September 22, 2017


BLACK LIBERTY MATTERS (JACOB T. LEVY , 9/20/17, Niskanen Center)

What has been much too rare is an understanding of racism as a cause of the drug war and of mass incarceration. Nixon aide John Erhlichman was belatedly explicit about this.  After the civil rights movement, the Nixon administration couldn't openly admit that it aimed to subject African-Americans to greater policing and control or to mobilize white voters by fear of blacks. The crackdown on hard drugs provided the needed fig leaf. As has so often been true, racism was a cause of the expansion of American state power, a cause of unfreedom. The centuries-old appropriation of the language of liberty by the defenders of white supremacy obscures this, over and over again.

This brings me to two recent and awkwardly-connected controversies within, and about, American libertarianism.

The more prominent is the debate about Nancy MacLean's book on James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and a founder of public choice theory. In Democracy in Chains, MacLean alleges that Buchanan was significantly inspired by the Confederate nostalgia of the Southern Agrarian school, and that his creation of the original ideas and institutions of public choice theory was very much tied up with Virginian resistance to Brown v Board and the civil rights movement. She treats Buchanan as the architect of a decades-long conspiratorial strategy to advance a political agenda that was both anti-democratic and compatible with (indeed possibly supportive of) the maintenance of Jim Crow. I did not know Buchanan and am not much influenced by public choice theory, but those who did and those who are have dealt devastating blows to the credibility of this story. See these two essays co-authored by Crooked Timber's Harry Farrell and my Niskanen colleague Steven Teles. See also this review essay by my Bleeding Hearts Libertarian co-blogger Steven Horwitz in The Cato Journal and this one by another co-blogger, Michael Munger, in The Independent Review.  I will not try to add to these critiques, which I find entirely persuasive about Democracy in Chains' details and core claims alike.

But part of what is so strange about Democracy in Chains is its choice of targets. The claims MacLean makes are untrue about Buchanan. But the history of the postwar libertarian movement is rich with moments of flirtation or outright entanglement with the defenders of white supremacy. This is most conspicuous today in the explicit sympathy for the Confederacy in some quarters, a problem I've written about before. There'd be no trouble writing a better book than MacLean's about the dark history of libertarian politics that ran from Murray Rothbard's support for Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign to Lew Rockwell's celebration to the beating of Rodney King to the racism that went out under Ron Paul's name in his newsletters in the 1980s and 90s to the case of then-aide to Rand Paul Jack Hunter. The generalized distrust of institutions that can be part of anti-statism easily falls back on the fantasy of a unified pre-political national people, and that populist nationalism in America is almost definitionally white populist nationalism.

The particular fascination with Abraham Lincoln's (genuine but far from unique) violations of civil liberties, the celebration of secession, the insistence on discussing the Civil Rights Act primarily in terms of freedom of association (as if white supremacy in the Jim Crow south were just a private taste that some people indulged), and an interest in freedom of speech that focuses disproportionately on the freedom to indulge in racially-charged "political incorrectness" could all figure in such a book. Rothbard was a decisive figure in the development of organized libertarianism, and the Pauls are hardly minor characters in libertarian and quasi-libertarian politics. I suspect they were less appealing to MacLean because Buchanan was close to Charles and David Koch for decades after Rothbard and his circle went to ideological war against them, and the Kochs were the exciting target for her to try to implicate.

But there are ways to neglect black liberty that are subtler than the white nationalism of the Confederatistas. Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about "welfare" from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There's no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don't do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. White recipients of housing subsidies hadn't been imagined to become dependent, non-autonomous, or unfree. When the FHA was insisting that neighborhoods be segregated in order to be eligible for mortgage or building subsidies, it contributed a great deal to the racial wealth gap that persists to this day. No free-marketeers of the era felt the need to engage in brave, politically incorrect inquiries into the lower intelligence of new white homeowners that might explain their long-term dependence. But once the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.

Returning for a moment to the overt white nationalists allows us to also think about the other recent dispute about libertarian politics: the embarrassingly large number of people associated with the racist alt-right who once identified as libertarians, or (even worse) still do. Some of this is just the inevitable sociology of the fringe. Those who join smaller political movements tend to come to think that mainstream sources of information and ideology aren't to be trusted. They tend to be unmoored from a society's dominant values and intellectual positions. And so, as they change their mind about things (and most people do, from time to time), they're disproportionately likely to end up attached to other fringe movements. That's just a selection effect about what kind of people join fringe movements, and it doesn't say anything about the content of either movement's ideas.

But it seems pretty plausible to me that there's something more to be said. The capture of the language of freedom by the defenders of white supremacy and the Confederacy is a major fact about American political language and its history, and there's a small but vocal group of self-identified libertarians who participate in it and perpetuate it. The racialization of the discourse around redistribution, such that people who think of themselves as committed to small government in general have a special visceral reaction against what they call "welfare" that doesn't extend to the far larger redistributive activities of the state, is a major fact about more recent American political language. And the conviction that freedom of speech is mostly threatened by "political correctness" in American life, that saying racist things is a brave stand against censorship, that calling what someone else says "racist" is pretty much like censoring them--these are important facts about American political discourse today. Organized libertarianism partakes of all of these. I have argued elsewhere that American libertarianism's dependence on Lockean traditions brings with it the fantasy of a unified pre-political people that might reclaim its liberty from distrusted governing institutions. And in the American political tradition, that kind of holist populist nationalism has always been white nationalism.

Thus too did polling consistently show that people who identified with the Tea Party were older, whiter, wealthier and more often male than the general population and that they both opposed "welfare spending" and insisted there be no cuts to federal spending on retirees. It's not welfare if we get it; only if they get it.

One big policy question implicated here though is that raised by Thomas Sowell in his comparison of American blacks to immigrant cohorts, including those from Africa and Haiti. The fact that we, at least, denied the first generation of Africans we imported as slaves of the normal immigration experience seems to have had lasting effects--nevermind the subsequent racism succeeding generations faced.  This massive violation of the principle of republican liberty is the proper basis for demanding slave reparations.

Posted by at September 22, 2017 9:07 AM