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.

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Baldy Harper and the Racist Right

The Strange Parallels Between a Noted Libertarian’s Writings and Those of the Antisemitic Right

A man looking at his bald spot in the mirror.

In those pre-PC days it was apparently OK to use a cruel nickname

While not a household name as much as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are, Floyd Arthur Harper (1905-1973), who wrote under the name F.A. Harper and who was known to his friends by the ungenerous nickname “Baldy,” was an important figure in the post-World War II libertarian movement. Baldy Harper is remembered more for his organizational prowess than his writings, but comparing his writings to that of the racist right of the 1950s shows how much the libertarian rhetoric of “freedom” served the ends of the racist right.

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Are Libertarian Principles Incompatible with White Supremacy? First Thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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Arguing With Libertarians

A picture of George the Pug

George the Pug

I’m spending the next few days dogsitting George the Pug (pictured above). Claire Potter has written a nice and insightful review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains over at Public Seminar. I spent the evening playing fetch with the tireless George and responding to criticisms of Potter’s piece by Professors David E. Bernstein and Phil Magness. I wrote some rather lengthy comments, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and George and I turned in for the night.  This morning I woke up and found the the Disqus commenting system had marked those two lengthy comments as “spam” and didn’t post them. Maybe I should have left out the part about how you can make thousands of dollars from your home?

At any rate, I’m going to post them here just to get them out in public. I recommend you go read Potter’s review and the comments if you feel like you’ve been dropped in halfway  through the movie.

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The White Ignorance of Milton Friedman

Line drawing of a black and white man looking at each other laid over the word

White people have the luxury of not thinking about race if they don’t want to. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are forced to think about their own oppression all the time if they want to get by in the world. One way to think about this luxury is what philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance.” In scholarship, one way the white ignorance is displayed is by white scholars, whom Critical Race Theorist Richard Delgado called “imperial scholars,” who ignore the scholarship of people of color. The poster child for white ignorance may well be Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman was one of the most famous economists of the twentieth century. The leading light of the “Chicago School of Economics,” the most influential economics department in the world, Nobel prize-winner in Economics in 1976. If there were an All-Star team of economists, Friedman would be in the starting line-up. My view of him was nicely summarized by Murray Rothbard in 1964:  “I am getting pretty p.o.’ed at the influence of that little bastard anyway; he is the No.1 respectable right-wing economist in Newsweek and Business Week, and Goldwater’s chief economic theoretician.” (Rothbard to James Martin, Martin Papers, University of Wyoming).

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School Vouchers, James Buchanan, and Segregation

A Good Case can be Made That He Was

Line drawing of an old-fashioned school house

With our new Education Secretary, Betsy Devos the idea of moving away from public schools via vouchers for private schools is once again in the news. Many feel there are insufficient safeguards against discrimination in many voucher programs. An important bit of history is that the notion of privatizing school has its roots in the battle to preserve racial segregation in the era of “massive resistance.” When the Center for American Progress (CAP) pointed this out, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a rather weak response.  Libertarians, I think, like to ignore the rather sad history of their movement’s commitment to racial justice.

The CAP report focuses on Prince Edward County, Virginia. This story is related to  James M. Buchanan, the subject of Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains.  The libertarian right have attacked this book fiercely . Here is what I find notable about many of the criticisms of her book. They pounce on certain words (she says “lodestar!”),  her interpretations of some of the quotations she cites, minor incidents of Buchanan’s career, or some minutia of Buchanan’s “public choice theory.”  Rhetorician Kenneth Burke nailed this strategy in the 1950s in his essay, “On the Art of Debunking:

It would seem they are no longer seeking good arguments; rather they are seeking any arguments, if only there be enough of them to keep running through the headlines, an avalanche of arguments, condemnations, prophecies of dire calamity, “statistical proofs,” pronouncements by private and institutional “authorities,” a barrage, a snowing under, a purely quantitative mode of propaganda, Are there no eagles among their utterances? Very well, let them be instead a swarm of mosquitoes. Before you could refute this morning’s, there is a new batch out this afternoon.

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Reflections on Libertarianism and Racism

When can we say a libertarian was a racist?

Picture of a Lighthouse

I’m afraid my engagement with Nancy MacLean’s critics generated more heat than light. Some things I wrote were misunderstood which must mean I did not state them clearly enough. This post is to engage some issues about how we can make inferences on the basis of historical evidence, and perhaps throw some reflected light on the ongoing debate about Democracy in Chains.

Here is the basic argument I hope to make in the book I am writing:

My book will explore how two groups, which for convenience I will call the “libertarian right” and the “racist right”, grew in the postwar U.S. This is a story of mirror-image twins. Both libertarians and the racist right shared the same values but held them in a reversed hierarchy. Libertarians wanted a society free of all government coercion: one consequence of such a society would be that “racially pure” enclaves would arise as people exercised their free individual choices. For them, the libertarian society was the goal; racial enclaves were simply byproducts. The racist right, by contrast, desired “racially pure” enclaves and found the libertarian voice the most effective in pushing their political agenda. Forming racial enclaves was the goal; the libertarian society was simply a byproduct.

A couple of caveats: I certainly do not mean to include all libertarians; I realize that libertarians come in all stripes. I am looking at specific people, not the varied ideologies and movements that claim the title “Libertarian.”  Second, by “racist right” I refer to those folks usually too noxious for William F. Buckley and National Review. They were usually funded by, or somehow associated with, Willis Carto. A good example of this is Revilo P. Oliver and his gradual march out of respectability in these years. My work is motivated by the idea that, with the rise of the “alt-right,” we see those racist ideologies marching back into some kind of respectability, usually using libertarian language, and sometimes aided by people who claim to be libertarians.

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Libertarian Titles: A Top Ten List

My dear wife (married 31 years this coming August!) told me that as a child she used to love to be in a bookstore or a library and just walk down the aisles and read the book titles. Not open the books. Not read the books. She just enjoyed reading the titles. If you are person who just enjoys reading book titles it is hard to go wrong reading libertarian titles. They may offer extremely questionable answers to society’s problems, they may have morally suspect fellow-travelers, they may show a near-complete insensitivity to the most vulnerable among us, but damn they can write a nice book title. As one who struggles with writing even a passable title, I can only gaze in wonder. There are Mozarts in the world and I will always be Salieri. You know the old saying: “Those who can compose a great book titles compose great book titles; those who can’t compose lists of other people’s great book titles.” What? It is too a saying! Shut up.

Libertarians have great titles because they manage to evoke the core of their ideology in very few words. The language they use is evocative, stirring up emotions while, somehow, simultaneously giving the appearance of cold rationality.

A couple things to keep in mind: first, this is not a list of great libertarian books  (are there any?), it is a list of great libertarian book titles. I’m hardly qualified to give you a list of the books you should read to become a libertarian, but I love these titles. Second, no Ayn Rand titles. Atlas Shrugged may or may not be a good title, but I’m kicking her out of the competition because I’m arbitrary and capricious and narrow-minded.

With all that in mind, I offer to you a Top Ten List of great libertarian book titles.

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Discrimination, Religion, and Libertarianism: It’s Not About the Wedding Cake

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My mom told me a story once about being a little girl when she and my grandparents drove from their home in South Dakota to California. It was sometime in the 1940s, after the war, and she might have been ten years old or so. Lord knows how long that must have taken in those pre-Interstate Highway days. Obeying some rules of travel known only to her, my grandmother insisted that my mom sit in the front seat between the two adults for the entirety of the trip. My grandmother, with the reasonable patience for which the German people are known, spent a lot of time criticizing her daughter for not having Sitzfleisch.

As difficult (and boring for any normal 10-year-old girl) that trip must have been, it must have been immeasurably more difficult for African American travelers of the time. The South, of course, was legally segregated, but things were not any better in the North or the West. The law allowed any private business to refuse service to African Americans  simply because they were African Americans. When travelling, African Americans could never be sure if they would be refused service at the restaurant they stopped at for lunch, the gas station they stopped to refuel, or the motel they stopped in to rest. One resource they had was the Green Book, a guide that showed them the places where they would be welcome. As the introduction stated:

With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.

The legend on the cover has a rather ominous warning: “You may need it.” It was not even a matter of your kids going hungry because you can’t find dinner or sleeping in the car because you can’t find lodging. It was also a matter of avoiding a violent reception in an area where the police could not be counted on to enforce the law.

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Frank Chodorov: Scrappy Libertarian, Crappy Oracle

Libertarians are a strange bunch. They are the most predictable of political thinkers since the answer to every social problem is the exact same thing: The cause of the problem is government and the solution is less government. Full stop.

You have probably never heard of Frank Chodorov (1887-1966). Born in New York City as Fishel Chodorowsky, he is considered one of the pioneer libertarians of the twentieth-century United States. At the very least, libertarians remember him for a letter he wrote to Bill Buckley’s National Review in 1956, wherein he declared, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical.”1 Chodorov’s fightin’ words reflected Libertarians’ delight in considering themselves rough-and-tumble, independent thinkers. I can’t help noticing however, that their fierce independent thinking often matches perfectly with powerful business and corporate interests. Chodorov, for example, first made his mark by busting a union in 1923. Union busting for freedom!

Chodorov is often credited with keeping the libertarian flame alive during the dark days of World War II. A staunch isolationist, Chodorov founded a small newsletter he named analysis which he published between 1944 and 1951 before it merged with Human Eventswhich is still going strong. analysis was a pure distillation of Chodorov’s libertarianism, his own vision with no compromises—this is what blogging was like in the 1940s. As historian George Nash wrote:

It is a vivid illustration both of the virtually underground character of much of the “classical liberal” movement in this period and of the perseverance of its devotees that this little journal appeared at all. Frank Chodorov was a practicing individualist; he produced his own magazine in a few rooms in an unpretentious building in Manhattan.

In his obituary to Chodorov, Murray Rothbard claimed that analysis was the one place where Chodorov could present his pure gospel of individualism. I thought therefore that reading through analysis might be an important part of the history I’m writing.

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