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


The cover of Andrew Koppelman's book, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed

In his new book, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed, Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University attempts to rescue libertarianism from itself by centering the work of Freidrich A. Hayek, one of the most distinguished economists of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the book, Koppelman discusses Barry Goldwater “who admired and sometimes quoted Hayek…After he had the [1964 Republican] nomination [for the Presidency], Goldwater (himself no racist) voted against the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds: ‘the freedom to associate means the same thing as the freedom not to associate.'” (p. 188). On the following page, he writes, “Reagan succeeded in shifting American politics–and American understandings of liberty, in Hayekian direction. He used the word freedom in his speeches more than any president before or since” (p, 189). Nestled between those two sentences is this one: “Libertarianism in all the forms we have examined is firmly opposed to racism. We have seen no trace of it in any of the arguments we have surveyed” (p. 189). That Koppelman cannot see any “trace of racism” in Goldwater parroting standard segregationist lines to oppose the Civil Rights Act or in Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” environmental racism, and generally throttling any antiracism in the Republican party underscores the flaws of his analysis of the history of libertarian ideology and racism.

In some respects Koppelman tells a story that parallels Matt Zwolinksi & John Tomasi’s The Individualists. Both books tell a story of libertarian ideas that, somehow, lost their way. What was once a philosophy that championed freedom for all became, or is in danger of becoming, a philosophy of reaction and repression. For Zwolinski & Tomasi it was a reactionary turn the movement took in the second half of the twentieth century. For Koppelman, the problem is similar: it is that libertarianism has misunderstood its own founding ideas; for him, libertarians are too entranced by the views of Ayn Rand and Murray N. Rothbard instead of F.A. Hayek, libertarianism’s true founder because “American libertarianism began with Hayek” (p. 7).

One reason Koppelman argues that Hayek is properly viewed as the founder of libertarianism is that Koppelman believes that nearly every viable option in today’s political landscape opposes the planned economy that Hayek feared. “Excerpt for a politically impossible fringe, the American left aims for a generous welfare state–more generous than the present one–in the context of capitalism” (p. 4-5). Yes, even Bernie Sanders (p. 5, 35). According to Koppelman, “The ideas of Hayek, valuing markets because they promise a better life for everyone are today commonplace in the Democratic Party” (p. 13). For Koppelman, the enemies of libertarianism come from the right, not the left. Libertarian ideas are threatened by Republican embrace of “Christian fundamentalism and Trumpian racist, xenophobic nationalism” (p. 12).The question then becomes, does Hayekian libertarianism give Koppelman the tools he needs to combat racism? To answer that question, I will examine how Hayek fits into the history of the relationship between libertarian thought and racist thought. Despite attempts at “revisionist” history from twenty-first century libertarians, the libertarian tradition they’ve inherited was either an active participant in building a racist society or passive observers of it. Looking to libertarian ideology to somehow be an active warrior against racism at this late date might be possible, but to do so libertarians need to honestly evaluate their own past.

Page Two will explore these difficulties.

Another Distorted History of Libertarianism and Racial Justice


Some religious traditions, most famously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, practice the Baptism of the Dead. In this practice, the Church baptizes a living person who is acting as a proxy for a deceased person in order to ensure that that deceased person gains entry into Heaven. Often this practice has met with vigorous objections from leaders of other faiths who find the practice disrespectful to their own faiths.

When libertarians write the history of their ideology in matters of race they tend toward a similar practice. Historical figures are torn from their contexts and declared “libertarians” in order to, metaphorically, get libertarians into the Kingdom of Free Market Heaven. Often the historical figures are a bizarre hodgepodge of folks, usually chosen more for their appealing views on racial justice than on their advocacy of views normally thought of as the centerpieces of libertarian thought such as the non-aggression principle, capitalism, property rights, or strict individualism. The most egregious example of libertarians trying retroactively baptize a historical figure as one of their own is when they try to claim that Martin Luther King, Jr., noted socialist, was a libertarian (examples: here, here, and here).

In their new book The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi know better than to try to retroactively enroll MLK as a libertarian, indeed, they point out that many libertarians object to MLK’s ideas (pp. 220, 358). These are real scholars publishing with Princeton University Press, not some blogger on the internet like some people around here. On the other hand, Zwolinski and Tomasi cite a whole lot of bloggers in their chapter on “Racial Justice and Individualism” which is my focus, so perhaps the playing field is more even than I thought.

Zwolinski and Tomasi seem well aware of philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s adage that “Definitions are like belts. The shorter they are, the more elastic they need to be. A short belt reveals nothing about its wearer: by stretching it can be made to fit almost anybody…Yet the hope of hitting on some definition which is at one and the same time satisfactory and brief dies hard” (p. 18). They opt for “satisfactory” rather than “brief” and devote their first chapter to answering the question, “What is Libertarianism?” and draw careful distinctions among “classical liberals,” “neoliberalism,” and “Strict libertarians.” That last category is itself comprised of deontic libertarians, who are guided entirely by inflexible principles and consequentialist libertarians who “evaluates the consequences not of specific policies but of general principles and retains its commitment to those principles even if they (seem to) fail in particular instances” (p. 16). As an aside: keep an eye on that parenthetical “seem to,” it will become important later. Zwolinski & Tomasi often label failures of libertarianism, no matter how big or well documented as seemings. Libertarianism can only “seem” to fail, not actually fail.

Their summary of libertarianism gives us this:

Libertarianism is best understood as a cluster concept. We see libertarianism as a distinctive combination of six key commitments: property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order. (p. 6)

It is the jockeying among those various elements that make libertarianism so slippery a concept: just which element should be weighted the most, for example? It is also these differing commitments that seem to open the door to reactionary libertarianism. In Zwolinski & Tomasi’s history, libertarianism grew out of an absolute commitment to individualism and negative liberty first embaced by certain 19th century figures’ opposition to slavery. In the twentieth century libertarianism took a reactionary turn in defense of the status quo, and is now embroiled in controversy over which path the “Liberty Movement” will take here in the 21st century: radical or reactionary? (Spoiler alert: they don’t tell you).

I will focus on Chapter 7, “Racial Justice and Individualism” since that is the chapter that is most relevant to my work and expertise. Buckle up and go to page 2.

Milton Friedman and the Case of the Missing Sentence

Cover of a magazine

Thanks to some re-tweeting and re-posting, this two-year old post of mine on Milton Freidman has gotten some renewed attention. Over at the twenty-first century Algonquin Round Table we call Twitter the Twittertarians donned their deerstalker caps and discovered that I didn’t include a specific sentence from Friedman’s essay hence I am a “liar” and presented a “truncated quote.” If had included that sentence it would have completely undermined the entire thesis of my post. The Twittertarians are wrong.

Just to refresh your memory I wrote that Friedman, a giant of economics, wrote a misguided history of capitalism’s relationship with racism and slavery. Friedman’s entire essay contained only one reference and that reference did not support anything Friedman claimed about how increasing property rights led to a decrease in racism and discrimination. I argued that Friedman was an example of an “imperial scholar” because he ignored the work of pioneering African-American scholars who offered better-documented and more insightful accounts of the relationship among property rights, race, and slavery.

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