[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.