1964 Not the Only Time Racists Hated Government

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Ask Ron Paul about Abraham Lincoln.Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A few days ago, I dismissed the argument by Ron Paul and his supporters that he can’t be racist because he’s a libertarian along with (the weaker version of this argument) that Paul’s paleolibertarian ideology has nothing to do with racism. Conor Friedersdorf has a lengthy reply at the Atlantic. Much of the article is him complaining that I don’t write about President Obama’s civil liberties policies, which aren’t related to the question at hand. (Answer: I don’t have opinions on everything!) But then the heart of it is Friedersdorf claiming that it was really just a brief historical moment in time when libertarian anti-federal principles aided the cause of racism:

Critics of Ron Paul-style libertarianism are right, or so I'd argue, that his approach to governing would've postponed the advancement of human freedom had he risen to power in 1960. … In the same way that neo-cons cloud their thinking and public discourse writ large by constantly evaluating every foreign-policy argument as though it's Great Britain circa 1939 -- take that, anti-war appeasers! -- critics of American libertarianism clarify nothing by acting as if the early 1960s are the only prism through which libertarian ideas should be evaluated.

Friedersdorf headlines his item, “For Critics Of Libertarianism, It’s Always 1964.” That strikes me as an awfully strange reading of history. The cause of white supremacy was deeply enmeshed with opposition to federal power for well over a century. Defenders of slavery, then opponents of reconstruction, as well as opponents of a long line of civil rights measures from anti-lynching laws to voting rights protections, all framed their case as principled opposition to expansive federal power.

It doesn’t take some enormous leap to connect Paul’s ideology with the anti-government arguments employed by white supremacists far earlier than the sixties. Paul and his closest adherents have done so themselves, as James Kirchick explained in his seminal piece about Paul’s ideology:

To understand Paul’s philosophy, the best place to start is probably the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Auburn, Alabama. The institute is named for a libertarian Austrian economist, but it was founded by a man named Lew Rockwell, who also served as Paul’s congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982. Paul has had a long and prominent association with the institute, teaching at its seminars and serving as a “distinguished counselor.” The institute has also published his books.

The politics of the organization are complicated--its philosophy derives largely from the work of the late Murray Rothbard, a Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” who viewed the state as nothing more than “a criminal gang”--but one aspect of the institute’s worldview stands out as particularly disturbing: its attachment to the Confederacy. Thomas E. Woods Jr., a member of the institute’s senior faculty, is a founder of the League of the South, a secessionist group, and the author of ThePolitically Incorrect Guide to American History, a pro-Confederate, revisionist tract published in 2004. Paul enthusiastically blurbed Woods’s book, saying that it “heroically rescues real history from the politically correct memory hole.” Thomas DiLorenzo, another senior faculty member and author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, refers to the Civil War as the “War for Southern Independence” and attacks “Lincoln cultists”; Paul endorsed the book on MSNBC last month in a debate over whether the Civil War was necessary (Paul thinks it was not). In April 1995, the institute hosted a conference on secession at which Paul spoke; previewing the event, Rockwell wrote to supporters, “We’ll explore what causes [secession] and how to promote it.” Paul’s newsletters have themselves repeatedly expressed sympathy for the general concept of secession. In 1992, for instance, theSurvival Report argued that “the right of secession should be ingrained in a free society” and that “there is nothing wrong with loosely banding together small units of government. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we too should consider it.”

Again, to correct another error by Friedersdorf, I don’t think libertarianism or even plaeolibertarianism is inherently racist. I’m arguing against the notion that it’s inherently anti-racist or non-racist. As Noah Smith argues, local bullies are always going to be attracted to libertarianism:

The freedom of the individual can be curtailed not only by the government, but by a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions. In a society such as ours, where the government maintains a nominal monopoly on the use of physical violence, there is plenty of room for people to be oppressed by such intermediate powers, whom I call "local bullies."

The modern American libertarian ideology does not deal with the issue of local bullies. In the world envisioned by Nozick, Hayek, Rand, and other foundational thinkers of the movement, there are only two levels to society — the government (the "big bully") and the individual. If your freedom is not being taken away by the biggest bully that exists, your freedom is not being taken away at all.

You can be one without the other, and certainly libertarian principles have features that attract adherents other than permitting local bullies, but paleolibertarianism and white supremacy are obviously quite compatible.