Balkinization  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Racist Progressives, Meet Hard-Hearted Libertarians

Brian Tamanaha

With the resurgence of the use of the term “progressive” by liberals, libertarians have taken to reminding liberals that their turn-of-the-century progressive forebears were virulent racists. According to libertarians, when the social reformist impulse of progressivism mixed with the personal racism of progressives, a toxic brew resulted that led to the legal oppression of blacks and other racial minorities. “The ideas of race and color were powerful, controlling elements in progressive social and political thinking,” [David Southern] argues. “And this fixation on race explains how democratic reform and racism went hand-in-hand.” Libertarians even blame progressives for Jim Crow laws.

There is much truth in this charge. As Michael McGerr’s excellent history of the progressive movement explains, in the late nineteenth century “science increasingly endorsed many Americans’ belief that some races were better than others and that racial characteristics were hereditary and therefore quite possibly unalterable.” Progressives who supported Jim Crow apparently rationalized that blacks were better off if kept segregated from whites.

Contemporary libertarians take satisfaction in asserting that libertarians, even those who hold racist views, would never countenance legal oppression of blacks because they are opposed in principle to government coercion.

That indeed counts in their favor.

But classical liberals have their own embarrassing grandparents. Herbert Spencer, the most influential advocate of laissez faire in nineteenth century America, opposed all government aid to the poor and infirm because it thwarted the biological law that the weakest should die. (He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”) Although this seems heartless, Spencer asserted to the contrary that it is benevolent:
The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and in miseries’ are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfullness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a laborer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.
That’s cold.

Now, just as progressives can protest that racism is not inherent to progressivism, libertarians can protest that heartless social Darwinism is not inherent to libertarianism. We could call a truce and stop trying to smear contemporary versions of these ideas with the ignorance and sins of their forebears.

That would be nice and neighborly, but it’s not quite right. While racism can be severed without loss from progressivism (and indeed has been), the doctrine that government activities should be strictly limited to protecting property, enforcing contracts, and maintaining order is built into libertarianism. Ludwig von Mises, the leading classical liberal of the early twentieth century (not a social Darwinist), opposed public education as beyond the proper scope of government, and he was against any unemployment benefits (because it encourages indolence). Von Mises recognized that the unemployed would suffer, but he felt this was justified because it would increase overall material wealth. Clear echoes of this argument are still made in libertarian circles today.

Comments:

Libertarians should be far more embarrassed by the way self-described libertarians reacted to the Civil Rights Movement; indeed, they should be embarrassed by the way some react today to the idea of equal rights. Like the Right generally, they just can't seem to get over race.

The sins of the progressives, whatever they were, are long in the past. The sins of libertarians plague us today.
 

I'm sorry, but your argument strikes me as not at all fair.

First, you start by comparing the racism of early progressives with the social darwinism of early libertarians. But then you conclude by contrasting the removal of racism from progressivism with libertarianism's retention of "the doctrine that government activities should be strictly limited to protecting property, enforcing contracts, and maintaining order."

Your argument gets its rhetorical force from an equivocation between limited government and social darwinism. Although you quietly slide from one to the other, social darwinism and limited government are emphatically not the same thing (as you implicitly acknowledge when you note that Mises was not a social darwinist). There is nothing inconsistent or unlibertarian about believing in strictly limited government while simultaneously advocating private charity and other noncoercive means of helping the less fortunate. And indeed there are strains of libertarian thought going back well over a century that have advocated precisely that.

Second, you say that "the doctrine that government activities should be strictly limited to protecting property, enforcing contracts, and maintaining order is built into libertarianism." Like any political movement, libertarianism has many different strains, both historically and today, and your description certainly fits one major strain. But any description purporting to identify core ideas that are "built into" libertarianism that excludes major figures like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman from the libertarian tent (both were proponents of a substantial public safety net) is simply not serious. There are major libertarian organizations today that are clearly far more strongly influenced by the thought of Hayek and Friedman than by Mises (Cato, for example).

Finally, how would you feel about this argument if it were turned around:

While social darwinism can be severed without loss from libertarianism (and indeed has been), the doctrine that an individual's rights and interests should be defined solely by their membership in a particular class or social group is built into progressivism.

I think that's analogous to your treatment of libertarianism, and equally unfair.
 

Michael,

I agree that social Darwinism is not inherent to libertarianism--indeed I thought I said that (I should have been more explicit).

The point of my comparison is that racism is not an inherent component of progressivism, but limited government is inherent to libertarianism. Hence, progressivism can drop racism but liberalism cannot drop the notion of the extremely minimalist state.

You are correct that there are strains of liberalism that depart from von Mises, but as you note the strain I mention is a major one. Friedman's ideas are certainly in tune with von Mises' views. (Hayek was less extreme than either, and supported social insurance plans.)

Mark,

Much of the opposition to the civil rights movement was driven by racism.

I would not say, however, that the opposition of some prominent libertarians to the civil rights movement was the product of racism. Libertarians can produce principled reasons for their opposition to civil rights legislation.

Brian
 

Much? Most, I would say.

It's always hard to judge what's in someone's mind, but the way I look at it is this: libertarian arguments gave (and continue to give) aid and comfort to the racists, and libertarians never seem to care much; indeed, they continue to work on the same side of the political spectrum, supporting many of the same candidates and most of the same policies.

If libertarians aren't themselves afflicted with the disease of racism, they are the Typhoid Marys of it.
 

Prof. Tamanaha,

It's true that you never explicitly said that social Darwinism is inherent to libertarianism, but I think it's pretty easy to read your argument that way. You say:

[L]ibertarians can protest that heartless social Darwinism is not inherent to libertarianism. We could call a truce and stop trying to smear contemporary versions of these ideas with the ignorance and sins of their forebears.

That would be nice and neighborly, but it’s not quite right.


You then explain that while progressivism has abandoned racism, strictly limited government is "built into" libertarianism. That sounds to me like you're implicitly equating limited government with social darwinism. The only clue suggesting otherwise is the parenthetical noting that Mises was not a social darwinist.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but it definitely reads to me like an attempt to tar modern day libertarians with the social darwinist label.

I also question this: Friedman's ideas are certainly in tune with von Mises' views.

The impression you give of Mises (I've read very little of his work, so I'm relying on your characterization) is that he was wholly opposed to government provision of basic social services. Friedman on the other hand is famous as the inventer of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The New York Times called him "the architect of the most successful social welfare program of all time." In education, Friedman is considered by many to be the father of the school voucher movement -- an attempt to change the method of allocating government education funds.

In any case, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my earlier comment.
 

"The point of my comparison is that racism is not an inherent component of progressivism, but limited government is inherent to libertarianism. Hence, progressivism can drop racism but liberalism cannot drop the notion of the extremely minimalist state."

True, Brian, but your argument that, to paraphrase, "(extreme) libertarians are more saddled with the legacy of racism," loses pretty much all of its force if a minimalist state can be proven superior without resort to social darwinism...which of course is what minarchists contend. (FWIW, I consider myself an ex-minarchist and a presently moderate libertarian.)

Your more modest argument for equivalence is better founded.
 

A short addendum: The minimum wage is an example of a policy that progressives once supported for racist/sexist reasons, i.e. to exclude women and people of color from labor markets (see, e.g., the work of David Bernstein) but now support it in the good faith belief that the minimum wage is good for workers generally.

Opponents of the minimum wage like myself can make a pretty reasonable argument that that factual claim is wrong -- that, in fact, the original progressives were actually choosing an effective means to achieve their ends. But I'm not comfortable with arguments that the case for the minimum wage and modern progressives are "tainted."

I think libertarians are entitled to the same respect.
 

It's always hard to judge what's in someone's mind, but the way I look at it is this: libertarian arguments gave (and continue to give) aid and comfort to the racists, and libertarians never seem to care much; indeed, they continue to work on the same side of the political spectrum, supporting many of the same candidates and most of the same policies.

If libertarians aren't themselves afflicted with the disease of racism, they are the Typhoid Marys of it.

This isn't quite right. They do continue to work on that side of the political spectrum, but many (not all, but many) have made their peace with civil rights laws as well.

But it isn't quite wrong either. I have noticed when having discussions with libertarians how, for lack of a better term, clueless they are about issues of race. They simply don't understand why a free market would permit irrational discrimination, and figure there must be some inherently "statist" reason behind any form of unfair conduct.

And further, they don't seem to understand how people can suffer injuries from discrimination. Yes, of course they get it when it involves fire hoses in the south in the 1960's, but they will argue that blacks could just form their own businesses, or sexual harassment victims could just get over themselves or quit their jobs, or gays can just stay in the closet or make contracts with their loved ones.

The lived experience of discrimination seems to sail directly over their heads. And I suspect that is almost inevitable when you have a predominantly (not exclusively, but predominantly) white male social movement that preaches an "I've got mine" ethos.
 

Matthew,

There are aspects of libertarian thought that I am drawn to, and I admire Hayek (who I have written about). Indeed I consider myself a social libertarian--yes, I get the contradiction--along the lines of L.T. Hobhouse.

My post does not "disrespect" libertarianism simply by pointing out that a minimalist view of government entails tough consequences for real people on the bottom. Both Hayek and von Mises forthrightly acknowledged this as the unfortunate price that must be paid for a bigger economic pie--and they argued that despite times of immediate suffering the poor would be better off in the long run.

The point of my post is to suggest that libertarians are equally vulnerable to attacks on intellectual ancestors. There seems to have been a lot of "leading progressives were racists" talk coming from libertarian circles lately.

That's fun stuff, of course, and I showed that progressives can play it too. Of course it is more important to talk about what these respective views hold today. Hence my closing line about continuing echoes in contemporary libertarian thought.

Brian
 

Prof. Tamanaha:

But classical liberals have their own embarrassing grandparents. Herbert Spencer, the most influential advocate of laissez faire in nineteenth century America, opposed all government aid to the poor and infirm because it thwarted the biological law that the weakest should die.

How does "the most influential advocate of laissez faire" become a progressive or liberal?

Cheers,
 

many (not all, but many) have made their peace with civil rights laws as well.

Some have, to be sure. But I generally find them grudging in their acceptance, utterly unwilling to extend them, and all too ready to accept an excuse to limit them.
 

Arne,

The term "classical liberal" does not mean "liberal" in the contemporary sense of liberal politics. This flip in meaning is a major source of confusion. Classical liberals are the forebears of contemporary libertarianism, which today is seen as a strain of conservative thought (although the classical liberals were NOT conservatives, and they make an odd match with social conservatives). Their main focus is on maximal individual liberty, with minimum interference from government.

Brian
 

American populism as "progressive" was a definition that only had currency in a very narrow period centering around TR's career. Well that is my perception. These terms are slippery as the definitions often evolve as movements define themselves and are defined by their opponents.

TR, so oddly in many ways a Republican, had to banish the socialist roots of some of his policies so he and his supporters called them Progressive.

In coming days you will hear about the certain legislative move to fix the risk of MBS holder putbacks to the originators. Retroactively altering contracts which stipulated how property titles and credit notes based upon 200 years of American law and practice as it evolved. This will be defined as Conservative and it's opponents will be Liberals and Progressives. Times change and so does the meaning of words.
 

Let me see if I have this right. Back in the 50s those in the South who were for civil rights called ourselves "liberals", those against we called "conservatives". Now, because "liberal" has been corrupted to the point of being an epithet, some "liberals" (but not "classical liberals" - those are "libertarians", more or less) have adopted "progressive" as a label. But "progressivism" has an unfortunate history that means those who supported civil rights when it wasn't popular to do so can now be accused of racism by "conservatives" - who once were, at least in the South, unequivocally the "racists". And because "libertarians" can be accused of being "Social Darwinists" due to being for minimalist government, they in effect are also "racists" since the consequences would fall hardest on minorities. From which I conclude that we have finally found common ground for all the major political currents - racism!

Is there any possibility that those who would like to engage in meaningful discourse might be better off just discussing individual issues without trying to fit themselves and others into apparently extremely porous ideological boxes?
 

"Back in the 50s those in the South who were for civil rights called ourselves "liberals","

Try to add the modifier "some of" to your vocabulary. Being for civil rights was hardly an exclusive pastime of people who called themselves "liberals".
 

indeed, they should be embarrassed by the way some react today to the idea of equal rights. Like the Right generally, they just can't seem to get over race.

Uh, it's the left that opposes color-blind policies in the U.S. today, not the right.

It's the left that supports departments in academia whose sole purpose is to fan racial grievances. Identity politics is a creature of the mainstream left. Racial bloc voting is a left phenomenon in the U.S.
The right is long past race. It's the left that can't get over it.


libertarian arguments gave (and continue to give) aid and comfort to the racists,

What racists? There is no constituency for racism in the U.S. anymore.

Some have [made their peace with civil rights laws], to be sure. But I generally find them grudging in their acceptance, utterly unwilling to extend them, and all too ready to accept an excuse to limit them.

When we discuss the original enactment of the civil rights laws, you explain that they were justified because the market never could have solved the problem because of the horrible conditions in the Jim Crow south. And yet, now that conditions are no longer anything like that, instead of conceding that they're no longer needed, you want to "extend" them. Which tends to call into question the sincerity of the original argument.
 

Libertarians would use the power of the state to oppress minorities. For example, by expecting police to arrest minorities for "trespassing" onto property that a racist white owns and holds out for public use - except for minorities. Segregation whether it be de facto or de jure relies on the power of the state in one way or another.
 

Hm, your website doesn't have a trackback, so for the benefit of the readers, there is a very good rebuttal here:

http://reason.com/blog/2010/10/19/battle-of-the-embarrassing-gra
 

Herbert Spencer . . . opposed all government aid to the poor and infirm . . .

Yes, that's true.

. . . because it thwarted the biological law that the weakest should die.

No, that's not right. It's fair to say that Spencer recognized the existence of a natural law that, as a matter of fact (not morality) caused the least fit (not necessarily "weakest") to die off or fail to reproduce, making room for more fit human beings. By "fitness" he meant pretty much what Darwin meant: adaptation to environment, whatever that environment may be. If the environment shields men from the consequences of folly, for example, it ends up filled with fools. If the environment is "militant," then the ruthless and strong survive. But Spencer believed that the modern world was moving away from a militant environment to a more peaceful one, based on productivity and trade.

In the passage you quoted, I read Spencer saying that poor laws retard the evolution of human beings toward fitness for this new environment, thus prolonging the agony of transition. (This is even clearer if you read the preceding and following paragraphs.) Also, in a part you did not quote, he complains that poor laws, because they are administered so indiscriminately, cause people to adapt to living on the dole, rather than to producing:

That careless squandering of pence which has fostered into perfection a system of organized begging--which has made skilful mendicancy more profitable than ordinary manual labour--which induces the simulation of palsy epilepsy, cholera, and no end of diseases and deformities which has called into existence warehouses for the sale and hire of impostor's dresses which has given to pity-inspiring babes a market value of 9d. per day--the unthinking benevolence which has generated all this cannot but be disapproved by every one.

But this does not mean that Spencer objected to selective, voluntary charity:

Now it is only against this injudicious charity that the foregoing argument tells. To that charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves, it makes no objection--countenances it rather. And in helping men to help themselves, there remains abundant scope for the exercise of a people's sympathies. Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick, may with advantage to all parties, be assisted. Even the prodigal, after severe hardship has branded his memory with the unbending conditions of social life to which he must submit, may properly have another trial afforded him. And although by these ameliorations the process of adaptation must be remotely interfered with, yet in the majority of cases it will not be so much retarded in one direction as it will be advanced in another.

This hardly sounds like the "Social Darwinist" Spencer is often portrayed to have been.
 

Sidney Milkis' book on Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. (Milkis speech) addresses the issue of racism and the Progressive Party. The party conventions in the North were integrated, while those in the South were white-only. The Northern reformers had either to accept this or exclude those from the South who were "progressive" --
"New South" proponents of a business- and industry-oriented economy -- the "young men on the make" Wilson referred to. The Northerners put up with it, hoping to change things later. (Jane Addams article) Instead, the race issue was one of the main reasons the party broke up in 1916. More seriously, it was one reason why Blacks did not support the party, which could have made the difference.
 

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