“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
This was Samuel Johnson’s bitter rhetorical question about the American revolution, and the conflict it identifies has never been far from the surface of American political and intellectual life. Compared with the societies of 18th and 19th century Europe, the United States was unusually obsessed with the idea of liberty and unusually economically dependent on slave labor. Sometimes Americans like to tell ourselves that the revolutionary idea of liberty is what finally made abolition possible two generations later, but that sidesteps the paradox that the U.S. was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, and did so only after a decades-long expansion.
The great historical sociologist Orlando Patterson provided an important answer to Johnson’s question in his landmark study Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Across the centuries, from ancient Greece to modern America, “people came to value freedom, to construct it as a powerful shared vision of life, as a result of their experience of, and response to, slavery or its recombinant form, serfdom, in their roles as masters, slaves, and nonslaves.” It is precisely in slave societies, confronted with the reality of slavery, that people most acutely perceive the importance of freedom, most clearly articulate defenses of it, and most passionately demand it. Sometimes it is slaves or ex-slaves who do so. But often it is masters. Understanding all too well how they rule over other human beings, they identify being ruled like that as the great social evil, and they fiercely refuse to be subjected to it. Slaveowners and their neighbors can see what unfreedom is like, and they resist it for themselves. This is only partly because they come to identify their freedom as their freedom to own and rule slaves, and are desperate to protect their status as masters. In a more general way, they become very sensitive to anyone proposing to treat them as they treat slaves.
The Freedom of the Masters and the Rhetoric of Liberty
These intellectual and cultural paradoxes in antebellum America survived abolition, and in mutated form survive to this day. The language of freedom in American political discourse has very often been appropriated for the defense of white supremacy. We have often heard the loudest yelps for liberty among those trying to protect the terror and apartheid states of the Jim Crow south, the quasi-serfdom of sharecropping, segregated schools, miscegenation laws, and the suppression of black votes. Particular types of freedom or particular strategies for limiting governmental power—freedom of association, religious liberty, federalism, bicameralism, and so on—all came to be identified at one point or another primarily as ways to prevent the federal government from breaking the power of white rule, just as before the war the protection of private property rights had so often been identified primarily with the protection of slaveowners’ supposed property in other human beings.
None of this means that liberty is not a worthwhile, and true, ideal.
Like Adam Smith, I believe that we often engage in real moral learning by negative example. We learn the value of mercy and kindness through witnessing or understanding cruelty. We learn about justice by being exposed to gross injustice. Patterson’s theory of how we learn about liberty doesn’t mean that we don’t thereby genuinely learn something important. But this history does mean that the public language of liberty in American politics is often not to be trusted. Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing African-Americans don’t count —as if black liberty does not matter.
Treating Black Liberty Like it Doesn’t Matter Distorts the Picture of American Freedom
This exclusion of African-Americans from the calculus of American freedom extends far beyond the questions that most obviously connect to the legacy of Jim Crow, such as voting rights, and far beyond the borders of the old Confederacy.
The way we think about American freedom over time, or in comparison to the rest of the world, ought to be deeply structured by the rise of mass incarceration in the last three decades. It’s not—not in triumphalist narratives about revitalized market liberalism since the late 1970s or since 1989, not in comparative rankings and indices of freedom around the world, and certainly not in the unshakeable American public language that the United States is the freest nation on earth. At the level of gross political generalization, it’s common to encounter the idea that European and Canadian social democracies have chosen to make equality a priority, whereas the U.S. is committed to liberty. The distinctive policing and carceral practices of the American state, the ways that the U.S. is extraordinarily unfree, are nowhere to be seen in the comparison.
That is not to say that people who talk about freedom in American politics have nothing to say about the crises of mass incarceration and of violent, invasive, and militarized policing. American libertarians have always rejected the drug war that contributed so much to these crises. And libertarians have been happy enough to note the disproportionate impact of the drug war on African-Americans and Hispanics. But we have too often treated this as a rhetorical bonus on top of a pre-existing objection to the drug war.
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.
Nancy MacLean Missed the Story on Libertarianism’s Race Problem
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.
The Language of Liberty and the Rise of the Alt-Right
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.
Re-imagining Libertarian Politics as if Black Liberty Matters
Now, libertarian, individualist, and market-liberal ideas, concepts, slogans, and advocates aren’t alone in having a history that is entangled with white supremacy. Hardly any set of social ideas in American intellectual history lacks such an entanglement. This is as true of the technocratic progressivism associated with the racist Woodrow Wilson as it is of the populist democracy associated with the racist Andrew Jackson. If federalism is tainted by Jim Crow, so is centralization by the Fugitive Slave Act and the white welfare state of the 1930s onward, among other things. (We can, of course, say something similar about the state and federal governments’ histories of crimes against Indians.) A particularly silly move made by some of MacLean’s defenders recently has been the insistence that constitutional restraints on racist majorities don’t count as counter-majoritarian or limits on democracy, as if “democracy” could only refer to some ideal state of affairs innocent of a history of herrenvolk democracy. The early American republic, and especially the Jacksonian republic, was at once much more democratic than any European state of the same era and much more racist, and these were not unrelated. A hierarchical society with countless small social gradations can treat racial subordination as continuous with many other kinds of subordination. A levelled hierarchy among whites sharpens the distinction at the edges of that category; a social hill is replaced by a social plateau that ends in cliffs. The expanding rights and proud equal dignity of lower-class whites came to consist precisely in their equal claim to whiteness; this became a foundational fact of American democratic equality. There’s no good reason to sever “democracy” or “progressivism” from their complicated genealogies while tying “federalism” or “freedom of association” to theirs.
As a scholar, I’m interested in all these histories. As an advocate, I have to be especially interested in the history of classical and market liberalism. I don’t want the convincing intellectual victory over Democracy in Chains to fool us into thinking that there’s no problem. I don’t want the forceful, true, statement that libertarian principles are incompatible with white supremacy to fool us into overlooking a morally compromised history and sociological and psychological patterns about how those principles turn into general political discourse.
Reimagining libertarian politics in light of the truth that black liberty matters will take a lot of intellectual and moral work. And this task, reorienting a set of ideas and ideals in light of a morally compromised history, of understanding what lessons need to be learned from it, of separating the arguments for liberty from the yelps, is insiders’ work. No one else is going to do it for us.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom and scholarly articles including, most recently,”Contra Politanism”; a blogger at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow and Advisory Board Member.