race and the sociology of elite libertarian intellectuals
About two weeks ago, there was an interesting post at Econlog about the relative importance of civil rights for libertarians. The issue is that libertarians often hype other issues, like taxes, more than civil rights. Not too much discussion about discrimination, Jim Crow, and so forth. A blogger from the pro-immigration website Open Borders asked how often libertarians argued against, for example, segregation.
I think the commenters (myself included) got it right when we said “some, but not much.” In other words, from time to time, libertarian intellectuals did talk about the evils of segregation. Usually, the issue is couched in terms of the use of state power to prohibit blacks from holding property and practicing certain occupations, like the law. Sometimes it was a commentary on what was good and bad in the Black freedom movement. There is the occasional talk of opposing colonialism. But overall, it was not an overwhelming response.
The relatively weak answer to Black oppression is puzzling. Opposing Jim Crow was a no brainer from the libertarian point of view. Blacks had been slaves, which is the antithesis of personal freedom. Then, after Reconstruction, they had been subjected to humiliating and painful legal regulations in addition to extensive personal violence. While libertarians may disagree with liberals about the remedy for state violence and segregation, you would think that they would have been marching arm and arm with liberals in the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Black repression takes a back burner on the libertarian shopping list. But why? I think it has to do with the sociology of elite libertarians. Roughly speaking, the people who defined the libertarian agenda in the mid to late 20th century were defined by two social processes. First, nearly all of the major libertarian intellectuals belonged to the Jewish diaspora in America. Some were refugees from East European communism, like Ayn Rand. The Austrian school of economics was lead by central European Jews like Mises and the second generation was led by New Yorker Murray Rothbard. Second generation Jews were also very prominent, like Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, whose father, according to wiki, was from a Russian shtetl. While these writers did occasionally address Black issues, American civil rights probably did not loom in their minds as much fascism and socialism in Europe.
Second, many, if not most, of the leading libertarian intellectuals were strongly rooted in American and Western European academia. Specifically, they were mainly in the fields of economics and philosophy. Therefore, they were subjected to very specific professional pressures. When these intellectuals were active, economics transformed itself from a historical field into a form of highly mathematical social engineering. Academic philosophy also underwent a profound transformation. That discipline downplayed the ideas now known as “continental philosophy,” (e.g., Husserl or Heidegger) and refocused on “analytic philosophy,” which is noted for its extreme emphasis on developing clear concepts and employing ideas from linguistics, mathematics and symbolic logic.
Thus, the social field of libertarian intellectuals is one that combines ideas derived from thinking about the European experience with the consciousness embodied by symbolic and highly mathematical academic disciplines. This isn’t to say that all of the major libertarian intellectuals accepted or praised this state of affairs. Austrian economists are noted for their rejection of mathematics in economic analysis, but they were still embedded in an economics discipline that favored certain types of intellectual problems. They were still subjected to some strong professional pressures. The end result is that the libertarian social field permits discussion of race issues, but it’s not a topic that wins the competition for attention.
Now, it didn’t have to be that way. Imagine if some group of Black intellectuals had set out to systematically develop an anti-statist political philosophy, much as Third World intellectuals developed indigenous versions of Marxism, like liberation theology. For example, what if DuBois had an evil twin brother who looked at the post-Reconstruction South and developed a theory of the state as an illegitimate racial coalition? Or, imagine, if some people in the Harlem Renaissance had taken a sort of proto-Tyler Cowen position about how capitalism allows black cultural forms to flourish?
If that had happened, then the libertarian social field would be different and there’d probably be a much more serious engagement with race. There would have a been stronger role in defining anti-segregation arguments in the civil rights era, a stronger resistance to a coalition with Whites who use libertarian rhetoric to justify intolerance, and a serious acceptance that racism is an ingrained feature of human life that needs to be identified, refuted, and transformed.