David R. Henderson  

Milton Friedman on Segregation

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This morning, co-blogger Bryan Caplan wrote:

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?

Towards the end of that time period, of course, Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom was published (in 1962). So I checked through the whole thing. I'll give the details shortly but here's my bottom line: Friedman did consider the issue worth addressing and was, of course, on the right side of the issue. That is, he opposed such laws. However, he did not give it a high priority. At the end of his second chapter, "Government in a Free Society," Friedman listed 14 then-exisiting restrictions on economic freedom that he thought should be eliminated. Among them were many things that disproportionately hurt black people: minimum wage laws, military conscription, and Interstate Commerce Commission restrictions on trucking. But he did not call attention to that differential hurt (although later in the decade, on the minimum wage law, he did) and did not list Jim Crow laws per se.

As I noted above, though, it was clear that he was against such laws. In his chapter, "Capitalism and Discrimination," for example, he wrote:

The Southern states after the Civil War took many measures to impose legal restrictions on Negroes.

It's clear from context that he opposed such restrictions. Later in the chapter, he also wrote:
The Hitler Nuremberg laws and the laws in the Southern states imposing special disabilities upon Negroes are both examples of laws similar in principle to FEPC [Fair Employment Practice Commissions.]

This last requires some explanation. It is pretty certain that Friedman, who was Jewish, would not liken Jim Crow laws to Hitler's Nuremberg laws unless he opposed the former. But why compare it to FEPC laws, the predecessor of the later civil rights laws that banned racial discrimination in employment? Friedman explains that both are wrong because "they involve a kind of state action that ought not to be permitted."

So Friedman was doing two things: (1) opposing Jim Crow laws because they required discrimination, and (2) opposing laws that forbade discrimination.

Why does he give the second equal, or arguably greater, emphasis the first? I think I understand from context. Friedman was often writing to persuade young people and/or people who thought of themselves as "liberals." Just as he took it as given that the Nuremberg laws against Jews were wrong and the point did not need to be argued, he took it as given that Jim Crow laws were bad and probably didn't think the point needed to be argued. He argued, instead, the point that he thought needed to be argued to his audience: as abhorrent as racial discrimination is, it's wrong to prevent people from practicing it peacefully with their property and their workplaces. Still, I wish he had put it in his 14-point list in Chapter 2 and made it 15 points.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market , Regulation

COMMENTS (5 to date)

Friedman was clearly a, judge a man by the content of his character, not by the color of his skin, man. His personal secretary was a black woman, in a time long before that was accepted by many whites.

Somewhat related, in roughly the second half of this 1921 speech by Warren G. Harding, note both the practical libertarianism and racial tolerance of that Republican.

Doug writes:

Since libertarians are such a marginal group they're only likely to have an impact over the long run by introducing innovations into the marketplace of ideas. Unlike larger political blocks they don't have enough power to have much short term effect on current policy.

Therefore it makes sense for libertarian thinkers to skate to where the puck's going, not where it's at. By the early 1960s the end of Jim Crow was pretty much an eventual forgone conclusion.

I think similarly gay equality issues used to be a bigger deal to libertarians 15 years ago. But now that these issues are mainstream, and almost guaranteed to be resolved positively within a couple of decades libertarians don't have as much to contribute in this realm.

Steve Sailer writes:

Businesses in the Jim Crow South were stuck in a local maxima equilibrium where the most profitable behavior was to continue to enforce segregation, even though it was obvious to most big business leaders in, say, Atlanta that they could make a lot more money if they all shifted at once to desegregation, which would increase sales and lower costs stemming from maintaining dual systems. (This was the reason private transit interests backed Plessy's 1896 lawsuit against Ferguson in the hopes of getting rid of the law requiring them to maintain excess streetcar capacity to provide for segregated seating.)

The 1964 Civil Rights Act allowed Southern businesses to tell white customers, politicians, mobs, and so forth, "We're terribly sorry, but the armed might of the federal government is forcing us to make higher profits by desegregating."

It's not clear how Southern businesses could have gotten from one equilibrium to another without massive government interventions. On the other hand, the massive government intervention in the name of fighting discrimination rolls on 48 years later even though the problem of disparate treatment discrimination was almost completely solved more than a generation ago.

Chris H writes:

I disagree that they were in such an equilibrium. After all, if Atlanta could begin some store desegregation even in the height of Jim Crow (downtown the largest store, Macy's, was a desegregated store even during the height of segregation), then surely without government support for segregation the issue could be overcome without being forced. Adding in force after all is expensive for society (both in the actual enforcement costs in the budget and the cost to the utility of individuals who preferred segregation, remember that that's a real preference with a real economic cost to suppress through force). Did the force make it easier? Yes, but at a cost. And desegregating would have still occurred. Likely what would have happened is the larger stores with the most dedicated consumer bases would start first (as Macy's in Atlanta did). White consumers would be less likely to abandon those places as they had demonstrated great capability to meet consumer demands already. The smaller stores could then say they were "forced" to desegregate to remain competitive at the same time that white consumers were getting used to the idea of interacting with blacks.

Would there be a (likely ever shrinking)hard core of segregationist stores that refused to change? Yes, and this would likely ease the process of desegregation. After all, are mobs of segregationist whites more likely to form when they can find stores that meet their segregationist demands or where government force has been applied to prevent that? When people feel they're options have been constrained they're more likely to act out violently, and when others perceive those constrained options they are more likely to sympathize with the violence. Forcing desegregation through government actions is thus actually likely to lead to more, not less, violence in the process.

Of course, if violence does still occur to attempt to intimidate shop owners into keeping the segregationist line, there you have a potential place for the government to intervene. If state governments have refused to meet their responsibilities in protecting individuals from violence, then that's when the federal government should step in. Individual rights trump state rights every time (so long as individual rights are correctly understood as negative rights that is). People have a right to not be aggressed against and there would be far less popular support for violence if it's perceived that people who have a problem can simply go to a different store.

Discrimination could have been beaten without government violence and even at that, as libertarians the goal is to allow people to have their own values as long as they avoid violence. If people did want to non-violently retain segregation then that's a choice they can make without fear of violence. The government's job should never be to promote values no matter how attractive except the limitation of violence. It's a matter of means, the only legitimate use of violence is to counter act violence, you use words and dollars to fight racial stupidity.

Steve Sailer writes:

Thomas Sowell once argued that the 1965 Voting Rights Act would have made the 1964 Civil Rights Act unnecessary: once the politicians had to worry about black voters they would have forced the police to prevent white mobs from attacking desegregated stores, and then the profit motive would have gone to work. Alternatively, you could have had top down enforcement by the feds leaning on the the local cops, but that was institutionally difficult to pull off in the first half of the 1960s.

In general, though, I suspect big businessmen in Atlanta were pretty happy to have the feds order desegregation of accommodations rapidly. It helped make Atlanta literally a "major league city" by allowing the Braves to move there from Milwaukee in 1966.

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