and allow for different weightings to each factor, then it is quite possible read his proslavery Supreme Court opinions as libertarian as they certainly embraced strong property rights, and important free market principles such as contract and free trade. Paul Finkelman notes, “These cases illustrate that for Marshall, slaves were another form of property subject to litigation, which also reflected his own life as a slave owner and as a purchaser and seller of slaves” (p. 53). Zwolinksi & Tomasi note that “libertarians challenge political authority in a more fundamental sense: the doubt that governments have the authority in terms of possessing amoral claim to command and be obeyed” (p. 23). This certainly described Mashall who was happy to enforce the common law of contracts (another libertarian hallmark p. 28)) over unjust laws limiting slavery. “Marshall, obsessed with property rights, was more concerned about the nature of contract law than about the settled law of every slave jurisdiction in the country or the freedom of a handful of African Americans” (p. 61). Zwolinksi & Tomasi tell us that “Libertarians are radically committed to free trade. They are radicals in terms of the scope of objects that individuals should be permitted to trade on the market–not just automobiles and bread but kidneys, sexual services, methamphetamines, and perhaps even police services and courts” (p. 26). Marshall certainly agreed. If libertarians think that it is right and proper to trade kidneys, why not human bodies as well?

“When claims of liberty [of enslaved people], challenged property rights. Marshall was coldly analytical, applying his immense intellectual power to explain why people who had legitimate claims to freedom should remain slaves or to explain why people who had notoriously violated the ban on the slave trade should not be punished or even denied the fruits of their illegal activity. When it came to slavery and freedom Marshall in some cases chose to go against the well-trod path of the law–in order to preserve slave property” (pp. 110-1)

It would be interesting if Zwolinski & Tomasi had addressed any of these issues. Undoubtedly, they would argue that all those liberal/libertarian arguments in favor of slavery only seem to be libertarian. Again, this is response is simply enrolling the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: claiming for themselves the right to define who is and is not a “libertarian” thus maintaining the purity of their “Liberty Movement” against the charge that it is connected with any defense of slavery. However, the historical record is clear that those hallmarks of libertarianism were, in fact, used to create and defend American racialized slavery. Dismissing it as seeming will scarcely suffice.

Finally, Zwolinksi and Tomasi conflate anti-slavery with anti-racism. “It was one thing to oppose slavery in theory, but quite another to accept blacks into the social and political process” (p. 80). There is little evidence that libertarians, who were and are, overwhelmingly white, truly embraced racial justice. Their activities during the civil rights era show this.

Libertarians and Civil Rights

The next section of the chapter addresses libertarian arguments and activities during the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). Zwolinski & Tomasi point out that this was a reactionary time for libertarians, “How did libertarianism, a doctrine at the radical edge of the abolitionist movement, not merely lose but apparently reverse its progressive organization on race by the late twentieth century” (p. 235)? Of course, the best explanation is one they will not entertain: there was no reversal at all and libertarian thought in the Civil Rights Movement was perfectly consistent with the libertarians of a century earlier who used property rights and free market principles to defend racialized slavery.

Yes, we’ve jumped ahead a century. Zwolinksi & Tomasi’s “Liberty Movement” apparently was completely silent during the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, racist disenfranchisement of Black voters, lynching and racial violence, massive unemployment of Black people during the Depression, and racialized violence during World War II. This century of roaring silence cannot be dismissed as libertarians who “sometimes struggle to see threats to liberty in racism” (p. 221) but grounds for a thoughtful person to wonder if the six elements of libertarianism are really the key to a proper understanding of freedom. Maybe the “Liberty Movement” is no such thing.

Zwolinksi & Tomasi also skip most of the Civil Rights Era by focusing on two essays published at the very end of that time: 1962 and 1963. I will turn to those essays momentarily, but a good question to ask is: where were libertarians in the decades before then? If we mark the Civil Rights Movement as starting at the end of World War II (1945) or with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), what were libertarians doing during that time to advance the cause of racial justice? I’ve addressed this question before: they did nothing (see here, here, and here).

Zwolinksi and Tomasi point to the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and its magazine, The Freeman, founded in 1946 and tell us that “the impact of Read’s organization on twentieth-century libertarianism can hardly be overstated” (p. 57). What kind of “radical egalitarianism,” the supposed foundation of libertarianism, did FEE and The Freeman publish? They were radical in their opposition to egalitarianism. To be sure, Freeman writers would claim they stood for equality before the law, but that was the end the equality they offered. Far more common in it pages were condemnations of social and economic equality, both of which were seen as atheistic and socialistic. This could be in the form of flyers and pamphlets (here or here) or in the pages of The Freeman:

  • Jebb, Reginald. 1956. “Equality.” Freeman 6 (10): 30–33.
  • Jebb, Reginald. 1957. “Equality Re-Examined.” Freeman 7 (January): 39–41.
  • Opitz, Edmund A. 1964. “Equality: Which Kind?” Freeman 14 (June): 43–46.
  • Pittman, R. Carter. 1960. “Equality v. Liberty: The Eternal Conflict.” Freeman 10 (0): 40–50.

The Pittman piece is significant, not only because the Georgia attorney was a deeply racist segregationist (segregationists were welcome at FEE and in the pages of The Freeman), not only because the essay is still available at FEE’s website, and not only because Pittman was a founding director of Willis Carto’s racist and antisemitic Liberty Lobby. No, it is significant because it calls attention to yet another theme unaddressed by Zwolinski & Tomasi: that freedom and equality were often treated as opposites throughout American history. A functioning free market depends on people having inequitable skills and capacities. For libertarians, equality before the law never meant social equality or equal capacities and skills among individuals. Freedom would make clear that people were not equal in those regards. Freedom meant inequality, and libertarians always chose freedom.

Libertarians of the 1960s did not limit their discussion of inequality to differences among individuals but included discussions of racial inequality as well. Economist Gordon Tulluck had no problem endorsing a research program devoted to finding intelligence differences among “races,” a research program long since abandoned by evolutionary biologists and geneticists as racist. For the past thirty years, the most public, prolific, and outspoken advocate for the genetic inferiority of African Americans has been libertarian Charles Murray. Despite his endorsement of the biological reality of race and that some racial groups are must plain smarter than others, I have found no libertarians claiming Murray is no libertarian or that his racist views disqualify him from recommending libertarian public policies, indeed his employer celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Murray’s racist book, The Bell Curve. Zwolinski & Tomasi claim Murry as one of their own (p. 197) but make no mention of his racist views.

Zwolinski & Tomasi address no libertarian literature on racial issues published between 1830 and 1962, perhaps they could find none. It was only in the early 1960s, when the country was finally going to take racism seriously and put some teeth behind American values of equality, that libertarians were stirred to comment on the dangers of racism. For libertarians, however, the looming Civil Rights Act was a danger to property rights and freedom rather than a measure that would enhance freedom.

They begin with Ayn Rand’s 1963 essay on racism. I’ve addressed this terrible essay before and I won’t rehearse it here. For anyone unsatisfied with my, admittedly polemical, essay on Rand, I recommend Stephen Thomson’s more scholarly evisceration. If Zwolinski & Tomasi can cite a hack novelist whose best-known “hero” sparked genocide as an intellectual source, allow me to cite Loki from the Avengers movie: “”How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?

The second, and final essay, they offer is Milton Friedman’s chapter on “Capitalism and Discrimination” from his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. Like Rand’s schlock, I’ve dealt with Friedman’s essay before in this space (here, here, here, and here). I’m not going through all that again, but suffice it to say that Zwolinski & Tomasi are silent on how Rand and Friedman’s essays were timed when Jim Crow was on its very last legs, were more concerned with the “racial discrimination” threatened by the civil rights bill, and well after libertarians had supported segregationists’ efforts to privatize schools which could be legally segregated.

In a previous chapter, entitled “Poverty and Spontaneous Order,” Zwolinski & Tomasi argue that private efforts to alleviate poverty “spontaneously” arise to deal with the problem. They are unaware that similar private efforts were in force to combat racism. Friedman argued, along with most libertarians, that the only moral course of action was education and moral suasion: “Friedman advocated active conversations about the evils of racism” (p. 238). One midcentury survey found 165 private agencies in the U.S. meant to educate the public about the evils of racism, a perfect example of spontaneous organization: “The private agencies are, in a sense, an organized form of individual conscience in these matters… in the very fact of their existence, and in the fact that they come and go with no governmental decrees to control them, they are a sign of the viability of our democracy (p. 409, emphasis in original). There is no evidence that Friedman, or any other libertarian, organized such agencies or publicized or participated in them in any way. If racism was evil, Friedman and the “Liberty Movement” would pay lip service to it, but do nothing to combat it.

Part of the reason for that is that libertarians create a false dilemma: they hold that we must choose between private efforts to fight racism OR governmental action. But that choice is an utterly false one. In my book, Social Scientists for Social Justice I documented the extensive evidence that private actions against discrimination and governmental actions against worked best together. Relying on this almost evidence-free essay, Zwolinski and Tomasi argue that the change in people’s racial attitudes in the mid-1960s owed to “campaigns of direct nonviolent action” (p. 249). This is an impossible explanation to prove given the extensive federal efforts to educate the public about the evils of racism, beginning with anti-racist morale research during World War II, Truman’s President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 which led to the report, To Secure these Rights the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which was urged by the federal Justice Department, and, of course, the enormous public debate over the passage of the Civil Rights Act itself. For Zwolinksi & Tomasi to claim that all of this had no impact on changing public opinion on race is very difficult to believe.

Zwolinksi & Tomasi go further. Relying on the evidence-free essay I noted above, Zwolinksi Y Tomasi claim that “When the federal government took over the problem of race, many citizens became passive rather than active in their commitment to racial equality. The sense of personal responsibility that enflamed the early activists was dissipated and lost” (p. 249). This statement can only be supported by ideological blindness. If there is anything the last 1960s is known for, it is NOT a passive public regarding social justice. 1965 saw the Watts Rebellion, a violent demand for racial justice. The Black Panthers were born in 1966. In 1967, Black Power was only one work that ignited new ways to think about racism and local action. 1968 launched the American Indian Movement. None of this “dissipated” during the 1970s. The “Liberty Movement” was not directly involved in any of this activity, but would occasionally opine from the sidelines. Even today, Zwolinski & Tomasi themselves show us that some libertarians approve (but not directly participate) in the Black Lives Matter movement but others wish the police would crack more protesters’ skulls in order to protect private property (pp. 219-220). The “Liberty Movement” of today, as it was during the Abolition movement and Civil Rights Movement is either irrelevant to the fight for racial justice or directly opposed to it.

Zwolinski & Tomasi never ask the most obvious question historians should be asking about libertarians’ opposition to the Civil Rights Act. As Sam Kinison asked, Where they right? Is capitalism the only answer to racial discrimination? In the 60 years since Friedman wrote has this idea been shown to be correct? No:

The idea that the market controls all invidious discrimination is, and has always been, demonstrably false. The market responds to the attitudes of customers. If one were interested in profits, and nothing else, then…the existence of discrimination depends on the amount of discriminatory attitudes that exist in a given community. (p. 937)

Zwolinski & Tomasi point out that libertarians’ primary objections were to Title II, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, and Title VII which dealt with fair employment practices. The authors note that Friedman believed “using state power to end racism would not work and, like many, coercive rules and programs, might have the opposite effect” (p. 238). Was he right? In one sense the empirical disproof of Friedman’s point was obvious: If we follow Friedman’s logic, coercive Jim Crow laws should have dramatically decreased racial discrimination, yet they were brutally effective in imposing it. Friedman, nor any other libertarian, has ever explained why anti-discrimination laws would increase discrimination when pro-discrimination laws did not decrease it.

This post is already far too long and since I addressed the libertarian predictions about Fair Employment practices in this space, I won’t repeat them here. What about libertarian concerns about laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations? Did they utterly fail? Did they make the problem of racial discrimination worse? Of course not:

Because Title II placed restrictions on private business owners, this section was the more controversial of the two and, as a result, the subject of immediate legal challenges. Yet swift enforcement by federal courts, and particularly, the U.S. Supreme Court, ensured that segregation in virtually all public accommodations had ended by the beginning of 1965….As evidenced by the total lack of segregated facilities today, Southerners did accept the law of Title II.… Even though we may currently take the absence of segregation in public accommodations for granted, it undoubtedly remains one of the most significant and positive contributions of the 1964 Act. (p. 441)

The utter failure of their predictions about the Civil Rights Act and the undeniable empirical record of its success has barely made a dent in the “Unrelenting Libertarian Challenge to Public Accommodations Law.” For them, the decrease in Black infant mortality that followed the desgregation of hospitals in the wake of the Civil Rights Act stands as a symbol of the coercive violation of property rights the Act represents. If it had never passed, more babies would be dead, but that is a price many libertarians are willing someone else pays.

On matters of racial justice, the very best thing we can say about libertarians is that they have always been a day late and a dollar short but always attempting to take credit for the work of the very people they ignored or opposed historically. The elements that make them distinctively libertarian, (property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order) were often employed in defense of slavery and segregation. Unfortunately, The Individualists continues the long libertarian tradition of distorting history in order to prop up an ideology that has seldom, if ever, served the cause of racial justice.

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

3 thoughts on “Another Distorted History of Libertarianism and Racial Justice

  1. Libertarians not only prize ‘freedom’, for those they think merit it, over equality, they prize that ‘freedom’ over truth and honesty. As academics, the authors of that work of libertarian apologia, with all the pejorative sense that word usually carries, would have a hard time explaining just why they were so very selective in their choice of evidence. Cherry-picking and wilfull blindness par excellence.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to add that that post was not, IMO, too long. Though I will admit that I have more than enough work to do to chase down the links within it. [goes off to put coffee on the brew]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: F.A. Hayek and the False Promise of a Racially Just Libertarianism | Fardels Bear

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