Libertarian thoughts on MLK Jr. day

January 16, 2012

[update to clarify, based on Tom’s first comment]

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day to all!

Like many people, I believe the true greatness of America can be found in its ability to wring moral justness, albeit slowly, from a system of government that, ex ante, preferences neither the good nor the right, but instead just the popular. And I also believe, like many, that this greatness has had no better expression than in the twin battles to secure the basic liberal rights of African Americans: the multi-generational crusade against slavery in the 19th century, and then the century-long battle that followed, for universal civil rights and against the segregation of the races. There are no greater products of America and American democracy than the abolitionists and the civil rights protesters, many of whom faced grim danger and horrific opposition, often with nothing to personally gain but the peace of heart that comes with a morally just society. Those movements are also a testament to the wonders of democratic government; ideas — no matter how unpopular at first — can and do matter.

Unfortunately, as a libertarian I end up having to defend myself for these beliefs not only to people who want to poke holes in libertarianism as an ideology (You’re a libertarian? If you were in charge we never would have ended slavery!), but also from libertarians themselves, many of whom seem to have a misguided understanding of why having a limited government is valuable in a capitalist democracy. The basic economic role of government in a libertarian society is to ensure the proper functioning of a free market, which includes, by definition, equal opportunity and access for those who wish to participate in the market. Even the crazy radical libertarians understand that government is necessary at some basic level, for instance to enforce private contracts and suppress violence in defense of private property; without those two things, it’s obvious that a market society won’t function.

And it should be equally obvious that the market can’t function efficiently if entrepreneurs cannot get a hotel room or a meal while traveling on business because of the freaking color of their skin. So even setting aside all sense of moral right and wrong and prioritizing absolutely no vision of the good life, any libertarian opposition to civil rights laws is deeply flawed, on market terms alone. If you disagree with this, I don’t think you’re a libertarian; you’re probably an anarchist. (None of this is to discount the moral arguments against slavery or segregation; I happen to think those are stronger than the market arguments. But I think it’s important for the purpose of diffusing radical libertarianism to show that for market reasons alone, civil rights are necessary.)

But what about the heavy-handedness of government, you say? Shouldn’t libertarians oppose laws that force people to provide commercial goods on a non-discriminatory basis? Isn’t that anti-liberty? To which I’d say a few things. First, the state was deeply involved in segregation; even if you somehow believe that private discrimination in public accommodations is an unfortunate price to pay for a society of liberty, there is absolutely no way that any libertarian can justify the use of the state governments in the 20th century to actively promote Jim Crow laws. Remember, it was the state of Louisiana, not the railroads, that wanted segregation in Plessy; it was the southern states that mandated the schools and the drinking fountains be segregated; and it was the states that classified people based on their race, not the market actors. That’s the state being heavy-handed. Requiring the opposite — non-discriminatory business practices — pales in comparison, mostly because the natural market is non-discriminatory to begin with; you’re swimming with the tide, rather than against it. Stripping the states of the power to enforce racial discrimination isn’t an anti-libertarian move; much to the contrary, it was the essence of libertarianism — the individual was unleashed from the enforced discrimination of the state. If you disagree with this, I don’t think you’re a libertarian; you’re probably just an ardent federalist, which I suppose is a common conflation.

But what about the private restaurants and hotels, you say? Shouldn’t they have been able to continue on discriminating in their clientele? For sure this was not the simple decision that ending state discrimination was, but it’s hardly any less of a no-brainer. As said above, the state has a positive role to play in the market, be it in enforcing contracts or preventing violence. Entrenched irrational racism is most emphatically a market distortion, if not an outright market failure, and a universal solution to the distortion — via positive federal law — also helps break the collective action problem for businesses, many (or most) of which would prefer to serve all possible customers, but must individually fear boycotts of the majority if they are the only ones who dare privately break from the cultural racial code. Again, all of this is to say nothing of the basic moral justness argument; but that argument need not be raised if anti-civil rights libertarianism can be defeated on its own terms.

Now, I’m a pretty pragmatic libertarian. I happen to believe that the state has an important secondary role in a capital society — buffering the pain of the natural market losers. A free market inherently creates winners and losers via the risk/reward system, and while that’s a necessary consequence of a dynamic market economy, it seems quite obvious to me that such a market can be only be optimized in a civilized democracy if the community is prepared to collectively provide a minimal standard of living to those who do not fair well in the market. By this, I do not mean corporate bailouts or massive redistribution of wealth. I simply mean that a wealthy society has a minimum responsibility to care for its poor such that they do not become permanent non-participators in the market. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, child health care, and free basic public education all fall into this rubric. I don’t like minimum wage laws, but only because I think government should provide those benefits directly; rather than force employers to pay certain wages, just let the market pay what it will, and use the government to directly support the poor when necessary. Same thing with housing vouchers and such nonsense; just give the poor money directly, they can make market-decisions about its best use, certainly better than the government can.

At any rate, the point here is that pretty straightforward: the civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th century were unabashedly victories for liberty, and those who complain otherwise are probably not libertarians; I would guess that they are actually reactionary conservatives, seeking cover for their crazy ideas. You see this on many of the contemporary libertarian fronts that intersect with racial injustice, such as police misconduct toward racial minorities or any of the many flavors of racial nonsense that intersect with our crazy drug laws. At the root of these issues are a basic confrontation between liberty and conservatism; libertarians know that the level of arbitrary power handed to the state cannot possibly justify whatever minor benefits (if any) flow from the war on drugs; conservatives dismiss such things with nonsense appeals to law and order and cultural decay and all that pap. To confuse or conflate the two may be politically helpful to liberals, but it is dangerous for libertarians.


8 Responses to Libertarian thoughts on MLK Jr. day

  1. Tom on January 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    “The basic role of government in a libertarian society is to ensure the proper functioning of a free market”

    I find this sentence particularly striking, and while I can believe that that’s probably a common sentiment among self-identified libertarians, I cannot believe that it necessarily follows from the first principles of any of the great libertarian political philosophers (like Nozick, or even someone like Hayek who wasn’t explicitly doing political philosophy).

    I would imagine that you would want to make one change: instead of “free market” I think you mean “free society.” Free market would be part of it, but I don’t see any reason why the libertarian state would conceptualize the interactions of individuals living in a human collective exclusively with regards to their market interactions. It seems to me that freedom to engage in exchange is supposed to be a consequence of a more fundamental libertarian impulse to protect the autonomy of individual choice as far as possible, in the market for sure, but in other areas too.

    Put otherwise, I think that the libertarian position in favor of the state regulating murder is not something like “murder deprives you of the right to sell apples to your neighbor,” but rather something more fundamental like “murder violates the autonomy of an individual’s choice to live.”

    If you agree, then I think that it’s actually a lot easier for the libertarian to support federal efforts to end segregation in the states. You don’t have to argue about whether or not it’s a market failure to segregate (which is good because I don’t think that the statement “entrenched irrational racism is…a market distortion” is true in the sense that most economists think about market distortions).

    But these thought, as always, are fascinating to this non-libertarian.

    • Matt on January 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Ok, you are obviously right, and I’m going to correct the post because it clearly wasn’t conveying what I meant, which was “the basic role of government in a libertarian society [in reference to capitalism] is to ensure the the proper functioning of the market.”

      For me, the basic function of government writ large in a libertarian society is to suppress violence, as a leviathan in service of the harm principle.


  2. GW on January 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    “Like many people, I believe the true greatness of America can be found in its ability to wring moral justness, albeit slowly, from a system of government that, ex ante, preferences neither the good nor the right, but instead just the popular. And I also believe, like many, that this greatness has had no better expression than in the twin battles to secure the basic liberal rights of African Americans: the multi-generational crusade against slavery in the 19th century, and then the century-long battle that followed, for universal civil rights and against the segregation of the races.”

    Perhaps this applies to the 20th century civil rights struggle. But I don’t see how the abolition of slavery can be held up as an expression of the greatness of the American system. The abolition of slavery was accomplished through a civil war that represented the complete collapse of the American system, its inability to successfully negotiate the largest issue of its day. If the basic function of government generally is “to suppress violence,” it’s hard for me to see the Civil War as anything but an abject failure.

    This doesn’t mean the American system is rotten or necessarily worse than any of the alternatives. Any system of government will likely prove vulnerable to some set of circumstances or other. And I don’t see any particular reason to believe that, say, a Westminster style constitutional monarchy would have prevented the Civil War. But I do find this kind of sentiment, applauding the unique genius of the American system and presenting its historical failures as successes, counterproductive. It tends to feed the deification of our founding fathers and Constitution, leading to a climate in which Constitutional originalism is taken far too seriously, and thinking about significant Constitutional reforms (a unicameral legislature? term limits for the supreme court?) can be almost taboo.

    • Matt on January 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      I think your view is short-sighted. The abolition movement started in the 1790’s with a tiny group of Quakers petitioning the government for unthinkable ends, and by the time of secession had converted a majority of the country to anti-slavery, if not abolition. The greatness of American democracy is that it allowed a 60 year movement to develop and flourish, despite being a radical minority idea in the beginning. No non-democratic system would have ever tolerated such a movement.

      And yes, the war came. But by 1860 the fate of slavery in the longview was not in question. That the minority chose to wreck the democratic system and toss over the chessboard says nothing about the basic greatness of the chess board itself, without which the fate of the institution would have much longer been in question.


      • GW on January 16, 2012 at 11:53 pm

        Thanks for your response.

        I agree that the rise of American democracy and the abolition of slavery were both part of a broader shift towards more enlightened and humanistic values, and to a significant extent they reinforced each other.

        But at the same time, I think the Civil War, and the slow-motion multi-decade train wreck that preceded it, show that the specific institutions of American government were simply not up to the challenge that slavery posed. Think of the distortions and crises of American democracy caused by slavery: the gag rule, the use of the post office to suppress the distributions of anti-slavery materials, the Dred Scott decision, vigilante violence in Kansas, the Fugitive Slave Act, the nullification of judicial rulings by mobs of abolitionists, and, most remarkably, the effective destruction of both major political parties.

        Moreover, I think if you are going to credit the gradual (but real) trend towards anti-slavery views that occurred in the north from 1790 – 1860 to American democracy, you need to also remember that concurrently, views in the south became far more radical. Slavery went from being largely viewed as a necessary evil to being viewed as a positive good.

        The Civil War was not a one-off incident of pointless short-sighted destruction by a few dead-enders. It was the logical culmination of several decades of failure of democratic government to resolve the question of slavery. War became, if not inevitable, highly likely after all other options had been extensively and painfully exhausted, and the basic institutions of American government had been pushed to their breaking point. To see this as a triumph of the American system strikes me as Panglossian.

  3. A good take on libertarianism « 2moneythoughts on January 17, 2012 at 1:13 am

    […] really tired today, but I wan’t to give a big shout out to Matt Glasman for articulating a version of libertarianism that I find acceptable. The basic economic role of government in a […]

  4. Jim on January 19, 2012 at 1:49 am

    This is really a great work of art. It really is. I fashion myself as semi-libertarian, but I’ve supported certain policies that, before reading this, I would have thought were at odds with libertarians, like affirmative action.

    I was trying to think like a smart person a few days back. It ended in an epic fail (I think I may have been comatose), but basically what I was trying to do was wrap my head around the Supreme Court’s Katzenbach v. McClung (Ollie’s Barbecue) decision. I think what the Court was remedy was that commerce was being restricted in a way that didn’t provide a disservice to African-Americans, but infringed on the rights of other businesses to sell their product/service through a third party.

    Like for example, Heinz ketchup might sell their product through a third party, like it being used at Ollie’s (not that you buy bottles, but the price of ketchup is added into the cost of the entrees they serve). If Ollie’s is prohibiting black patrons from dining in their restaurant, then Heinz is also losing money because Ollie’s is limiting the amount of money it makes, which makes them lose money, since they probably by ketchup in large quantities.

    I dunno. Maybe I’m lost a bit with the whole interstate commerce thing. Maybe intellectualism isn’t for me.

    Either way Matt, you’ve done libertarianism a great service.

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