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Race and the Contamination of Freedom

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Race and the Contamination of Freedom I. Should libertarians be actively anti-racist? I think the answer is “yes.” II. Normally, when we think about anti-racism, we think of the political Left because progressives and modern liberals have adopted anti-racism as a central idea in their worldview. Conservatives today often gravitate toward a position of race neutrality. That means that anti-racism is often under played and sometimes absent beyond the Left. In some cases, people shun or ridicule anti-racism merely out of partisanship, or just to be contrarian. But libertarians should not accept this situation. Historically, classical liberal writers and libertarians have been on the right side of the argument. Adam Smith made it very clear in his writings that

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Race and the Contamination of Freedom

I.

Should libertarians be actively anti-racist? I think the answer is “yes.”

II.

Normally, when we think about anti-racism, we think of the political Left because progressives and modern liberals have adopted anti-racism as a central idea in their worldview. Conservatives today often gravitate toward a position of race neutrality. That means that anti-racism is often under played and sometimes absent beyond the Left. In some cases, people shun or ridicule anti-racism merely out of partisanship, or just to be contrarian.

But libertarians should not accept this situation. Historically, classical liberal writers and libertarians have been on the right side of the argument. Adam Smith made it very clear in his writings that slavery was a bad thing.[1] The great classical liberal John Stuart Mill often fought for the dignity of Blacks.[2] The sociologist, evolutionary thinker, and free market advocate Herbert Spencer consistently opposed Western imperialism.[3]

The clear alignment between libertarians of all stripes and anti-racist sympathies somehow became muddled in the 20th century. Within the world of practical politics, libertarian politician Ron Paul once maintained ties with Confederate sympathizers.[4] Recently, we’ve seen self-described libertarians drift into the alt.right.[5]

More subtly, the themes of anti-colonialism and supporting the rights of all races were occluded in contemporary classical liberal and libertarian thought. This is not to say that libertarians and their follow travellers openly promoted or supported racism, or that their relative silence is a tacit affirmation of tribalism.

Rather, issues of race lost their place of prominence in the libertarian market of ideas. The 20th century saw the rise of ideologies, such as Soviet Communism, that obliterated  individual freedom. There are also serious issues raised by the emergence of the regulatory state in Western democracies, the vast expansion of taxes in the first half of the 20th century, and multiple devastating World Wars. Simultaneously, the political moments of anti-racist struggles were adopted by the Left over and over. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that race has taken a back seat in the libertarian intellectual space. 

To appreciate the retreat of race among libertarians, the reader should pick up a copy of their favorite libertarian treatise. You will find that issues of civil rights in America, or racism, in general get relatively little attention. This includes books like For a New Liberty, The Discovery of Freedom, F.A. Hayek’s core texts like The Constitution of Liberty or the three volumes of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The indices of these books barely mention civil rights, racism, or anti-racism. There are, of course, honorable exceptions of course. Ayn Rand, in The Virtue of Selfishness, wrote on the irrationality of racism, a topic that has attracted considerable attention from scholars like Chris Sciabarra.[6]

Why should libertarians reclaim anti-racism as a central part of their tradition? I offer three arguments. First, there is image and reputation. Frankly, racism makes libertarianism look bad. Second, racism is an ideology that undermines many of the goals of classical liberal and libertarian thought. Third, racism is an ideology that is often used to directly undermine the free society and institute severe restrictions on personal freedom.

III.

According to the results of US elections, libertarians are a fairly small group. Libertarian presidential candidates may garner 1% to 3% of the popular vote. That number is slightly higher in states with conservative populations. If one defines libertarian as liberal in economic and social affairs, then the number can be as high as 10% or 15% of American voters.[7]

Regardless of the specific number, the point is that libertarians are a small political minority and they often find themselves pushing unpopular positions, such as free speech rights, lower regulation of business, minimal taxation, and the right to migrate. Given this status, libertarians ought to present themselves in the best light possible. Rather than adopt a contrarian style, libertarians should focus on what they think makes the best society.

When adopting unpopular positions, it is important to think about how the wider society thinks about your group. Democratic and Republican politicians can act in all manner of boorish ways because most people are already invested in their partisan identities. Many a politician has been forgiven for harassing women, or defrauding business partners, or hurling slurs simply because they represent a very popular political party.

In contrast, the public reputation of a libertarian is a most precious thing. It is hard won and easily spent. Witness the 2016 Presidential campaign of Gary Johnson. As a Republican, he was able to handily win the governorship of his home state of New Mexico. He got good approval ratings and was in a member in good standing of the Republican governor’s club. As a libertarian candidate, Johnson often faced incredibly hostile media and accidentally triggered a firestorm for the forgivable sin of forgetting that Aleppo was a city in Syria during an interview. In contrast, political candidates of major parties are constantly able to come back from gaffes and mis-statements and much worse.

By allowing racism to enter the tent of libertarianism, it damages what little public reputation the movement has. When we go beyond defending the free speech rights of racists to open association, we signal the wrong things. People will cease to see libertarians as the defenders of a dynamic and free society. Instead, they will view libertarians as people who use the language of freedom as a protection for those who wish ill upon others. When the public sees libertarians, they will see hypocrites who favor freedom for themselves and their kindred, but repression for others.

IV.

The toleration of racism not only damages the reputation of libertarians, it also undermines many of libertarianism’s core ideas. The reason is that the most appealing versions of libertarianism involve the well being of a large number of people in addition to a strong commitment to voluntary action. Here, I’ll avoid arguments about whether libertarian theory should be based on utilitarian theory, or more deontological grounds, and instead focus on the following idea: a libertarian theory that lacks a regard for the well being of others is odd.

The argument starts with a common idea among libertarian thinkers. There is a minimal version of libertarian theory that makes an argument only about what states can do. According to this minimal vision, libertarianism only says that states should not interfere in social or economic affairs. Libertarismism makes no judgment about what happens between private individuals.

I do not wish make an argument about the “correct” version of libertarianism. Rather, I want to suggest that this “thin” libertarianism is probably not better than a “thick” libertarianism that combines non-coercion with additional ideas about what might be good non-coercive behavior.

The following thought experiment presents my view. Imagine a society with minimal state interference. Then, assume that everybody voluntarily rejects modern medicine. Vaccines are rejected, people turn away from all antibiotics, and even basic hygiene is shunned. What would that world look like? It would have endless plagues and mass death. Would it be consistent with thin libertarianism? Sure, but it wouldn’t be desirable. If you buy that, then you’re moving toward a thick libertarianism. A good world and a desirable world needs more than non-violence.

The underlying issue is that there are multiple good things. One is freedom from state coercion. Another is health. Another is material wealth and well being. There are others. For most people, the moral psychology of libertarianism puts these different things together. I am not original in saying this; moral philosophers have long pointed out that good or virtuous things should not be considered independently of each other.

If you can accept thick libertarianism on some level, it is natural to ask if a socially oriented thick libertarianism makes sense. In other words, are there thick libertarian positions that include a concern and well being for others? I think the answer is “yes.” Once again, I offer a small thought experiment to argue my point.

Imagine a world with minimal state interference and everybody has extreme hatred toward people from other ethnic groups. Mind you, they don’t resort to violence and the state remains small and unobtrusive. Rather, whenever you go to work, you will be loudly insulted for having the wrong skin color. You turn on the TV and people are constantly airing shows that revel in the most outrageous stereotypes. When you walk your dog, your neighbors gleefully place Nazi themed signs on their lawns. They never touch a hair on your head, but they do make it clear that they will always hate people like you and wish you never existed.

Once again, it is easy to see that this world is compatible with thin libertarianism but not with a thicker libertarianism. In this thought experiment, people would be much worse off than in a world where people kept racial anxieties to themselves. By publicly and loudly expressing these views, people humiliate each other, increase stress, and make life miserable. This is not merely hypothetical. Social science and health research has documented that stress, including that associated with racial conflict, can have a damaging effect on people.[8]

Historically, few, if any, libertarian writers have advocated this sort of world. Usually, the argument is that free societies give people from minority groups chances to escape tyrannical majorities. Furthermore, the world envisioned by most libertarian writers is not one where people retreat into endless factional warfare. The opposite is true. Libertarian writers depict dynamic societies where people’s lives just get better over time. They don’t advocate freedom because it gives you the power to make the lives of others miserable. Usually, libertarians imagine a world where this sort of behavior is contained and minimized. The lesson from this thought experiment is that a libertarianism that ignores the well being of others and focuses only on non-aggression leads to some odd conclusions about what a desirable society might look like.

V.

The final reason that libertarians should not tolerate racism is pragmatic. In the past, many libertarian policies have been undermined by appeals to racism. I do not argue that all curtailments of freedom stem from racism. The limitations on freedom spring from many sources. Rather, I make a more modest, but important, claim. It’s a lot easier to curtail freedom if you can appeal racism. Because of that, racism often undermines freedom.

For example, restrictions on firearm ownership have often been associated with racial anxiety. One example, often discussed in libertarian circles, is the termination of open carry laws in California after the Black Panthers carried weapons around in public.[9] Critics of police surveillance often point out that stopping and searching of minorities is often associated with searches for banned guns.[10]

Historians have documented that restrictions on narcotics were often accompanied by openly racist appeals. Marijuana, prohibitionists argued, should be banned because it was a nasty thing consumed by Mexicans.[11] In the era of prohibition, many said alcohol should be banned because it was connected to immigrants and their salons.[12] In more recent times, many of the harsh policies of the drug wars were pushed by anti-Black sentiment.[13] Restrictions on migration are often associated with negative beliefs about foreigners, as well.[14] There are more profound violations of human dignity motivated by racial animus, such as slavery, apartheid, and Jim Crow. In these stories, racism is often the devil’s apprentice.

VI.

Libertarians should avoid racism for simple reasons. It makes us look bad. It doesn’t fit well with our vision of the good society. It is used to promote all manner of anti-liberal policies. Dalliances with racial illiberalism are ultimately corrosive.

What are the practical consequences of this argument? On the personal level, we can start with introspection. It’s very common, perhaps natural, so see out-group members in the harshest light. When we have these thoughts, we should take them in stride and recognize that they aren’t based in reason. We must seek better habits of mind. As we move through society, we should not endorse people who espouse racist views, or engage in racially inflammatory speech. They should be tolerated and treated humanely, but kept at arm’s length.

Libertarian culture is a public good. It’s a resource for the immigrant whose child has been sequestered by immigration authorities as well as the refugee fleeing from a communist state. It’s a celebration of human potential, economic growth, and common interest, not social division. We should resist all attempts to poison this vision. Instead, let’s treat the culture of individual freedom as an asset that needs to be cultivated and shared with the rest of the world.


[1] In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wondered why slavery had not been abolished in Europe. See section IV.7.76 of Wealth of Nations. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, Smith wrote that slavery reflected a “love of domination” and this this love of power would prevent slaves from “recovering their liberty.”  See page 199 of the PDF edition of Lectures on Jurisprudence. http://intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/eBooks/BOOKS/Smith/Jurisprudence%20Smith.pdf 

[2] Mill advocated for the political rights at various points in his life and his essay The Subjection of Women, called slavery an “abhorrence.”

[3] Spencer argued in Social Statics that colonial government must, by necessity, violate the rights of colonial subjects, including non-Europeans. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/273#Spencer_0331_738

[4] Julian Sanchez and David Weigel. January 16, 2008. “Who Wrote Ron Paul’s Newsletters?” Reason Magazine. https://reason.com/archives/2008/01/16/who-wrote-ron-pauls-newsletter

[5] Sanchez, Julian. August 24, 2017. “Libertarians Wrestle with the Alt.Right.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/08/24/libertarians-wrestle-with-the-alt-right/?utm_term=.586d779ef98c

[6] Rand, Ayn. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New American Library. Page 164.

[7] Kiley, Jocelyn. 2014. “In Search of Libertarian Voters.” Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/25/in-search-of-libertarians/

[8] David R. Williams, Harold W. Neighbors, James S. Jackson, “Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Health: Findings From Community Studies”, American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 2 (February 1, 2003): pp. 200-208.

[9] For a brief account of this incident, see: Morgan, Thad. 2018. “The NRA Supported Gun Control When Black Panthers had the Weapons.” History.com https://www.history.com/news/black-panthers-gun-control-nra-support-mulford-act

[10] Dood, Vikram. October 26, 2017. “Stop and search eight times more likely to target black people.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/oct/26/stop-and-search-eight-times-more-likely-to-target-black-people

[11] For a popular account, see: Schlosser, Eric. 2004. Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Drug Market. Mariner Books.

[12] Rorabaugh, W.J. 2018. Prohibition: A Concise History. Oxford University Press.

[13] See Dan Baum’s article “Legalize it All” for a brief description of the racial motivations behind narcotics prohibition: Baum, Dan. April 2016. “Legalize It All.” Harper’s Magazine. https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

[14] Jens Hainmueller and Daniel J. Hopkins. 2014. “Public Attitudes Toward Immigration.” Annual Review of Political Science 2014 17:1, 225-249.

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