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.

Kay Hymowitz, Libertarianism, and Lifestyle Excesses:

Like David Bernstein, I welcome some of the things conservative pundit Kay Hymowitz says in her Wall Street Journal essay on libertarianism, and of course I too appreciate her praise of the VC. At the same time, there are some significant shortcomings in her analysis. David has identified one of them: her treatment of the libertarian position on civil rights.

I want to focus on her embrace of the common fallacy that libertarianism requires endorsement of any and all private lifestyles, no matter how foolish or self-destructive. This very common criticism (especially by social conservatives) conflates that which libertarians believe should be legal with that which we hold to be prudent and right. There are lots of foolish and even immoral behaviors that libertarians believe should be legal. It does not follow that we believe that doing those things is a good idea. Hymowitz, unfortunately conflates the two:

[I]t is difficult to separate the reasons for our abiding social disarray from the trends that Messrs. [Brian] Doherty and [Brink] Lindsey praise and for which libertarians bear a measure of responsibility. Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the "Aquarian" excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"--is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement's opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left's revolutionary social posture.

To reiterate a simple but oft-misunderstood point: that which should be legal is not coextensive with that which is desirable or right. Libertarians believe that racist and communist speech should be legal; that does not mean that libertarianism implies support for such speech. The same is true of excessive drug use, cheating on your spouse, and so on. "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, so long as they aren't hurting anyone else" is not "the libertarian vision of personal morality." It is the libertarian vision of the limits we should place on the power of government.

Prohibition by the state is not the only way to combat immoral or self-destructive private behavior, and nearly always not the best way. Indeed, a large part of the libertarian case against government "morals" regulation is precisely the the argument that the state is less likely to do a good job in this area than private institutions such as families, religious organizations, and social norms. The superiority of private sector social norms and traditions over state regulation was one of the central themes of F.A. Hayek's work, which Hymowitz praises in her essay. And Hayek was perhaps the most influential libertarian scholar of the twentieth century.

There is a kernel of truth in Hymowitz's argument in so far as libertarians are far less willing than conservatives to condemn private behavior merely because it goes against tradition (especially a tradition imposed and maintained by government coercion). This, to my mind, is a strength of libertarianism rather than a weakness; all too many longstanding traditions vociferously defended by the social conservatives of the day have turned out to be morally bankrupt or worse. 1960s' conservatives' defense of the tradition of racial segregation (discussed in David's post) is a major case in point. Be that as it may, refusal to condemn private behavior merely because it violates tradition is a far cry from "if it feels good, do it."

Similarly misguided is Hymowitz's claim that libertarianism was "complicit, too, in the vociferous attack during the 1960s on the bourgeois family." From Adam Smith to F.A. Hayek and beyond, prominent libertarian scholars have emphasized the importance of families, and the consequent need to protect them against government intrusion. Part of Hymowitz's argument here simply relies on the broader fallacy of conflating legality with morality already discussed above. The rest consists of a discussion of Ayn Rand's distaste for family ties. Rand had a deeply dysfunctional personal life, which may in part account for her attitude. But that attitude had everything to do with Rand's personal shortcomings and little if any connection to libertarianism as such.

Lastly, some of Hymowitz's claims about individual libertarian thinkers are seriously off base. For example, it is simply not true that Murray Rothbard "became a fan of Che Guevara and the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown" because of libertarianism's embrace of social liberalism. Like other communist regimes, Che Guevara's Cuba was highly repressive of alternative lifestyles, imprisoning homosexuals and generally enforcing sexual puritanism. Rothbard's support for Che had nothing to do with social liberalism (which he probably knew to be the opposite of communist policy), and everything to do with his foreign policy isolationism, which often led him to take an overly indulgent view of America's foreign enemies. That isolationism has long been a major bone of internal contention among libertarians, as Hymowitz recognizes. Far from embracing lifestyle excesses, Rothbard was actually very critical of the use of mind-altering drugs - a point noted in Brian Doherty's book, which Hymowitz reviews in her essay.

There is a serious debate between libertarians and social conservatives over the degree to which we should defer to tradition, and the extent to which government power should be used to punish irresponsible private behavior. Conservatives have some good points to make in that argument, and libertarians should attend to them. Unfortunately, the debate is not advanced by recycling dubious claims that libertarianism requires indiscriminate endorsement of any and all self-destructive lifestyles.

Kay Hymowitz's Response to Her Libertarian Critics:

Conservative writer Kay Hymowitz's critique of libertarianism, published in Commentary and the Wall Street Journal, has attracted a lot of critics of its own, including responses to some of her points by co-conspirator David Bernstein, and yours truly. My main criticism of Hymowitz's essay was that she falsely conflates libertarians' opposition to government regulation of personal choices with an indiscriminate embrace of 1960s style lifestyle excesses. Believing that Activity X should not be banned by the state does not entail a belief that X is unobjectionable. Now, Hymowitz has written a response to her critics. The response contains some welcome clarifications and concessions, but also perpetuates some of the shortcomings of the original article.

On the plus side, Hymowitz writes that she "strongly agree[s]" with my statement that the "harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector." She also admits that "libertarians are not libertines" and claims that some of her critics (possibly including me) misinterpreted her views when we portrayed her as equating libertarianism with near-total relativism about personal choices. To my mind, there is at the very least serious tension between Hymowitz's comments on this score in her new essay, and her claim in her original article that "the libertarian vision of personal morality . . . is not far removed from 'if it feels good, do it,' the cri de coeur of the [1960s] Aquarians." However, I'm willing to accept Hymowitz's assertion that her views have been misinterpreted.

If Hymowitz really does agree that the "harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector," then there really isn't much disagreement between her and most libertarians. Why, then, does she continue to attack libertarianism? If I interpret here correctly, it's because she thinks that "libertarians tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty" and that "Libertarians believe government shouldn't say anything about the family[breakdown] problem. And neither should anyone else."

As I tried to explain in my earlier post, it is simply not true that libertarians "tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty." Most serious libertarian writers would agree that such criticism poses little danger so long as it isn't coupled with advocacy of using government coercion to "solve" the problem.

In practice, of course, much conservative criticism of personal behavior is combined with advocacy of coercive solutions, which helps explain libertarian suspicion of that criticism. Hymowitz attempts to sidestep this issue by saying that "[o]f those who view family breakdown as a major social problem, I don't know any who argue that we should ban divorce and lock up single mothers." Perhaps so, but there are plenty of conservatives who advocate such policies as censorship of pornography and "obscene" speech, abolition or restriction of no fault divorce, bans on flag burning, and - worst of all - the War on Drugs, which has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people for their nonviolent "personal behavior." Some prominent conservatives, such as Senator Rick Santorum, have argued that "pro-family" morals regulation is the most important conservative public policy objective, a goal to which individual liberty should be subordinated. Conservatives are by no means monolithic in their views on these issues, and it seems that Hymowitz is one of those who opposes such regulations. However, her view is far from being the dominant one in the conservative movement.

As for speaking out about the problem of family breakdown, libertarians not only don't oppose doing so, but have actually been arguing for forty years that family breakdown is in large part a consequence of harmful government policies, such as the perverse incentives created by the welfare system. There would be little point in this kind of libertarian criticism of the state if we actually believed that family breakdown is a good thing, or even a morally neutral one. Hymowitz herself implicitly admits this when she states that "I actually agree with libertarians that many government policies have greatly harmed the family." It is perhaps true that many libertarians dislike the idea of having the government speak on these issues. But if the government's activities in this area really were limited to mere speech (and conservatives embraced such limitations), they would not be a major bone of libertarian-conservative contention.

Hymowitz concludes her response by criticizing what she calls the libertarian "tendency to view individual personal liberty as The Good that should swallow up all others." In reply, I can only reiterate a point I made in my critique of her original essay: believing that protecting liberty is the highest or even the sole legitimate purpose of government does not require libertarians to conclude that it is the highest good for all institutions. Still less does it commit us to believing that it is a good that "swallows up all others." To the contrary, libertarians have long contended that liberty actually facilitates the achievement of other important values and does so far more effectively than government coercion.