Racial Justice and Libertarianism

There have been a couple interesting posts by Bryan Caplan and one by David Henderson recently on racial justice issues that I wanted to call attention to.

The first is a series of three posts on libertarianism and Jim Crow (here, here, and here). Bryan starts off by asking about libertarian positions on Jim Crow at the time. He links to Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Rand discusses racism as a form of collectivism. Like a lot of Rand, she has a point and then gets distracted by her own excesses (various versions of being proud of your family history "are samples of racism", for example). Rothbard's piece is more interesting. He presents the standard, half-right libertarian formula that segregation is bad but integration is bad too. He calls public efforts "compulsory integration" to drive home the point. But that's largely in the background. Most of Rothbard's chapter discusses the Civil Rights movement itself, the various factions within it, and the probable future course of the movement. This is what we've been hearing from Ron and Rand Paul recently as well - and it doesn't just apply to the Civil Rights movement. It's the old line that slavery was bad but so was Lincoln (I have some scattered critiques of Lincoln, but I don't approve of this advocacy of opposition to the Civil Rights Act or the prosecution of the Civil War).

All of this is rooted in a twisted application of the non-aggression principle that only sees certain aggressions as actually aggressive. This strain of libertarianism ignores institutional discrimination, and it ignores the intergenerational transmission of past crimes. It also ignores cases where people are coerced by virtue of the property rights system (i.e. - involuntary impositions through negative externalities). When you start to think how long the list is, it becomes quite clear that Rothbard isn't really pro-liberty so much as he is anti-state. Libertarianism, in Rothbard's sense, is better thought of as Antistatarianism. Whatever the state does - whether it is pro-liberty or anti-liberty - is not considered acceptable. Anarchism, if you will. Obviously this doesn't characterize all libertarians - but I do think it's important to clarify that all libertarians (Rothbardians/anarchists or not) distinguish themselves more on the question of the state than on the question of liberty.

David Henderson follows up on Bryan's post with his own on Milton Friedman and segregation. Friedman takes the same position as Rothbard. Indeed, Henderson shares that Friedman considered Nazi anti-Semitic legislation, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights legislation to all be "similar in principle" to each other. Henderson says Friedman is right, but I think it's utter nonsense. Again, this is the sort of thing that you get when you confuse being pro-liberty with being anti-state. It's true, opposition to the Nuremberg Laws, Jim Crow, and Civil Rigths legislation is all consistently anti-state. But the distinction between the first wo and the last one is that the last one is pro-liberty. Milton Friedman is following the Rothbard/Rand line of argument, and it's leading him down a very problematic path.

In the third link, Bryan shares Ilya Somin's thoughts. Somin discusses Moorfield Storey and W.H. Hutt. I found the article on Storey very confusing. I have no idea why he is supposed to be a libertarian. The article presents a couple points: (1.) Storey was an anti-imperialist (not just a libertarian thing), (2.) Storey was a goldbug (many libertarians aren't), (3.) Storey was anti-segregation (not just a libertarian thing), and (4.) Storey thought blacks had a right to property and economic liberty (not just a libertarian thing). Storey may very well have been a libertarian, I'm just not clear on whether he was or not. The article framed it as Storey the libertarian vs. left-liberals and I just found a lot of the discussion confused. Still, he sounds like an admirable guy.

Somin additionally shares Hutt's book on the subject, which I am not personally familiar with. Hutt, of course, is South African and so he has a lot of experience to draw on in addition to his familiarity with the American case. The book as framed as being about the economics of discrimination. That is intriguing to me. Can anyone provide a synopsis of the economic argument that's made in the book?


I also wanted to quickly discuss Bryan's post on whether we should give land back to the Indians. He also cites Rothbard extensively in this one. Rothbard essentially highlights the fact that the title chain to American land is very unclear. Even if you knew a particular parcel of land was stolen on a particular date, the lack of title and inheritance records means that no white (or other) owner of a piece of American land today has any victim they can compensate by returning the land.

This is an excellent example of points that Gene Callahan has made in the past about the coercions of different understandings of legitimate property rights. Indians didn't have titles or inheritance records because they didn't have the same system of property rights that we do today. The issue we're dealing with is quite akin to the enclosure movement in England. It would be like subsequent landowners dismissing complaints because those who used the common land can't show that they have title to the land. Of course they can't show that! The whole point was that it was not a private property right system!

Once again, as above, Rothbard shows that he is not really pro-liberty at all. He is pro-the-maintenance-of-a-very-specific-property-rights-regime. So he is antistatarian and propertarian, but not especially (or shall we say, not uniquely) pro-liberty.

I consider the Indian issue to be a very hard case. Enclosing the commons is form of social organization that to a large extent I support (I'm not saying that all commons ought to be enclosed). But I'm not like Rothbard in that I do recognize that you are dismissing someone's rights. Compensation, I think, is reasonable. I would certainly support substantial federal investments in Indian communities. I think it would probably make the most sense to have a sort of block grant scheme. There's a big concern (among some) about changing the way they live on reservations. Flexibility in the investments helps those sorts of decisions to be made at the local level.

But I don't apply this universally. I'm a lot more concerned about Indians in the West than I am in the East. In the East you have to remember that a huge portion of Indian lands were obtained as a result of the French and Indian War. The Indians were willing (indeed, eager) French allies in that war. When we (we, in this case and at this point being "the British") beat the French, we got Canada from them. The French lost their rights when they lost the fight. Why should we treat the trans-Appalachian territories any differently? Why must we feel obligated to give Ohio back to the Indians but we don't feel obligated to give Canada back to the French? Not only did we win the war in both cases, but the French and the Indians were fighting the same damn war on the same damn side! It's a subtle form of ethnocentrism to shed tears over the land lost in the trans-Appalachian territories but not over the loss of French territory in Canada.

I am not as well versed in Western history, but my impression is the situation there was very different and it was more straight theft.

I feel the same way about reparations for slavery, by the way. The idea that the black community today isn't experiencing disparities resulting from slavery and Jim Crow is nonsense. Failure to right these wrongs comes close to complicity in the wrongs.