F.A. Hayek and the False Promise of a Racially Just Libertarianism

Rights and Tyranny

Editorial cartoon from 1875 urging the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. It shows a white woman's hands handing the bill to a Black man's hands. The title is "To Thine Own Self be True."
The 1875 Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. The Act was overturned by the Supreme Court which held, in true libertarian spirit, that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress the power to outlaw private acts of racial discrimination.

In Randy Newman’s achingly beautiful song, Sail Away, the narrator sings a wonderful promise of freedom and plenty in America. The listener can be deceived by the narrator until it becomes evident that he is singing of enslaving Africans. You might think the narrator is a libertarian promising beautiful freedom in order to hide the ugly reality that freedom does not belong to the slave:

In America you'll get food to eat
Won't have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American

Ain't no lions or tigers
Ain't no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev'rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog
Sail away with me

Sail away
Sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail away
Sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You're all gonna be an American

“Libertarianism is fundamentally incompatible with the notion that some classes of persons are beings of an inferior order who have no rights,” Koppelman writes, “A guarantee of Lockean rights demands a culture that respects those rights” (p. 179). While such a view might be that of Koppelman, a political theorist defending an abstract political theory, nearly the entire history of libertarianism shows the claim to be empirically false. Classical liberalism gave birth to racialized chattel slavery. Here in the twenty-first century, libertarians deny that their ideology could possibly have authorized slavery but an abundance of historical evidence shows otherwise. Those wishing to rehabilitate the libertarian reputation for racial egalitarianism must deal with that evidence.

In his discussion of John Rawls, Koppelman notes that “Rawls was ambivalent about capitalism, and was perennially attracted to alternative schemes such as liberal socialism. He never discusses the critical literature on socialism, or the Hayekian claim that it would inevitably be wasteful and tyrannical” (p. 103). But Koppelman also fails to engage in the “critical literature” of his favored views. In his extensive discussion of Locke and property rights, Koppelmen doesn’t even mention the vast critical literature that outlines Locke’s own involvement in the slave trade and his written defenses of slavery, how his theories were used to justify the ownership of human beings, and how Lockian property rights were used to dispossess American Indians from their homelands. I’ve written about these issues before (here, here, and here) and won’t rehearse them here (for other work on how liberal ideas of property were entwined with racialized slavery see here, here, here, here, here, or here). Perhaps Koppelman is unpersuaded by this vast literature that demonstrated Lockian ideas were fundamental to the growth of racial chattel slavery, but it is difficult to see how he can defend his position by ignoring it.

Central to Koppelmans defense of libertarianism is the capacity of capitalism to create wealth, thus making issues of economic inequality, if not moot, then of far less concern than our current politics makes them. Following Deidrie McClosky he points to the “Great Enrichment:” how “the human race became spectacularly rich beginning around 1800” (p. 33). But, if capitalism is responsible for the Great Enrichment, then a great deal of that wealth was built on the backs of racially enslaved people. Koppelman notes, “American antebellum slavery prospered within early-nineteenth-century capitalism” (p. 63). A great deal of the enrichment was in the form of enslaved bodies:

While it varies with the price of slaves over the period, it is never less than six trillion 2016 dollars and, at the time of Emancipation, was close to thirteen trillion 2016 dollars…An alternative way of making that calculation is to use Soltow’s finding that Total Estate in slaves was 15.9 percent of the 1860 total. The Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds accounts report net worth for households is about $90 trillion in 2016. If Soltow’s percentage is applied to that data, the result is again approximately $14 trillion. In case anyone think that a relatively small number, it is roughly 77 percent of GDP today.

Koppelman is eager to claim that liberal ideas about capitalism and property should get credit for the Great Enrichment. But credit and blame are simply different sides of the same coin: if the Great Enrichment was (mostly?) in the form of enslaved bodies and the wealth those bodies produced then liberal ideas of capitalism and property were to blame for slavery and the wealth it created. The Great Enrichment was not the product of freedom, but of slavery.

Koppelman’s discussion of Locke is linked to his discussion of John Rawls, and Robert Nozick, Rawls’s great intellectual enemy. Koppelman’s discussion of Rawls and Nozick is frozen in time; firmly anchored in those authors’ most famous books, published a half-century ago. If Koppelman is interested in the threat of racism, then at minimum he needs to engage with the work of Charles Mills and other scholars who have developed a substantive literature that finds the classical liberal/libertarian vision responsible for the rise of racist ideology. As Mills wrote:

But what if not merely episodically and randomly but systematically and structurally–the personhood of some persons was historically disregarded and their rights disrespected? What if entitlements and justice were, correspondingly, so conceived of that the unequal treatment of these persons, or subpersons, was not seen as unequal, not flagged as an internal inconsistency, but accommodated by suitable discursive shifts and conceptual framings? And what if, after long political struggles, there developed at last a seeming equality that later turned out to be more nominal than substantive, so that justice and equal protection were still effectively denied even while being triumphantly proclaimed? It would mean that we would need to recognize the inadequacy of speaking in the abstract of liberalism and contractarianism. We would need to acknowledge that race had underpinned the liberal framework from the outset, refracting the sense of crucial terms, embedding a particular model of rights bearers, dictating a certain historical narrative, and providing an overall theoretical orientation for normative discussions. We would need to confront the fact that to understand the actual logic of these normative debates, both what is said and what is not said, we would have to understand not just the ideal, abstract social contract but also its incarnation in the United States (and arguably elsewhere) as a nonideal, racial contract. (pp. 1381-2)

Libertarianism and In the Civil Rights Era

A button reading: "Equal Rights Now"
An AFL-CIO Button demanding equal rights. Hayek believed that unions were a major threat to freedom.

What is particularly frustrating about Koppelman’s refusal to engage with the critical literature of libertarianism is that he is very close to agreeing with much of it. He understands that human agency is not unlimited and that we are socialized in particular ways: “A free society is a complex web of agency and structure. People make their history, but they don’t make it just as they please” (p. 186). Modern libertarianism, especially in its popular Randian and Rothbardian voices, refuses to recognize this social reality and thus is a barrier to freedom according to Koppelman. Indeed, he has been a consistent libertarian voice for anti-discrimination laws. He argues that “a Hayekian framework” can show where and when anti-discrimination laws are justified.

That racism is embedded in social structures rather than solely in individual attitudes is an important insight–one that comes from outside the libertarian tradition Koppelman defends. This means that Koppelman faces difficulties retrofitting libertarianism, even in its Hayekian voice, to accommodate it. Thus he slips sometimes between describing racism as something structural back to describing it as attitudinal, as in the Barry Goldwater example: whether or not Goldwater harbored racist attitudes should be irrelevant to our determination that his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a vote for structural racism. That it was principled libertarianism and racist does not fit into Koppelman’s belief that libertarianism cannot be racist.

Another example is that of Ayn Rand, whom Koppelman assures us “despised racism” (p. 174). As I’ve argued before, Rand didn’t despise it enough to write a word about it until racism was threatened by the Civil Rights Act and then her vehemence was directed at “quotas” much more than Jim Crow. And then there is this:

The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures. They are typically nomads. Their culture is primitive, and they resent Israel because it’s the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their continent. When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.

But, even given its massive inadequacies as an anti-racist tract, at least libertarians have an essay by her that they can trot out. The same cannot be said for Hayek since “he never wrote about the problem of racism” (p. 176), but shared Rand’s “dislike” for people from the Near East:

I don’t have many strong dislikes. I admit that as a teacher–have no racial prejudices in general– but there were certain types, and conspicuous among them the Near Eastern populations, which I still dislike because they are fundamentally dishonest. And I must say dishonesty is a thing I intensely dislike. It was a type which, in my childhood in Austria, was described as Levantine, typical of the people of the eastern Mediterranean. it later, But I encountered it later, and I have a profound dislike for the typical Indian students at the London School of Economics, which I admit are all one type–Bengali moneylender sons. They are are to me a detestable type, I admit, but not with any racial feeling. I have found a little of the same amongst the Egyptians–basically a lack of honesty in them. (p. 490)

We can waste time arguing about whether or not such views were “really” racist rather than “ethnocentrism” or some other failing, but to do so would miss the point. The point is whether or not Hayek, himself, would agree with Koppelman’s idea that there could be a “Hayekian framework” for anti-discrimination laws to fight structural racism? Reading Hayek, who never addressed the problem of racism, it seems doubtful to me. Koppelman seems almost alone among Hayek’s admirers to think that it does.

If Hayek is to be taken as someone concerned with liberty, then the fact that he never addressed racism would seem to be a major problem in casting him as the answer to today’s racism. Not only did Hayek never address racism, but his admirers and followers seemed to follow him in thinking it was not a problem for his theory of freedom. I can’t even pretend to have read most of the literature addressing Hayek’s thought, however, there is no mention of “racism,” “segregation,” or “apartheid” in any of these easily accessible volumes:

If Hayek’s ideas could address the problems of structural racism, someone would have addressed it in this enormous literature on Hayek’s thought. On the other hand, Eric Agner finds strong similarities between Hayek’s idea of cultural evolution and that of Alexander Carr-Saunders that the sociologist developed in the nineteen-twenties

Carr-Saunders discussed the differences between those European races that are “larger and more prosperous” and thaose that are “smaller and weaker…” Ther is no doubt which race posses the most valuable tradition….Carr-Saunders’ theory of cultural evolution is strikingly similar to that of Hayek. Both believed that cultural evolution is a matter of group selection rather than of individual selection, imitation, or some other mechanism. (pp. 82-3)

The idea of selection operating on the level of groups, particularly racial groups was foundational to scientific racism as it developed in the United States. Perhaps Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution could be disentangled from those disreputable origins, but perhaps not. A more productive line of argument is to see how Hayek’s ideas fit into the racial politics in the times he was writing.

Hayek and Libertarians on Private Education and Segregation

A black-and-white image of a small room with one African-American teacher and six students in a small room with a woodburning stove in the center of the room.
A “colored school” in Henderson, Kentucky, 1916. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Part Of: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee.

As I pointed out elsewhere on this blog, libertarians were either absent in the Civil Rights struggle or allied with the segregationists. Libertarian writing on school segregation, such as that of James Buchanan, was indistinguishable from segregationist writings. Both were filled with the language of “freedom of association” and fears of “compulsory integration.” In the wake of Brown libertarians very quickly realized they could leverage the desegregation decision to attack the very idea of public education. The month after Brown was decision, Frank Chodorov praised it but quickly turned to the possibility that the decision opened the door for private schools:

The idea has interesting possibilities altogether separate from segregation. It would be a good thing for American education if parents who wish to send their children to private schools were given more opportunity to do this by means of rebates on the taxes which they pay for the upkeep of the public schools. In education, as in other fields, competition is highly desirable and American children would be better taught today if there were a larger network of private schools, denominational ‘and non-denominational, side by side with the general public school system. Thus what began as an attempt to evade an unavoidable change in an obsolete system of racial segregation might turn into an interesting educational experiment.

Chodorov, Frank. “All Men Are Created Equal.” The Freeman 4, no. 19 (June 14, 1954): 656.

A few months later, Chodorov reached out to James J. Kilpatrick, “Salesman for Segregation” for an article endorsing the idea. Kilpatrick replied. “I would be delighted to prepare you a couple of thousand words on the possibilities of abolition of the public school systems in parts of the south. It is not a ‘mere feint’ at all; it is a dead serious proposition to the people involved” (Letter, 16 August 1954, Kilpatrick Papers).

One place Kilpatrick’s “serious proposition” was enacted was Prince Edward County, Virginia, which closed its public school and provided such funds for white students to attend private schools. Black students were left without any schools at all. This “interesting educational experiment” was praised by Milton Friedman and other libertarians. One such was Robert Cunningham who wrote:

Now those who are interested in the fullest possibble measure of human freedom find themselves in a dilemma when asked to choose beteen compulsory segregation and compulsory integration. But is such a choice necessary? Not under the voucher system which would obviate such a choice. Under this system there would be white schools, and Negro schools, and mixed schools., in numbers approximating the desires of various elements of the local population. There would be no coercion; and for those who are willing to permit speech and other civil rights even to those with whom they disagree, this is an important value.

Cunningham, Robert L. “Education: Free and Public.” The New Individualist Review 3, no. 1 (Summer 1963): 8.

Both Friedman and Cunningham’s promises of letting a thousand schools bloom was belied by the very place they praised in their writings: Prince Edward County, Virginia where Black students were completely unschooled–a fact they simply never mentioned. Both Friedman and Cunningham’s writings were cited in Prince Edward’s County’s defense of its policies in the brief they filed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where was Hayek on these matters in the early 1960s? In his 1960, Constitution of Liberty, Hayek took a stance identical to Buchanan: while the state had an interest in assuring some minimal educational level for its citizens that “does not mean, however, that compulsory education or even government-financed general education today requires the educational institutions to be run by the government” (p. 501). Any problems of segregation owed to the fact the schools were governmental institutions, “We must remember that it is the provision of education by government which creates such problems as that of the segregation of Negroes in the United States—difficult problems of ethnic or religious minorities which are bound to arise where government takes control of the chief instruments of transmitting culture” (p. 502). Thus the private voucher system or the closing of public schools entirely, options endorsed by both libertarians and segregationists, could find support in Hayek’s writing.

Another concern Hayek shared with his fellow libertarians was the danger faced by governmental indoctrination in public schools. Cunningham called on Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty as a source supporting his argument that public schools were places of dangerous indoctrination by the state. Hayek believed that true education was not merely telling students “facts” but the key to transmitting culture and values he thought undergirded a free society:

That the United States would not have become such an effective “melting pot” and would probably have faced extremely difficult problems if it had not been for a deliberate policy of “Americanization” through the public school system seems fairly certain. The fact that all education must be and ought to be guided by definite values is, however, also the source of real dangers in any system of public education. One has to admit that in this respect most nineteenth- century liberals were guided by a naïve overconfidence in what mere communication of knowledge could achieve. (p. 500)

This stance put him a bit at odds with his position that a great diversity in educational opportunities would follow eliminating public schools for what guarantee would there be that education would provide the proper values needed for a free society?

For Hayek, “false” individualism was that of atomistic individuals who felt no bond of tradition and rules with fellow individuals. According to Hayek, one purveyor of this false individualism was John Stuart Mill (p. 26). In an interview with Robert Bork, that defender of traditional morality, Bork pointed Hayek to the rise of pornography as perhaps “evidences of depravity rather than freedom.” Hayek explained that the rise of such sexual permissiveness “comes from restrictions of economic freedom, which only then has effects on the mental or intellectual freedom.” Expanding on his topic he explained:

Even the permissiveness—I have certain doubts whether this sort of permissiveness, in which the– I’m not now speaking about governmental activities. The change in morals due to permissiveness is in a sense antiliberal, because we owe our freedom to certain restraints on freedom… John Stuart Mill’s…argument is directed against…the tyranny of the prevailing morals, and he is very largely responsible for the shift from protest against government interference to what he calls the tyranny of opinion. And he encouraged a disregard for certain moral traditions. Permissiveness almost begins with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty….I don’t want really to exaggerate—that the decline of liberalism begins with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. (pp. 281-282).

Given these views of sexual freedom, it is difficult to imagine Hayek endorsing same-sex marriage or trans rights here in the 21st century.

In contrast to the sort of hedonism Hayek imagined Mill endorsing, “true” individualism rested on a person who abided by the rules and traditions of the community that made social life possible and, ironically, guaranteed individual freedom. Hayek believed that embracing certain traditional values was the key to building a free society Hayek described arch-traditionalist, Edmund Burke, as “one of the greatest representatives of true individualism” (p. 5).:

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society as these smaller groupings of men are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. (p. 23)

As Gunnar Myrdal, Hayek’s co-winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics, showed such a view was a staple of segregationist discourse: segregation was a tradition that guaranteed peace and freedom in the American south. As he recounted one southern white speaker’s view:

In the South there was “no Negro problem”; a static equilibrium had been reached, and was going to remain, and it fitted the situation as a glove fits the hand. More particularly, he went on, the relations between the two races in the South corresponded to their inherited abilities and aptitudes. A long time ago those relations had been stratified into “folkways and mores,” known and respected by both races and taken for granted, or rather as self- evident, in view of the inferior endowments of the African race and the superior qualities of the Anglo-Saxon master race. (p. 33)

Koppelman looks to the wrong economist of the past to justify his views on the role of antidiscrimination laws. Koppelman argues that “Antidiscrimination law is generally understood to be part of a larger project of cultural transformation, aiming to eradicate or marginalized prejudiced attitudes such as racism” (p. 179). It was the socialist Myrdal, and the social scientists and activists who followed him, who advocated this view. It was the libertarian Hayek who viewed such governmental attempts at social education with deep suspicion.

Hayek on Accidental History

A cartoon entitled "Accidents Happen in the Strangest Ways!" showing pictures of farmers accidently being kicked by a cow and other mishaps.
Hayek’s Accidental Theory of History

Throughout the book, Koppelman endorses Hayek’s view that inequalities will inevitably emerge in a free society. These inequalities should not be a major concern, however, partly because of their inevitability and partly because a free market will make the poorest wealthier than they otherwise would be and thus better off. The market does not dispense justice, the undeserving will sometimes profit and the deserving will sometimes be bereft: “The bit of Hayek that is most neglected, that the American left ignores and the right finds hard to digest, is his claim that dumb luck has a lot to do with success in a capitalist economy” (p. 229). But surely Hayek, one of the towering libertarian intellects of the twentieth-centuiry does does not simply explain the structure of society through “dumb luck?” There must be more to his idea than: “shit happens.”

Well…..no, it doesn’t appear that there is. For Hayek, some people are just lucky in the circumstances of their birth. In the Constitution of Liberty, Hayek describes such luck as the result of the “impersonal process of the market and the accidents of birth and opportunity” (p. 99). This is all simply dumb luck and accident: “There is clearly no merit in being born into a particular community, and no argument of justice can be based on the accident of a particular individual’s being born in one place rather than another” (p. 164). For Hayek, that some people are born wealthy and some poor, some smart and some dull, some quick and some slow, some industrious and some lazy, are simply “accidents” and nothing can be done to change those circumstances except let the market sort it out inequitably. And, as Clint Eastwood taught us in The Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

In the United States some people are born racially coded as White and some Black. Those coded as Black are born into a society that centuries of government and private actions have all but guaranteed they will have fewer opportunities, more health risks, and less wealth. Surely, Hayek would recognize this and see that the racial divisions in the United States are not there simply by “accident” but by centuries of design. Unfortunately not as Hayek made explicit in an interview with Thomas Hazlett:

HAZLETT: But the question is, from your political philosophy, doesn’t the spontaneous order idea, which is to let things work themselves out inherently favor or inherently bias, let’s say, the outcome in favor of past discriminations or past inequities?

HAYEK: It accepts historical accidents. But after all, civilization rests on the fact that people are very different, both in their location and their gifts and their interests, and unless we allow these differences to exist irrespective of whether we in the particular case think they are desirable or not, I think we shall stop the whole process of evolution. (p. 342)

For Hayek, the existence of structural racism may not be desirable but we must allow it to exist or, heavens!, his purported “process of evolution” would stop. Like other libertarians, racism may be a bad thing, but they are willing to let it slide for their abstract idea of what “freedom” is.


If libertarians want to claim that their ideology is an antiracist one, they cannot do so by claiming a glorious past of libertarian antiracism that never existed. The heart of libertarianism is the acceptance, even the celebration, of human inequality, not excluding the inequality of racial groups, making it an unlikely source for racial justice. The consistency of libertarian thought with racism is not merely a thing of the past; after all the most outspoken scientific racist of the last three decades is Charles Murray, a libertarian of good standing (Koppelman makes no mention of Murray).

Koppelman writes of the “neo-Hayekians” who are homed at “intellectually serious policy-wonk institutions such as George Mason University and the Cato Institute” (p. 110). Yet, some of these supposedly serious policy wonks still argue for the repeal of Article II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most wildly successful antiracist measure ever passed by the Federal government. Do the rest of us really need to adopt Koppelman’s assurances that libertarianism can be an antiracist weapon while his libertarian colleagues endlessly fuss over whether or not sixty years of the empirical success of the Civil Rights Act is a good idea or not? The only places such a repeal is advocated are among libertarians (intellectually serious or not) and among white nationalist ideologues such as Jared Taylor:

I think charity should be voluntary, and not engineered by the government, but that’s more a principled classic libertarian position than one that has anything to do with race. I think that if you were to criticize my attitudes toward the black underclass, I think you would probably have to make the same criticism of any libertarian view of social or economic differences….Slavery was unjust, apartheid was unjust, Jim Crow was also unjust, but I think our prevailing situation is likewise unjust. If it’s not unjust, it’s untenable and ultimately will lead to a United States in which whites lose their majority and lose their culture. So as far as the civil rights movement is concerned, as I say, I don’t at all fault the blacks who wished to destroy white freedom of association. I do fault whites who worked to destroy white freedom of association, and I do fault whites for having given it up so easily.

This is not a case of politics making strange bedfellows. This is a long history of how libertarian ideas served the cause of racism and white supremacy. Anyone trying to argue that libertarianism has not served these ends needs to seriously engage with a rich history of how it did, and continues to do, just that.

And, finally, what of Hayek himself? He spent his long and productive career attempting to articulate the nature of freedom and how to best achieve it. As a young scholar in the 1920s and 1930s he saw the rise of the racist right in Austria and Germany. He spent World War II in Britain as it fought the most racist political regime in human history. He was still in Britain as racial tensions mounted and became the subject of fierce public debate. He was in the United States during the height of the Civil Rights movement before returning to Europe in 1960. Yet, in all that time, he never wrote about racism. It should make us doubt he knew anything about the nature of racism. Indeed, it should make us doubt he knew anything about the nature of freedom.

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

2 thoughts on “F.A. Hayek and the False Promise of a Racially Just Libertarianism

  1. Pingback: (He Gets Us) “Trust Jesus…” [3] – a mystical möbius

  2. Pingback: Hayek Versus Hayek | Fardels Bear

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