Why aren’t there more black libertarians? Libertarian opposition to big government

The article by Jonathan Blanks Orin links to below makes some good points, but I think the author misses the essential problem.  Since the 1930s, well before an organized libertarian movement existed, African Americans–whose politics once tended toward the individualistic–have thrown their lot in with, and tied their political and economic aspirations to, the growth of government, especially the federal government, and the government’s willingness to treat African Americans as one of many interest groups deserving of government assistance  Not all African Americans bought into this, of course (Zora Neale Hurston was an early critic), but it’s sufficiently mainstream that many African Americans believe that any attack on “Big Government” is, implicitly, an attack on them and their collective aspirations.  That is not an easy barrier for libertarians to overcome, no matter how sincerely we believe that everyone, including and perhaps especially African Americans, would be better off with a more limited government, and no matter how sensitive we might be to the way libertarian rhetoric is sometimes tone deaf to the history of racism in the U.S. In short, the problem is more the substance of libertarian beliefs than the style of how they are presented.

I can recommend two books that deal with this subject, Ken Kersch’s Constructing Civil Liberties, and Paul Moreno’s Black Americans and Organized Labor.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from my review of Kersch’s book:

The whiggish narrative also asserts that a defining characteristic of American progressivism has been solicitude for the rights of oppressed minorities, especially African Americans. In fact, however, before the New Deal era most progressives were at best indifferent to African Americans’ plight. Indeed, some were openly hostile to African Americans, and launched such progressive schemes as the wave of residential segregation laws that swept through the United States in the 1910s. These laws were invalidated by a unanimous decision of the “conservative” Supreme Court in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917, to a chorus of criticism by progressive legal scholars.Organized labor, not civil rights, was the favored cause of progressives in the early twentieth century, and labor unions, especially AFL and railroad unions, were themselves hostile to African Americans. African Americans, in turn, for the most part fiercely opposed labor unionism. In alliance with the businesses that often provided them with work over white workers’ objections, African Americans supported such “reactionary” policies as labor injunctions, strikebreaking, and the legality of yellow dog contracts. Kens argues that progressives only embraced the cause of civil rights when African Americans dropped their prior attachment to pre-New Deal individualistic conceptions of rights, and, modeling themselves on the successful model of organized labor, organized themselves as a constitutional class entitled to group rights in a statist legal and economic superstructure.

And here’s a relevant excerpt from my review of Moreno’s book:

As would be expected, black Americans disagreed among themselves regarding the best strategy to employ in their own self-interest, but a coherent historical narrative emerges from Moreno’s work. In the post-Reconstruction, pre–New Deal era, blacks, faced with harsh union discrimination and an indifferent (at best) government, typically sided with employers in the era’s great labor-management disputes. Most black intellectuals favored a competitive labor market in which black workers could compete without fear of being shut out by cartels formed by white workers. Black leaders, for example, consistently opposed laws that would prohibit courts from enjoining strikes. Blacks, however, were not always hostile to organized labor. On the rare occasions when unions treated blacks fairly, blacks joined in impressive numbers. Left-leaning black leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, consistently tried to find common ground with unions.In the New Deal and immediate post–New Deal eras, the strategic calculus for black workers changed. The emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) created hope for a racially egalitarian labor movement, and the dominant statism of New Deal labor and economic policy made prior appeals to individualism politically and ideologically anachronistic. The black elite and, to a lesser extent, black workers embraced labor unionism, in part because they were swept up in the ideological currents of the times and in part because the emerging coalition between government and labor unions seemed too strong to resist. As Ken Kersch (Constructing Civil Liberties: Discontinuities in the Development of American Constitutional Law has noted, black political activists began to model their civil rights activism on the corporatist, group-rights-oriented model the labor unions had pioneered.

In later years, once it became clear that labor unionism was in terminal decline in the private sector and that the labor movement was not going to solve blacks’ broader social and economic problems or even deal with those problems meaningfully, blacks returned to a pro-employer (though not antiunion) stance. By this time, they had almost completely abandoned the individualist, antistatist outlook of their forebears and instead flexed their newfound political muscle by allying politically with the most powerful employer in the United States—the federal government. Since the 1960s, not only has the federal government provided a disproportionate amount of direct employment to blacks, but it has also enforced antidiscrimination laws against private employers and pressured government contractors to implement affirmative action programs. In return, blacks are among the strongest supporters of an expansive federal government.

In short, blacks have consistently modified their labor-market strategy to take into account the prevailing socioeconomic trends. In the era of individualism and “robber baron” capitalism, they supported individualist economic policies and allied with employers. In the era of pro-union statism, they embraced collective bargaining. With the decline of organized labor in the private sector and the rise of the special-interest state, they embraced the big-government policies that they perceived as serving their interests.

What will the future hold? I have no idea, but it’s worth noting that American Jews were once as favorably inclined toward big-government policies as African Americans are today, but now are far more heterodox.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA. His latest book, Lawless: The Obama Administration's Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law, will be published in November.

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Eugene Volokh · May 29, 2014