Free Markets, Free People

Misrepresenting Libertarianism

The editors of the New York Times misrepresent libertarianism by way of Rand Paul and his statements about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying:

As a longtime libertarian, he espouses the view that personal freedom should supersede all government intervention. Neighborhood associations should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, he has written, and private businesses ought to be able to refuse service to anyone they wish. Under this philosophy, the punishment for a lunch counter that refuses to seat black customers would be public shunning, not a court order.

It is a theory of liberty with roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society. The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.

It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression and promoted safety and equality in the workplace.

Let’s start with the most obvious canard, which is the proposition that Jim Crow had anything to do with free markets. They were called “Jim Crow Laws“, not “Jim Crow Markets”, the obvious reason for which is that separate accommodations were mandated by state governments, not organically grown in some mythical garden of free association rights. Indeed, the entire reason for the corrupt deal behind the presidential election of 1876 was to throw the South’s support behind a president who would end Reconstruction.

It was government–in this case, the state governments in the South–that imposed Jim Crow, and government that forced private companies to impose the desired restrictions on blacks.  If government intervention was required to Jim Crow, that was only because governments had imposed it in the first place.  And it certainly wasn’t the free market that imposed racial segregation on federal government employment, or military service. Nor was it the free market that imposed poll taxes or literacy tests aimed at preventing blacks from voting in elections. The argument of the New York Times’ editors is essentially that because one level of government ended the racial segregation that another level of government imposed, this shows the superiority of government over the free market.

Now, this is not to say that the owner of a drug-store lunch counter would have served blacks.  Some most certainly would not.  But we’ll never know how long that state of affairs might have lasted, because the state governments of the South did everything in their power to ensure that it would last, until forced to do otherwise. And to argue that the free market would never have eliminated Jim Crow is to argue an unprovable negative.  What we do know, however, is that there are examples, such as bus companies refusing to make blacks sit in the back of buses until forced to do so by state law, that indicate otherwise.

To the extent that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was necessary, it was only so by virtue of eliminating state laws that imposed segregation, and restricted free markets from functioning.So, what “succeeding centuries have shown” is that government restriction of free markets kept segregation alive for a century after the Civil War. In presenting such a revisionist version of history, either the editors of the New York Times are abysmally ignorant, or they are actively malign.

Or both.

As far as government rescuing the economy from the Great Depression, a number of serious economic historians would argue precisely the opposite. To the extent that the government did end the Great Depression, it did so by absorbing 12 million citizens into the armed forces, and producing billions of dollars worth of war materials, a great proportion of which were destroyed between 1942 and 1945, along with about half a million of those uniformed Americans. Which, I shouldn’t have to point out, hardly commends it much as a general recipe for escaping economic downturns.

In any case, the child-like trust the editors of the New York Times seem to have for government action hardly seems warranted in either instance.

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23 Responses to Misrepresenting Libertarianism

  • It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression and promoted safety and equality in the workplace.”

    With respect Dale, I don’t think  Jim Crow is the obvious canard here. The NYT also ignores that it was Government that allowed slavery to happen in the first place.

    And I hate giving any credit to unions, but I think they had as much of a hand in workplace safety, if not more so, as The Government. It actually pains me to say that.

  • Excellent rebuttal.

  • 9 times out of 10 I agree with your well-thought out posts, but I’m not sure this one hits the mark.  Being a purely theoretical libertarian requires the stance Paul took, but it is not so simple in practice.  I also do not believe that federal intervention was required because of a stance attributable to the states’ governments, as if there is some sort of a separation between the state governments and the people of their respective states. 

    The National Guard didn’t have to protect the black students at Little Rock from protesting, rock-throwing state legislators.  They had to protect them from the people.  The federal government didn’t have to travel to Mississippi to investigate lynchings perpetrated by Mississippi state senators, but from the populace with the complicity of local law enforcement.  So entertaining a notion that had the free market just been allowed to work itself out, blacks would have enjoyed equality in Alabama is just delusional.   In fact, the civil rights abuses of this country’s past are the most difficult argument against the concept of federalism to overcome.

    • But would those racist attitudes have been so strong and prevalent without two or three generations of the law supporting and encouraging it? Would there have been any trouble if there had been no government-enforced segregation in the first place?

      Who knows.

      • Bingo! Government cannot control social behavior without ultimately generating wars because it always seperates people into groups. The marketplace, however, is a much better means of developing a social order that has at least a chance of succeeding. All people are consumers in the marketplace.

      • Would slavery – a clear aid to free market capitalism – have ever ended without government intervention?  That is what led to the inherent racism.  The resentment some felt that their “property” had been stolen. 

        • ridiculous, Slavery is the antithesis of free markets. If some humans have no rights then ultimately no humans have any rights.
          Free markets would not have ended bigotry, just as government programs have not ended it. But gross discrimination in the marketplace was indeed a product of laws. If people could have been counted on to keep blacks in their “place” then the wouldn’t have needed those laws would they?

          • This comment is illogical.  How do you support the notion that slavery is the antithesis of free markets?  If I am a plantation owner with no governmental restrictions and the full ability to trade on the free market, I have two choices.  I can pay farm labor that will directly impact my bottom line, or I can buy free labor at a one-time cost from some guys in Africa.  Which do you think I’m going to choose?   It was only the government that could enforce a prohibition on slavery.  Your comment is like suggesting that corporations will do the right thing without any interference.  See the industrial revolution and coal mining for why that doesn’t work.

          • ” I can buy free labor”

            Does the word ‘oxymoron’ ring a bell?  
            Aside from the initial cost, there is a certain amount of upkeep involved even for ‘free’ labor.

          • slavery can only exist with the government blessing. Other wise the natural inclination of all men will be to fight for their freedom and the natural inclination of many others will be to help them
            Slavery is the antithesis of free markets because free markets can only exist with human rights and a rule of law. That was the basic problem that the founding fathers saw with slavery from the very beginning, and why so many said that we could not coexist in a nation that was half free and half slave.

          • TW – I think you mistake “free markets” with anarchism. A “free market” is not a system with no government. It’s a system with limited government to protect essential liberties. Such limited government is necessary so that trade can exist.
            A free market requires that the exchanges between laborers and those who employee them are done freely. If a plantation owner can involuntarily force a slave to work for them, that’s not a freely made exchange and thus it’s fundamentally not a free market in action.

        • “Would slavery – a clear aid to free market capitalism – have ever ended without government intervention?”

          Don’t agree with the premise. In a wide open competitive market slavery would most likely be nonviable.

          • I don’t understand how that would be.  If I am able through force or other means to keep a labor pool that does not command a wage, I will undoubtedly succeed in enterprise.  (I recognize my “buy free labor” goof from earlier, by the way.  But I think you get the concept.)

            I will concede that you must have the government’s blessing to keep a group of people as property, but it is not the same as saying government has commanded that concept.  The government was merely permitting to occur what the populace wanted.

            I am as far right as anyone you’ll find on the political spectrum, and I am highly conflicted about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But to say that the government should have stayed out of it and allow the southern states to continue the practices of the early half of the 20th century is more than a little misguided.  As bad as federal intervention is, this seems to be one place it is required.

  • When criminals have the tacit approval of the police (aka, the state) it would have been very difficult for the free market to sort it out.  The reason is that the state was deliberately looking the other way instead of enforcing the laws.  This is not a free market problem.  This a problem of evil people running the show.
    The classical liberal view of why men form governments is to protect the unalienable rights of the citizens.  In the case of Jim Crow laws the state was actively denying the rights of the citizenry.  To blame libertarians for this is not just a misrepresentation, it is an outright lie.  The NY Times should be ashamed to have run such a dishonest article.

  • I’m not taking sides, but I found this point to consider …

    “Therefore, to break the Jim Crow cartel, there were only two options: (1) a federal law invalidating Jim Crow laws, along with a massive federal takeover of local government by the federal government to prevent violence and extralegal harassment of those who chose to integrate; or (2) a federal law banning discrimination by private parties, so that violence and harassment would generally be pointless. If, like me, you believe that it was morally essential to break the Jim Crow cartel, option 2 was the lesser of two evils. I therefore would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Bernstein concluded.

    •  “there were only two options”

      That’s one opinion., and not a very good one.

  • Nice job, Dale.  That editorial was absolute crap.

  • It is certainly true that libertarians are not responsible for Jim Crow. Given that their movement was created after WW2, Jim Crow had already been in existence for several decades and so libertarians are not to blame for its institution. Despite this, too many libertarians decided to oppose efforts to secure the individual rights of black Americans because the agent was the federal government. One of the flaws of libertarianism is that its center of gravity is an anti-government zealotry. The consequence of this is that libertarians tended to oppose government action to guarantee individual rights simply because government was the active agent. The Left is wrong to think that libertarians don’t support the rights of African-Americans; but libertarians are wrong to think that an active federal government is the enemy of liberty. In fact America’s federal government has been the greatest institutional force for liberty the world has ever seen. Libertarians need to realize that Rand Paul just set back your movement by his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You can parse it however you want but the perception is already there, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It is unfortunate, but libertarianism is spoiled by the association with the South’s anti-liberty ideology. But this is the 21st century and we have the opportunity to imagine a pro-liberty ideology that is relevant for our time. It is true that state and local governments were the agents of an anti-liberty, racist ideology, but it is also true that it was the federal government that in the end championed individual liberty. Libertarians need to realize that being pro-liberty is more important than being anti-government.
    The other issue here is libertarianism’s failure at public relations. Here’s a movement that has been around for 50+ years and yet after all this time the newspaper of record still doesn’t know enough about it. It’s not the NYT’s fault, it is the fault of libertarians who have failed to sell their ideas, failed to articulate them in a way that they are understood by people who aren’t libertarians. Libertarians never take responsibility for their incompetence at persuading people to buy into their ideas. If libertarianism were a business it would have failed, because it wouldn’t have enough customers.

    • no, you are the one who is wrong, An active Federal Government IS indeed the enemy of liberty. Almost all of the time. So they got it right once or twice, that does not invalidate suspicion of big government.

  • “Government” will always fail in dictating  social behavior. Death and destruction will always be the result.  Always! Libertarians are right to oppose Governmental actions in this regard.  Free markets are a far better option.