Monday, January 14, 2008

How to Weed a Garden - a Response to stpeter

Via a comment on an earlier post, I came across this interesting blog post by Peter Saint-Andre, who also occasionally comments on Samizdata. Peter writes:

That said, I sense that there has long been a seamy underside to some modern advocates of the Constitution and private property rights. In particular, they are attracted to something like libertarianism because it would allow them to discriminate against people of color ("it's my property, I can decide whether to hire black people at my company" or whatever). Even Ayn Rand, who supposedly held that reason is much more fundamental than liberty, made such arguments in the run-up to the civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in the mid-1960s, and wrote her lone essay on the irrationalism inherent in racism only upon being urged to do so by her acolyte Nathaniel Branden (or so the story goes).

This undercurrent is disturbing and must be squarely faced.

This is a topic I've been meaning to address for some time, and the recent Kirchick article "exposing" Ron Paul's (allegedly) racist past seems as good an excuse as any.

Libertarian websites and publications do seem to attract their fair share of racists. But why? What is it about us that racists find attractive? Because from where I stand, and as I have said before, libertarianism is the only wholly non-racist political philosophy available. We are the only political movement that wants to write group identity completely out of the public sphere - hardly a position racists can be drawn to!

So why do they sometimes seem to be drawn to us?

I guess Peter's explanation is partly correct. Some of our specific policy positions just happen to resemble those of racists, albeit with completely different goals and motivations. In particular, we have a common enemy in anti-discrimination laws - libertarians because we believe in the primacy of property rights, but racists because ... well, because they need the hurdle out of their way. The same will be true of hate speech laws. Libetarians oppose them because we're the only party that unambiguously defends free speech; racists oppose them for the obvious reason that it's their speech in particular that's being censored. And the same, actually, goes for foreign aid to Israel and Africa. Libertarians do not believe in coerced charity (oxymoron, actually); people who hate blacks and Jews are just happy not to be forced to give money to them.

But anyone looking for a deeper philosophical connection between racism and libertarianism will be disappointed: these surface policy similarities are entirely a coincidence of the fact that racists happen to be out of vogue at the moment. Flash back to Nazi Germany, for example, and libertarians (classical liberals) found themselves attractive to casual communists for similar reasons. Radical collectivists crash our party as it suits them. We definitely didn't invite them.

But as I said, I think this is only part of the story. The rest of it has to do with the kind of racists that libertarians attract. I don't think most of the "racist" lurkers on libertarian sites are actually committed racists. The true Nazis (like the true Communists before them) stay well clear of us. The racists we attract are just misguided, usually temporarily, and are rarely actual fascists. They are attracted to Libertarianism because it offers them a refuge from the pressures of trying to fit in with the mainstream guys.

There is, it must be said, something distinctly Maoist about the way race is discussed in modern society. There are certain approved opinions, not all of which are wholly rational, which simply may not be deviated from. Public statements which seem likely to offend the exceedingly delicate (or, more likely, insincere) sensibilities of minoirty leaders - no matter how irrational the basis for that offense may be - are reqired to be prefaced with some sort of hyperbolic denunciation of racism, especially if the speaker is white. And hyperbolic denunciations of racism are often offered even when there is no particular social basis for it at all. By way of example, a commenter on a post on Samizdata about the Jena 6 writes the following:

I agree with the sentiment with the original article; that said, I hope the fuckers who put up nooses to intimidate black people die a very long, painful death.

Because ... why, exactly? How is dying a "very long, painful death" even remotely commensurate with the "crime" of symbolically "intimidating" someone? But this is the kind of nonsense that issues from the mouths of otherwise rational people on the fear that someone, somewhere - ANYWHERE - even someone reading their comment on the internet they don't know and will never meet, might mistake them for a racist.

A similar phenomenon is the way many people seem to feel the need to justify any opposition to policies that race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton support primarily on the basis that such opposition will benefit members of some minority class. For example, it is not uncommon to hear arguments against race-based university admissions quotas which feature prominently some statistical argument showing that quotas have not benefitted black people, even though this is really beside the point. Any principled objection to such a program will be primarily concerned about the distorting injustice of allowing an incidental and non-academic feature such as the race of the applicant to be considered in what is meant to be an evaluation of academic ability. The righteousness of the program would hardly improve on discovery that it were effective!

People understandably get tired of playing these self-censorship games. And a common, if wholly irrational, way to lash out is to embrace the objectionable opinions that are their targets. Sensing that the dice are being loaded, they wonder why. After all, can't rational positions stand on their own merits? Why, if the standard narrative on race we're constantly fed is true, is there the whiff of Maoism about the way people discuss it? Why would the truth need to stack the deck against its opponents in this way? And so they become racists themselves, either out of simple frustration or on the intellectually lazy assumption that given a position which employs social taboo to silence objection, that which it opposes must be right.

I think these are the kinds of racists that libertarian sites and publications attract. Not people who are actually dedicated to the subjugation of one race by another, but people who have recognized the disingenuous character of public discussions of race and become confused. Since libertarians are outside of political orthodoxy in general and willing to call bullshit on things like affirmative action besides, such people think they have found fellow travellers in us.

They have not. Racism is anathema to libertarianism. People to us are individuals first, middle and last. We do not believe in collective virtue or collective blame, and so the very idea of a racist policy is off the table in libertarian discussions. This perhaps enables us to discuss racial issues more freely than most people, since we do not suffer from the same unspoken guilt that adherents to collectivist political philosophies do, a guilt they suffer on account of the tacit knowledge that racism, as a form of collectivism, is at least obliquely compatible with what they believe on other issues. This frees us from the goofy taboos that characterize mainstream discussions on the subject, and with it comes the unintended side effect that what we might call "protest racists" (racists who are racists because they are confused by the disingenuous terms of mainstream discussions on the subject, rather than out of a real desire to subjugate along racial lines) think they've found in us their soul mates.

This, then, is the full answer to Peter's question. Some racists are attracted to us because our ideology happens to have positions which enable their cause, and other racists - the kind of half-hearted racist I've called a "protest racist" - might be attracted to us simply because our freedom from social taboos and moral confusion on the subject is refreshing to them.

But since racism is anathema to libertarians, and since these people are unwelcome, the next question becomes what we should do about it? Finding an answer is becoming matter of some urgency. Now that people like Ron Paul are appearing on the national scene, libertarians have a real chance at national visibility and, ultimately, at calling the shots on national policy. Since any growth in libertarian influence is bound to upset the mainstream political balance, we have to be prepared to deal with a certain amount of dishonest mudslinging from the people we seek to replace. Accusations of racism are well known to be a tool in the establishment's kit, and the more racists found hanging around libertarian sites and publications, the more effective this tool will be against us.

So what is Peter's proposed solution? Simple, really - we'll just "be reasonable."

To me, the solution is the one that even Rand did not pursue: the primacy of reason. Where were the Objectivists in the 1960s (or before and after) in denouncing such an abject form of unreason as racism, and in recognizing that such unreason is not to be countenanced in any fashion whatsoever? Instead, too many Randians (and certainly their less-philosophical cousins the libertarians) have focused on the surface political issue of property rights instead of the more fundamental issue of prejudice, bigotry, and unreason.

Here's where I part ways with him a bit. Oh, not on the issue of the primacy of reason. I suppose we all claim reason as a primary value; I am no different in thinking that I am pretty darn reasonable! What I object to here is the idea that "the issue of prejudice, bigotry, and unreason" is the "more fundamental" issue. Or, more accurately, I would argue that reason itself tells us that property rights are fundamental and issues of bigotry are incidental.

In libertarian - or, what the hell, let's call it "Objectivist" since I am indeed an admirer of Rand's political philosophy - philosophy, the state is a means to the end of securing rights and nothing more. Individuals are responsible for their own livelihood and prosperity. In a libertarian society, no one may compel anyone to do anything, save respect his rights.

So the obvious question becomes one of what things are rights and what things are not. Answering that question is a subject which obviously requires more sensitivity than a blog entry can provide, but what I can say is that libertarians hold rights to be almost axiomatic - they are self-evident in light of the nature of man and his place in the world. One thing I've always found a good rule of thumb for identifying such an issue is the test of whether conflict on a subject could be tolerated. If there is "middle ground" between two opposing positions on an issue or a way to ethically compromise, then a principle of rights is probably not involved. Applying this test to property, it is easy to see that a right is involved. I cannot simultaneously own something and also allow that you have claims on how I use it (aside, of course, from any claims you make that I not use it in such a way that violates your other rights - such as my owning a gun and using it to kill you when you have not attacked me) - such a thing violates the notion of "property." Either a thing is mine or it isn't. But no such principle seems to be involved in the case of discrimination. What principle does discriminating against someone on the basis of their race really violate? Well, you could say, as Peter says, that it violates the principle that people should behave rationally. And so it does. But this seems a poor "principle" to write into law, or to make the basis of a claim of rights. After all, every living human is irrational more than occasionally. Some of us may strive to perfect rationality, but we all of us fall short. It hardly seems workable to make a crime out of something that everyone is going to do eventually. It's sort of like if God were to say that He's sending everyone to Hell who farts at least once in his lifetime. So that's all of us, then - might as well get on with some gluttony and lust if we're already condemned, eh? I suppose you could try again and say that it violates the principle that people shouldn't discriminate, but that doesn't seem workable either. If we take discriminate in the broad sense, we'd obviously be prohibiting any kind of basis for decision-making at all, which would be silly. If we take it in the narrow sense of "discriminate on the basis of racial characteristics" then we run into an implementational problem. What constitutes racial discrimination? How do we know when we've seen it? Who gets to say when there's discrimination going on? As we are talking about distinguishing motivations for actions which may, on the surface, be identical (for example, I refuse to hire a particular black man because he's black, or I refuse to hire a particular black man because I don't think he's a good fit for the job - either way the result is that I refused to hire a black man. The situations are indistinguishable on the surface without a lot of outside second-guessing about my motives.), these questions are non-trivial. There doesn't seem to be a way to implement this principle without violating the sanctity of a lot of other things that seem as though they should be rights (the right to one's property, the right to act on one's own reasoning, the right to free association, to name but a few). More tellingly, though, there's a compromise available, and that's that the individuals in question simply have nothing to do with each other. All that we really need demand is equal protection under the law. If we live in a society that affords this, then my property is mine and yours is yours, and if I am so silly as to refuse you service on the basis of your race, then you are free to take your business elsewhere.

There are some things that need to be enshrined as rights, and some things which will come to be uncommon as society evolves. Property ownership is an example of the former, racial discrimination the latter. Rational behavior is not something we can enforce - but that's OK because rational behavior rewards itself over time. That's the basis for calling it "rational," after all - it's behavior in accordance with conclusions based on obersvations about nature arrived at through the principles of proper reasoning. It is behavior in response to the way the world actually operates, as it were. If racial discrimination really is irrational (as it surely is), then no free-market econonmy will ultimately reward racist behavior. If I am willing to hire qualified candidates regardless of their race and you are not, then obviously my business has a larger hiring pool than yours and will presumably end up with more-qualified staff. Etc. Now - it's worth stressing that the illusion of the profitability of irrational behavior will persist. In this way, it's not unlike a poker game. Sometimes you win big just by accident, by betting high before you have all the knowledge you need to be assured of a win. But such gambles rarely pay off in the long run. They afford you impressive victories on individual hands, but usually not over the course of an entire evening. And so it is with irrational behavior. On the local view, it may appear to be working out - but given time, it will ultimately not pay off.

So what is to be done about racism in the libertarian movement, then? The short answer: not much more than we're already doing. Perhaps we could be doing a better job than we're doing policing our own. That is, we could be quicker and more forceful about showing the racists that do show up the door, or quicker and more forceful about showing them the flaws in their arguments. Still, too much of this - too quick and too forceful - and it gets to be the same kind of hyperbolic witchhunt that characterizes mainstream discourse on the subject. Racism is a political sin - but no more so than fascism of any kind. We must be careful to remain cognizant that the reason we're singling it out for special treatment is simply a kind of pandering to political reality - because the mainstream discourse gives it this importance. Reality, of course, is that it is one among many threats to liberty, and we must not become so focused on exorcising racism that we forget that there are other very real enemies of human liberty as well.

The long answer: we could reach out to minorities. Like it or not - polls show that libertarianism is a white man's club. This should change. For whatever reason, we've done a poor job recruiting minorities to the cause, and this is, of course, an issue that compounds itself. The longer we're a white man's club, the less comfortable minorities will feel joining the club. Maybe on an intellectual level they're attracted to some of our ideas (a commenter on Samizdata points out that blacks bear the brunt of police intimidation tactis and are receptive to the small-state message on that basis alone) - but if they look at us and see a white man's club that includes a disturbing number of racist-seeming hangers-on, they're not likely to take a very close or thoughtful look before moving on to something else. The best way, I think, to dispell the perception (that Peter so aptly characterizes in his column) popular with the public that there's racism simmering just below the surface in our movement is to have a lot of minorities hanging about. It is, after all, just a perception that racists are attracted to our philospohy. That philosophy as stated has no room for racists, and this is a point we should be doing a better job selling to those parts of the public that were victims of racism within living memory.

Of course, it's nice to mouth platitudes like "reach out to minorities," but difficult to put such a suggestion into action. Reach out how? That's the rub. I don't have too many creative suggestions here. What mainstream commentators mean when they say "reach out" usually involves policies that are off limits to us - wealth redistrubtion policies or racist affirmative action preferences policies. If we start compromising our principles just to add a few black faces here and there to our rolls, we'll have given away the farm - become the irrational, collectivist thing we oppose. No, I'm afraid this has to be done on an individual, case-by-case basis - otherwise known as "the hard way." One approach that we could take, though, is to aggressively point out something that is obvious to us, but not to the general public: that the witch hunt against racists is itself counterproductive to minority liberation. Race has been used quite effectively by Jesse Jackson and his ilk to keep his constituents dependent on him. By telling them that only government programs can save them, but that none of the ones that have been provided so far have been adequate, he creates an endless supply of problems uniquely suited for his talents to "solve." It's a dependency cycle, and we should be more aggressive in pointing this out. We should also be more aggressive in pointing out the kind of awkwardness that mainstream discourse about race creates between members of various races. People are not as stupid as their political masters think: they smell a rat whenever they hear silly statements like the one about the Jena Six campaign quoted above. The author of that statment may think he is drawing a hard line against racism, but he's actually accomplishing just the opposite. Any black man hearing that quote in a discussion will sense the insincerity. He will sense that the hyperoble isn't really for him so much as for making the author feel better about himself, a fact which strongly implies that the author is dealing with inner racist demons that any member of a minority would do well to steer clear of. Libertarians have a unique opportunity to cut through the policitically correct fog, in other words, something which I think is ultimately more comforting to members of minorities than it is to the whites who are currently the most vocal in their denunciation of it. What will work, counterintuitive though it currently seems, is being more vocal about the fact that we are the ONLY completely non-racist political philosophy, and not shying away from saying why. Resist the temptation to always flee to "because the War on Drugs targets black men" or "because gun control hurts blacks the most." These are insincere pandering methods, and your listeners are smart enough to see through that. What works in the end is the straight shot. Explain that affirmative action is racist and why, that only entrepreneuship and hard work will create prosperity in the long run, and that we don't trust the government any more than they do and that that's WHY they should avoid depending on it for solutions.

I realize that this is a bit unsatisfying. But that's life as a libertarian, I'm afraid. One emotional downer about our philosophy is that there are no silver bullets. The Democrats get all teary every four years at their convention because they think the man (or, this year, possibly the woman) on stage really does have the power to click the ruby slippers three times and make social ills go away. We have never indulged in such fantasies. It would be unseemly to start indulging in them about race. The truth is we have a hard sell on this issue - like we do on every issue. So what can I say but roll up your sleeves and get to work?


At 9:05 AM, Blogger Mike Fagan said...

A little too long and drawn-out for my liking, but that is nevertheless a very well written piece with which I agree almost entirely.

However, it strikes me also as something of a 'thinking aloud' piece as you claim on the one hand that the spread of libertarian / objectivist views must be done by persuading one person at a time, yet on the other hand you get all hand-wavy about how favourably libertarian blogs may be perceived by non-libertarians (blogs being read by more than just one such person at a time of course).

More generally, I find the interest in popularising libertarianism to be itself quite interesting (although it is perfectly understandable in the most obvious sense).

Is not the desire for political freedom 'noble' in some sense? Is it not strange - does it not stand in sharp relief to those common areas of self-interest shaped by base instincts and creature comforts?

If libertarianism is a noble cause (and it is), is it any wonder it should be difficult to popularise qua 'noble cause'?

Is the failure of 'popular' libertarianism not obvious and inevitable from the start?

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

With regard to the piece - I will admit to a decent amount of trouble pulling my thoughts together on this one. It is indeed too long and not structured as well as it might have been.

However, I don't really see the contradiction in discussing, on the one hand, why identifiable groups of people might be attracted to libertarianism and resigning myself, on the other hand, to the fact that minority recruits will have to be gained one at a time. In the first case I was trying to explain why racists, who seem an unlikely group to be attracted to libertarians, nevertheless are. Naturally all these individual racists have their individual reasons, and my explanation will fit each of them or not to varying degrees. In the second case, I despair of making a sweeping appeal to minorities because libertarianism doesn't have in its toolbox any method for doing so. We cannot use the standard pandering techniques that mainstream politicians do, so all we're left with is appeals to people who want to live in a society which is ordered around rights and freedoms at the individual level - which is the general appeal of libertarianism to members of all races and backgrounds, i.e. nothing that addresses the political concerns of minorities as such. So it seems consistent to me.

The issue of popularizing libertarianism is of great interest to me, and I hope to write more about it. You may be right that it is the sort of thing that can't be "popularized" at all (or, at least not directly), whether among specific minority groups or the population in general. I hope that's not the case, but of course it may well be. If you know of anyone who regularly brainstorms on this issue, please drop a link to their page sometime.

Thanks for your input.

At 6:17 AM, Blogger Mike Fagan said...

Of course a libertarian cannot pander to minority groups - but why should we even bestow upon say, black people, the slightest recognition of their minority political identity?

Black people are ultimately just other people - other individuals - so why not appeal to them as individuals rather than as members of minority groups?

As you say, everyone thinks it is merely tedious, covering-your-arse bullshit when you have to denounce racism before talking to a black person or talking about black people - so why not avoid the whole category of race altogether and just speak to and about individuals?

Part of the problem is 'metacontext' in that people are used to framing issues in terms of group political identities - so why not simply bypass such bullshit?

After all, group *political* identities are brought into focus only through the lens of State power are they not? Ultimately that is the problem - not whether a person belongs to this or that minority group.

I'm unsure as to whether this suggestion counts much toward your interest in popularising libertarianism, but I'm afraid it's the best I can offer!

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