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I oppose civil rights acts because I support civil rights movements

Appearing this month in The Freeman (60.7, September 2010):

Opposing the Civil Rights Act Means Opposing Civil Rights? It Just Ain’t So!

Charles Johnson, September 2010 / Volume: 60 / Issue: 7

Just after winning his Republican primary in May, Rand Paul got himself into a political pickle over his views on property rights and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Having reluctantly discussed concerns about antidiscrimination laws with the Louisville Courier-Journal and NPR, Paul made his now-notorious appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show, where Maddow grilled him for 15 minutes on whether he opposed government intervention to stop racial discrimination. After saying he favored overturning government-mandated discrimination, Paul finally admitted that he opposes Title II, which forbids private owners from discriminating in their own businesses.

As he told the Courier-Journal: I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism; I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant; but at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. . . .

Maddow responded: I think wanting to allow private businesses to discriminate on the basis of race, because of property rights, is an extreme view. Within a day Progressives were touting the interview as proof of a deep conflict between libertarian defenses of private property and struggles for racial equality. Meanwhile, compromising libertarians like Brink Lindsey reacted by discovering exceptions to libertarian principles—to make room, again, for federal antidiscrimination laws. The entire debate has played out as an argument over libertarianism and extremism, with Progressives and many nominal libertarians both condemning Rand Paul’s simplistic extremism about private property and libertarian rights.

I have little interest in defending Paul but it’s strange to treat him like some case study in the dangers of libertarian extremism. Rand Paul is a conservative, not a libertarian—let alone an extreme one. He’s said as much, in so many words, in repeated interviews. Now, you could simply say, He may be no libertarian, but never mind Rand Paul—what about the issue? Libertarianism opposes government control of private business decisions; taken to extremes, doesn’t that include laws against racist business practices—the civil rights movement’s crowning achievement?

Well, I do have something to say on behalf of extremism. Not on behalf of sacrificing the civil rights movement’s achievements to extreme stands on antistatist principle. Rather, extreme stands on antistatist principle show what the civil rights movement did right, and what it really achieved, without the aid of federal laws.

. . .

[I]f libertarianism has anything to teach about politics, it’s that politics goes beyond politicians; social problems demand social solutions. Discriminatory businesses should be free from legal retaliation—not insulated from the social and economic consequences of their bigotry. What consequences? Whatever consequences you want, so long as they’re peaceful—agitation, confrontation, boycotts, strikes, nonviolent protests.

So when Maddow asks, Should Woolworth’s lunch counters have been allowed to stay segregated? neither she nor Paul seemed to realize that her attempted coup de grace—invoking the sit-in movement’s student martyrs, facing down beatings to desegregate lunch counters—actually offers a perfect libertarian response to her own question.

Because, actually, Woolworth’s lunch counters weren’t desegregated by Title II. The sit-in movement did that. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott onward, the Freedom Movement had won victories, town by town, building movements, holding racist institutions socially and economically accountable. The sit-ins proved the real-world power of the strategy: In Greensboro, N.C., nonviolent sit-in protests drove Woolworth’s to abandon its whites-only policy by July 1960. The Nashville Student Movement, through three months of sit-ins and boycotts, convinced merchants to open all downtown lunch counters in May the same year. Creative protests and grassroots pressure campaigns across the South changed local cultures and dismantled private segregation without legal backing.

Should lunch counters have been allowed to stay segregated? No—but the question is how to disallow it. Bigoted businesses shouldn’t face threats of legal force for their racism. They should face a force much fiercer and more meaningful—the full force of voluntary social organization and a culture of equality. What’s to stop resegregation in a libertarian society? We are. Using the same social power that was dismantling Jim Crow years before legal desegregation.

I oppose civil rights acts because I support civil rights movements—because the forms of social protest they pioneered proved far more courageous, positive, and effective than the litigious quagmires and pale bureaucratic substitutes governments offer.

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (September 2010): Opposing the Civil Rights Act Means Opposing Civil Rights? It Just Ain’t So!

You can read the whole thing at The Freeman Online, or in the forthcoming print issue.

Many thanks as always to Sheldon Richman and FEE.

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How to be social while staying civilized

The latest issue of The Freeman (January/February 2009) — is now available online at their new and glossy revamped website. I mention this partly for its own sake, but partly also because, one of the things that you will find in that new issue, at the new website, is this:

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!

By Charles Johnson @@e2;20ac;a2; January 2009

Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days. That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can't agree on what's worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it's not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it's worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider The Social Animal by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry Goldwater's argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. . . . Conservatism's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Brooks says that Goldwater's ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals—the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. Brooks protests that a tide of research in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater's old-fashioned individualist notions aren't supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

. . .

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater's legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he's right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to fully modernize, I don't care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater's reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks's case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors….

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman (Jan/Feb 2009): Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!

Read the whole thing.

The title of this post, for what it’s worth, was the original title of the column, and will make some more sense once you’ve read the article (the current title is based on the fact that it appeared in the regular It Just Ain’t So! department).

As always, I’d like to thank Sheldon Richman for the (very flattering) invitation, and for his very helpful editorial work. I’m especially happy to get the chance to put a distinctly Tuckerite understanding of individualism, complete with a cheer for wildcat unionism, and a reference to William Gillis’s freed markets, into an official publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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