Kay Hymowitz on Libertarianism and Civil Rights:

Happy New Year to all our Jewish readers. Through the magic of technology, I'm posting tonight via Powerblogs' "publish later" function a post I wrote earlier. But in observance of the holiday, I won't be responding to comments.

Kay Hymowitz has an essay in the Wall Street Journal on libertarianism, which at times is fair-minded (especially when she praises "the law professors who write The Volokh Conspiracy"!), and at times, not so much.

Here's an example of the not-so-much: "To the extent that libertarians are remembered at all for their role in the civil-rights era, it is not for marching on Selma but rather for their enthusiastic support of states' rights and the freedom of white racists to associate with one another."

Libertarians, it's true, deserve criticism for not being more involved in opposing Jim Crow. There was a fair amount of moral blindness there, not uncommon to whites of the era.

But Hymowitz's point is nevertheless exaggerated, at best. Certainly, libertarians did, and still do, support the right of freedom of association, but it's rather uncharitable to call this the "freedom of white racists to associate with one another." The principle of freedom of association existed and exists independently of the particular issues surrounding the civil rights movement. Unlike, say, conservatives, (to whom Hymowitz implicitly and unfavorably compares libertarians), libertarians did not abandon their belief in freedom of association once the Title VII passed and discrimination against blacks was off the table politically. One can argue, therefore, perhaps somewhat unfairly, that conservatives were less interested in freedom of association, and more interested in stifling the civil rights movement. One can't make that argument about libertarians, who continue to support the rights of everyone from the Nation of Islam to Utah polygamists to the Boy Scouts to religious "cults" to S&M fetishists to associate to their hearts content. In short, (some) conservatives, it seems, supported the "freedom of white racists to associate with one another." Libertarians supported freedom of association.

Similarly, since when were libertarians known for their support of "states' rights?" By far the two most prominent libertarian essays on civil rights in the early 1960s were Ayn Rand's "Racism" and Milton Friedman's chapter on discrimination in Capitalism and Freedom. Neither expresses any support for "states' rights."

In fact, Rand wrote that "[t]he Southern racists' claim of 'states' rights' is a contradiction in terms: there can be no such thing as the 'right' of some men to violate the rights of others." Friedman, not surprisingly, thought that school choice was the best solution to the problem of segregation in schools, both southern and northern. But he also clearly states that given the choice of "enforced segregation or enforced integration, I myself would find it impossible not to choose integration." Enforced integration, of course, was the anti-states' rights position of the time.

By contrast, reading the leading conservative organ of the time, the National Review, discussing Jim Crow in the South is enough to make one sick to one's stomach. Here's a quote from a 1957 editorial:

The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

And here's a quote from an essay by Richard Weaver, a longtime NR favorite, also in 1957: "'Integration' and 'Communization' are, after all, pretty closely synonymous. In light of what is happening today, the first may be little more than a euphemism for the second. It does not take many steps to get from the 'integrating' of facilities to the 'communizing' of facilities, if the impulse is there." And here's James Kilpatrick in NR, also in 1957: "the State of Arkansas and Orval Faubus are wholly in the right; they have acted lawfully; they are entitled to those great presumptions of the law which underlie the whole of our judicial tradition."

Admittedly, NR's writers were not uniform in their views, and they mellowed overall during the early 1960s, but it was still not exceptional at this time to find frankly racist views expressed by certain leading conservative thinkers of the era; I haven't looked at it for a long time, but I remember being pretty shocked when I read James Burnham's Suicide of the West as a college student, based on NR's consistent recommendation.

In any event, the point it not to condemn conservatism, or conservatives, for their past misdeeds. Rather, Hymowitz's article is in large part a critique of libertarianism for being insufficiently attuned to the importance of conservative values. She makes some reasonable points, but her implication that libertarians can learn from conservatives because libertarians were insensitive to racial injustice, well, that's a little much.