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In a freed market, with no government anti-discrimination laws, what will stop bigoted business owners from resegregating America?

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 14 years ago, in 2010, on the World Wide Web.

A. We will.

Context-Keeping and Community Organizing. Cato Unbound (2010-06-18):

David Bernstein makes the strongest libertarian case I can imagine for Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His key point—which I fully embrace—is that the Southern states operated the equivalent of a "white supremacist cartel" in public accommodations….

But as Sheldon ultimately argues, there’s more than one way to break a cartel, and starting out with the notion that the *only* options are one kind of federal law or another kind of federal law, is simply to beg the question. We can't dismiss [direct action by nonviolent social movements] as impractical because it had been working several years before Title II was enacted. … Title II, in other words, was unnecessary. But worse, it was detrimental…. [W]hat is given like a gift can be more easily taken away, while what one secures for oneself by facing down power is less easily lost. … The libertarian answer to bigotry is community organizing.

9 replies to In a freed market, with no government anti-discrimination laws, what will stop bigoted business owners from resegregating America? Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. scineram

    Isn’t the reason the law exists that they failed?

    • Rad Geek

      No, not as far as I can see. What do you think they (the sit-in movement? somebody else?) failed at?

      Not at desegregating lunch counters — they were doing that, quite successfully, for years before the law, and could and would have continued to do so without the law being passed.

  2. Francois Tremblay

    “As Bernstein points out, the social-legal environment in the pre-1964 South, when Jim Crow reigned, was hardly what any libertarian would envision as a laissez-faire environment.”

    He’s using the term “libertarian” incorrectly (since as we know, the American “Libertarians” are just classical liberals with a new sticker), but apart from that, what socio-legal environment is ever “laissez-faire”?

    • Rad Geek

      Francois Tremblay:

      He’s using the term “libertarian” incorrectly …

      Oh, God, thank you for catching that one. Just imagine the kind of confusion that would ensue if we weren’t clear that Bernstein or Richman is using the term libertarian in a way different from the way in which it was used in 1913.

      Incidentally, Sheldon is certainly not just a classical liberal with a new sticker, if classical liberal is supposed to mean anything more substantive than propertarian individualist that believes some things I don’t like. But even if he were, how is slapping that particular tag on him supposed to clarify or decide anything at all about the argument?

      what socio-legal environment is ever “laissez-faire”?

      I dunno; probably depends on what you mean by socio-legal environment and laissez-faire. I imagine that what Sheldon means is the institutionalized structure of the use of force in the society — legal referring to force that occurs according to generalized rules and formalized procedures (which may or may not issue from governments), and social referring to the prevalence of predictable but not formalized or officially-approved forms of vigilante violence — like the Klan and white supremacist lynch law. And I expect that he means by laissez-faire what radical libertarians usually mean by it: a condition free of systematic aggression against individual liberties to person and honestly-acquired property. So a laissez-faire socio-legal environment would be one without invasive government laws (since Sheldon is an Anarchist, that means without any government laws at all), and one without systematic practices of aggressive vigilante violence either. (In contrast to the conditions in the Jim Crow South, it would mean a social and economic order that emerged with no federal government, no state government, no local government, no National Guard, no legally-privileged police, no Klan, no WCC, no white-supremacist race riots, no white-supremacist lynch law, etc.)

      Do you mean something different from socio-legal environment? Or something different by laissez-faire? If so, what? And how do you see them as being mutually exclusive?

  3. Brainpolice

    Most fundamentally, I think the only honest answer to this question is “a healthy culture”. Translation: a culture that is dominantly anti-racist. The argument from economic incentives certainly helps, but it rendered virtually meaningless in the absence of an anti-racist culture – since human beings are not driven strictly by economic incentives, but also ideology in general and a myriad of psychological factors.

    • Rad Geek


      I certainly agree with you that an anti-racist culture is important, but of course “the culture” is, in the end, just us, and I think that it’s often quite as important to back up and ask how you get that kind of culture, or keep it, as it is to point out what it will do, once present. (Certainly, in the South in 1960, the sit-in movement didn’t have a dominantly anti-racist culture to work with. Some would say — and I would agree that we haven’t got much of one now, either, although it is not as bad as it once was, and meanwhile the politically-acceptable forms of white supremacy have changed.)

      Anyway, what I think is important about the sit-in movement (to take the readymade example) is how their use of nonviolent confrontation and creative extremism — carried out by a minority of a minority in the community — succeeded in polarizing, challenging, and thereby changing the local culture — but while there was cultural change, it happened a lot more slowly than the institutional change (Woolworth’s agreed to desegregate, in response to protests from black students, but not because a lot of white people in Greensboro suddenly decided they wanted segregation to end. White people in Greensboro did begin changing their minds, slowly and piecemeal, but what happened more immediately was just that Woolworth’s realized that their stupid racist policy was no longer socially or economically sustainable. Not because of some kind of passive adjustment to supply and demand curves, but because a small but dedicated group of black students wouldn’t stand for it anymore, and took it upon themselves to push the marginal costs of a racist lunch-counter, through deliberate acts of nonviolent confrontation and disruption.

  4. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-06-20 – Ridiculous Strawman Watch (Part 4 of ???):

    […] GT 2010-06-18: In a freed market, with no government anti-discrimination laws, what will stop bigote… […]

  5. Contemplationist


    This is a genuine question. By what theory of libertarianism is free-market racism (i.e. associating with what one believes to be one’s “kind”) immoral? I believe, like you that community organizing and whatnot will result in 90% or more ‘public accommodations’ as desegregated. But, like the FLDS compound in Waco, or other whackos, or say, the Amish, what is particularly morally abhorrent if people choose to associate with one’s own supposed-race if they do not use the coercive tools of the state (fed, state or local) ?

    • Rad Geek


      Well, my reasons for being opposed to (nonviolently expressed) racism aren’t primarily reasons that derive directly from libertarianism. I think that they are related to libertarianism in various ways, but my primary reason for opposing racism isn’t that I think it’s unlibertarian. It’s that I think it’s stupid, and, typically, mean-spirited as well.

      If the question is just about associating mainly with your own kind, I don’t think there’s necessarily something wrong with that — but only because you haven’t actually specified anything interesting or important about the situation yet. The interesting question is how and why you identify people as being of your kind, and how you treat people that you aren’t identifying with. E.g., I suppose that if I wanted to I could classify myself as a Caucasoid, or as an American, or as an Anglo-Celt, or any number of other categories favored in various forms of racist mythology. But why think about these unchosen, accidental or politically imposed categories, which are largely meaningless to my everyday life, identify who counts as my kind — rather than, say, kinds like Analytic philosophers, Spanish speakers, computer geeks, web developers, writers, bloggers, Anarchists, activists, atheists, vegetarians, et cetera? Or, say, just members of my immediate family? I’d certainly rather hang out with a bunch of Trekkies or fellow Tolkien dweebs or my actual kinfolk than I would with some random group of white dudes picked off the street. And while I can offer some pretty straightforward explanations as to why I’d want to associate with people who share tastes or jobs or political convictions or favorite activities with me, rather than people who I have less in common with. But if you want reasons why someone would want to hang out with other white people, just as such, because of a shared race, it becomes a lot harder to explain what the reasons are for wanting that except for an an active dislike of anyone who’s not white; and it becomes hard to explain the active dislike except by starting to appeal to a distinctive set of white supremacist beliefs which are actually just false, and also unfair and insulting to their chosen targets. Generally, I don’t think that people should believe things that are false, or to promote or express beliefs that are unfair and insulting; so insofar as a white separatist pool party, or whatever it is that the folks in question may have in mind, is an expression of insulting or stupid beliefs, in a way that’s actively mean to the people chosen for exclusion, I think that people shouldn’t do it.

      For reference, although I disagree on many substantive points of doctrine with Amish religion, I don’t think that the Amish’s decision to live in separatist communities is itself immoral, or even particularly problematic. (Just to take an example.) Religion is complicated, but it can at least in principle be one of those things that falls more into the interests in common category than into the idiotic collectivist pseudo-identity in common category. My problem with white separatists and white supremacists isn’t that they want to associate with one group of people more than others; it’s that they are drawing the lines in a way which is stupid and either cruel, or just pathetic, depending on the folks in question and the kind of social impact that they have.

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