Libertarianism, Individualism, and Racism

There’s been some talk this week about a few people who once called themselves libertarians and have now turned up in alt-right circles, at the Charlottesville march or elsewhere. As I told the Daily Beast, “People change ideologies all the time. Some libertarians become conservatives, some become welfarist liberals, a few drift into creepy extremes.” And of course it’s not just libertarians. Hillary Clinton says she was a Goldwater Girl, a lot of ex-communists became the original neoconservatives, and Nobel laureates in economics have tended to move toward classical liberalism (libertarianism). But since the topic has come up, let me just agree with Nick Gillespie that “The alt-right—and Trumpism, too, to the extent that it has any coherence—is an explicit rejection of foundational libertarian beliefs in ‘free trade and free migration’ along with experiments in living that make a mess of rigid categories that appeal to racists, sexists, protectionists, and other reactionaries.” And add my own commentary, excerpted from my 2015 book The Libertarian Mind:

The dignity of the individual under libertarianism is a dignity that enhances social well-being. Libertarianism is good not just for individuals but for societies. The positive basis of libertarian social analysis is methodological individualism, the recognition that only individuals act. The ethical or normative basis of libertarianism is respect for the dignity and worth of every (other) individual. This is expressed in the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s dictum that each person is to be treated not merely as a means but as an end in himself.

Of course, as late as Jefferson’s time and beyond, the concept of the individual with full rights did not include all people. Astute observers noted that problem at the time and began to apply the ringing phrases of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and the Declaration of Independence more fully. The equality and individualism that underlay the emergence of capitalism and republican government naturally led people to start thinking about the rights of women and of slaves, especially African American slaves in the United States. It’s no accident that feminism and abolitionism emerged out of the ferment of the Industrial Revolution and the American and French revolutions. Just as a better understanding of natural rights was developed during the American struggle against specific injustices suffered by the colonies, the feminist and abolitionist Angelina Grimké noted in an 1837 letter to Catherine E. Beecher, “I have found the Anti-Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land—the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other.”

The abolitionist movement grew logically out of the Lockean libertarianism of the American Revolution. How could Americans proclaim that “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” without noticing that they themselves were holding other men and women in bondage? They could not, of course, and had they tried, they would have been reminded by people such as the great English scholar Samuel Johnson, who wrote in 1775, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” The world’s first antislavery society was founded in Philadelphia that same year. Jefferson himself owned slaves, yet he included a passionate condemnation of slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence: “[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him.” The Continental Congress deleted that passage, but Americans lived uneasily with the obvious contradiction between their commitment to individual rights and the institution of slavery.

Although they were intimately connected in American history, slavery and racism are not inherently bound together. In the ancient world the act of enslaving another person did not imply his moral or intellectual inferiority; it was just accepted that conquerors could enslave their captives. Greek slaves were often teachers in Roman households, their intellectual eminence acknowledged and exploited.

In any case, racism in one form or another is an age-old problem, but it clearly clashes with the universal ethics of libertarianism and the equal natural rights of all men and women. As Ayn Rand pointed out in her 1963 essay “Racism,”

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage … which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

In her works Rand emphasized the importance of individual productive achievement to a sense of efficacy and happiness. She argued, “Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned. It is a quest for automatic knowledge—for an automatic evaluation of men’s characters that bypasses the responsibility of exercising rational or moral judgment—and, above all, a quest for an automatic self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem).” That is, some people want to feel good about themselves because they have the same skin color as Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison, rather than because of their individual achievements; and some want to dismiss the achievements of people who are smarter, more productive, more accomplished than themselves, just by uttering a racist epithet.

And as I wrote when a group of newsletters seemed to connect racist ideas to the libertarian movement:

Libertarians should make it clear that the people who wrote those things are not our comrades, not part of our movement, not part of the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. Shame on them.

More on libertarianism, individualism and race – and feminism and gay rights – in The Libertarian Mind.