Bryan Caplan  

Libertarians and Jim Crow Bleg

PRINT
Of Monkeys and Micro... Will ACA's cost-cutters outcut...
A searching question inspired by Vipul Naik: Consider the period between 1930 and 1964.  What priority did libertarians give to the abolition of Jim Crow laws?  How many even considered the issue worth specifically addressing?

The first instances that come to mind are Rothbard's 1961 "The Negro Revolution" in New Individualist Review and Ayn Rand's 1963 "Racism"  in The Objectivist Newsletter.  What else have you got?  Please provide cites and URLs in the comments.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (14 to date)
Philippe Belanger writes:

Well Rothbard did say this

Thus, the libertarian opposes compulsory segregation and police brutality, but also opposes compulsory integration and such absurdities as ethnic quota systems in jobs

here, but we all know what he later wrote.

Philippe Belanger writes:

I just saw that you already had Rothbard's piece. My bad for not reading carefully.

Eric Evans writes:

Setting aside the fact that libertarians didn't really exist for much of that time, what's the purpose of dealing with Jim Crow laws specifically? Wouldn't any libertarian arguing for the equal rights of blacks during that time be arguing against Jim Crow laws by proxy? Zora Neale Hurston and Rose Wilder Lane were plenty active on the broader subject by the early 1940s and possibly earlier.

Hurston may have criticized Jim Crow laws specifically, but I can't find a reference for it.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Not much... my copy of New Individualist Review (Liberty Press edition over 900 pages) has segregation listed once in the index (pp. 408-9 - a discussion of school/state issues). There's a brief mention of apartheid (pp. 592-3) and excerpts of Economics of the Colour Bar by WH Hutt (pp. 802-4). My copy of Spencer's Man vs. State does not have any obvious index entries for Jim Crow, though he does say that colonialism is a form of racial oppression. Neither does Road to Serfdom, Machinery of Freedom, or Sciabarra's book on Rand (which is not a bad road map to some of Rand's ideas). How many books in the Liberty Press catalog are arguments against Jim Crow?

Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell appeared as intellectuals after the civil rights movement had crested (around 65 or so), so their writings would not count.

It's been a while since I've delved into classical libertarian literature, but my answer would be "some, but not a whole lot."

This speaks to Bryan's idea of the "libertarian penumbra" - stuff that correlates with libtn'ism but doesn't logically flow from the theory. Libt'ns oppose the use of state power to separate people by race, but it's not what they choose to emphasize the most, not by a long shot. This probably has to do with the sociology of the modern libertarian movement. It's an movement defined by East/Central Europeans (Rand, the Austrians) and then by American Jewish academics (Rothbard, the Friedmans, Nozick ... Caplan!).

Thus, libertarians built their theory as a response to a few big issues: the rise of socialism in Europe; the rise of Welfare States in Western European nations; and the rise of economics as a tool for analyzing these social changes.

Libertarianism would look a hell of a lot different if it had been hatched by Southern Blacks after the Reconstruction, or by some folks during the Harlem Renaissance, or by a bunch of men and women in Detroit in 1955. Instead of a libertarianism that's built from an econ 101 text, or a reading of Locke, you might have a theory that's based on the symbiosis of racial social structures and state apparatuses. Such as theory does exist (see DuBois' take on the South post-1877), but it's politics are not libertarian. Until that happens, the libertarian approach to race, including Jim crow, will remain an afterthought.

Philippe Belanger writes:

In Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Chapter 7, Friedman comes out against racial segregation in state school. He also notes that school vouchers would allow for a harmonious transition from segregated to mixed schools as racial attitudes of communites gradually change, instead of the social tensions that characterize the political process.

Fazal Majid writes:

Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954, and was a unanimous decision. Arguing in favor of equality only in 1961, 62, 63 or 64 hardly qualifies as moral leadership, not even as leading from behind.

mike shupp writes:

Ohhhh boy! It was a different world back then.

I recall, my senior year in Civics, at one point our teacher shook his head and said something like "In the South ... that's a whole different place." That is the entire discussion of segregation and Jim Crow I got in high school, and I graduated in 1964, from a first rate city school in Ohio.

Did I hear about segregation at my church? No. Did my parents ever mention it? No. Did it get much discussion in Time or Newsweek or or Reader's Digest or Boy's Life? No. TV coverage or movies? Not so much -- certainly not in the kind of films I saw as a teenager.

Getting the picture? Segregation was a secret Southern pleasure and Northerners just knew not to complain. And they didn't, and they didn't point other people to complaining.

And that didn't much change until the 1960s.

There are reasons a whole generation of American kids turned around and started screaming You lied to us! at their elders in the 1960s.

Point is, grading "libertarians" of the 1930's thru the 1960's by present day standards isn't totally reasonable. It was a different world.

david writes:

To what extent did libertarians circa 1930 even distinguish between "libertarians" who favoured expansive rights of states, cities, and smaller communities to legislate their own moral order, vs. libertarians who drew hard distinctions based on coercion and self-ownership?

Remember that incorporation of the Bill of Rights had to be forced down upon the states from above, and this only began as late as the 1890s and fully applied as late as the 1950s, well into the period Caplan mentions. Prior to that, it was perfectly constitutionally legitimate for states to, e.g., suppress specific religions. Why not Jim Crow? And how many pro-federal-government-powers libertarians would there have been at the time?

david writes:

(it ties into the open-borders thing quite well, actually. Americans circa 1930s truly did feel only a very weak impulse to care about liberty in someone else's subnational identity, viz., the states. Libertarians today correspondingly feel rather weakly about liberty over national borders)

Daniel Klein writes:

See The Impossible H.L. Mencken pp. 186-206.

Daniel Klein writes:

See WG Sumner quotation here.

Mperry writes:

Zora Neale Hurston was a Republican, an America Firster and an opponent of the New Deal who has been claimed by both conservatives and libertarians.


She opposed Jim Crow, but she also thought that Brown vs. Board of Education was wrongly decided. Her opposition to the court decision was based on both libertarian and what might be called black nationalist principles. She feared the loss of black schools would harm the transmission of black culture.

Chris H writes:

I think both the immigration and the government-enforced racial segregation issues demonstrate a frustrating aspect of libertarianism. Namely, we suck at political strategy.

Consider this, blacks in the Jim Crow South and illegal immigrants today both know precisely how terrible the repression of the state can be. They know exactly what happens when the state decides to flex it's muscles and how this leads to terrible consequences. They don't need economic or natural rights theory to know about the evils of the state, they lived it. It's like the state is handing us a natural constituency on a silver platter! And then we marginalize the very issues which we could use as leverage to win these people over to the broader cause of liberty. We have a theory of economics and politics which dove tails perfectly with preventing the state from picking out particular groups for oppression and then we say two words on the point and think we're done.

Now I think I know why many libertarian thinkers didn't spend too much time on the Jim Crow issue (and it might have an application to the immigration issue). Jim Crow in comparison to other issues libertarians might comment on probably seemed more contained. From 1930 to 1964 there were some big and rising threats to liberty out there. Compared to fascism and communism, segregation probably seemed like something that wasn't really spreading too far. The South had it but it wasn't like the North was enacting too many of these laws. And besides, segregationists were often anti-communist so libertarians might be tricked into thinking they could be allies. But segregationists relied on state power to maintain their system. They could never be permanent libertarian allies while blacks, who at first simply wanted to stop having the state oppress them, were prime targets for actually joining the movement. But we let the new liberals and socialists out bid us. They focused a lot of energy on the issue we ignored and thus understandably won the favor of American blacks. Now we're in the crummy position of having to argue against some of the state-provided privileges that have been accord to this long oppressed group. Now that's not to say there aren't angles libertarians could fruitfully push to regain some of that lost ground (noting how many aspects of the welfare actually help prevent racial equality might help), but we've made the battle harder for ourselves than it needed to be.

The same thing is true with immigration. These people come from countries where they are poor because of state interventions. They disproportionately become entrepreneurs when they get to this country. And they know just how much the bureaucracy of this country can suck (for legal immigrants because of the excruciatingly long waits and for illegal ones because of the fear of guys with guns coming in a throwing them out of their new home). Liberals and conservatives shouldn't be able to win these guys over! Liberals attack the entrepreneurship immigrants tend to exhibit and try to institute state controls which immigrants were fleeing from in their old country. Conservatives are too afraid of change to support immigration. Libertarians should be able to grab these guys with ease! But when we don't talk about immigration, indulge in fallacious merchantilist thinking, or somehow imagine that immigrants are naturally political enemies to libertarianism despite our philosophy being the only one that provides what they actually want (that is, the ability to try and make better lives for themselves and their families) we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

There are lots of important issues out there that libertarianism has something to say on. But if we actually want to gain more support for political change in this (or any) country we need to spend some more time on political strategy. And that strategy dictates that we'd be fools to ignore the concerns of natural constituents like immigrants or state-oppressed racial minorities.

gwern writes:

How many libertarians opposed parts of civil rights like banning anti-black housing covenants etc?

As an example, I offer famed libertarian SF author Robert Heinlein, who wrote an extremely long but apparently previously unpublished letter defending discriminatory convenants and blockbusting: http://www.virginiaedition.com/ve/TheVirginiaEdition-sample.pdf

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top