As you probably know, Rachel Maddow recently grilled Rand Paul on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights act, and whether a strict enforcement of property rights would lead to a segregated society. You can read a transcript, along with a defense of Paul here. Of course an anarchist cannot agree that only federal legislation can stop racism, but I want to critique the defenses of Rand that have been offered by some libertarians as well. First of all, Paul’s responses were not at all straightforward, but incredibly evasive. Other defenses have taken the following form: “Segregation and discrimination were the fault of Jim Crow laws, which come from government, and not private business, which have a natural economic incentive not to discriminate.” There is some truth to this, but it is limited and fails to see the whole picture. Of course Jim Crow laws made things much worse, but laws do not come from nowhere. Laws which have no broad popular support do not last long, and often cannot be passed at all. And while the profit motive does indeed offer an incentive against discrimination, since black or gay money spends as well as any other kind, we know also that human beings are more than homo economicus, or what Dierdre McCloskey has named “Max U”, a kind of rationally self-interested calculating machine. In other words, culturally-inculcated prejudice is often more than enough to overcome economic self-interest. Anxious to exonerate markets and property, libertarians who make these arguments are also letting the racist culture of the South off the hook. (This is not to say that the North was not also racist in its own way.)
I’ve been reading Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy. I just finished Marx, Hayek and Utopia, and am now a good ways into Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. While I’m not fully convinced by Sciabarra’s arguments, I am finding that taking a dialectical view can often be illuminating, and Rand Paul’s gaffe is a case in point. Sciabarra sees “internal relations” as fundamental to dialectics. In social systems, all parts are related to each other in essential ways. Remove any part, and you effect the whole. In contrast, “external relations” view at least things as being independent of each other. The libertarian defenses I mentioned before view culture and government as being externally related, so that all things bad can be ascribed to government. Here’s the crux of these kind of debates: liberals and libertarians fundamentally agree on this externalist view of the state, only with opposite value-judgments about government intervention. Here’s an excerpt from the Maddow interview:
MADDOW: But it could be brought up at any moment. I mean, if there – – let’s say there’s a town right now and the owner of the town’s swimming club says we’re not going to allow black kids at our pool, and the owner of the bowling alley in town says, we’re not actually going to allow black patrons, and the owner of the skating rink in town says, we’re not going to allow black people to skate here.
And you may think that’s abhorrent and you may think that’s bad business. But unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —
Right? Let’s just repeat what Maddow is saying, and Paul is agreeing to: without federal legislation, there is “nothing.” Nothing. So, no boycotts, no marches, no protests? Since the legislators who passed the bill were not black, we can assume that blacks were really helpless. Either white oppressors or white saviors. Now you can see why blacks on the radical left in the 1960’s like Malcom X and the Black Panthers had nothing but contempt for white liberals.
The reality is that the impact of the Civil Rights act was positive, though not quite positive enough to counteract the evil done by Jim Crow. But it was itself the result of a social movement involving heroic actions taken by individuals acting in solidarity to raise consciousness and fight oppression. And the enforcement of Jim Crow was legal oppression, but it too was the result of social forces, enabled by the fact that a majority of southern whites viewed segregation as desirable.
Government is evil, but it is not the root of all evil, merely the apotheosis of evil, the codification of evil. And there is plenty in a worldview that rejects government to fight bigotry, as virtually the whole history of the civil rights movement demonstrates: boycotts, strikes, peaceful demonstration, acts of solidarity in the face of intimidation, and yes, even market forces.
The view that social change springs fully formed out of the head of government legislation, with lawmakers observing and adjusting from some Archimedean point outside society, is ahistorical, undialectical, and condescending to the groups it proposes to help. Furthermore, once this view gains hold, it has an insidiously self-fulfilling effect. Groups who before were able to spontaneously organize to fight for freedom and equality, and become ennobled by the struggle, (“I am somebody” as a young Jesse Jackson once told a crowd in Watts) are now encouraged to seek help only from government, settling into a mediated client-patron relationship which is something like an extremely attenuated form of a master-slave relationship (and dialectics enters the picture once more).
Too many libertarians seem to think that because we view the state as on balance evil, we can never admit that it does any good, as if that would be to admit it is the only way of doing good. That is of course statist nonsense on stilts.