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.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 9, 2012 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Hayek: not a Jew.



    October 9, 2012 at 12:27 am

  2. Hayek wasn’t Jewish.

    I think Zora Neale Hurston would be an important figure in your counterfactual.

    I think one important thing that you miss is how much the American tradition of anti-statist rhetoric is tied up with the south’s resistance to Washington on race, from Calhoun through Reconstruction to Brown. Whether because they were emigres and tone-deaf to this history, or for worse reasons, many postwar libertarians heard southerners talking the anti-state talk and believed that they were freedom’s allies. (See: Rothbard on Thurmond, 1948.) This naturally led to throwing black freedom– so to speak– under the bus.


    Jacob T. Levy

    October 9, 2012 at 2:12 am

  3. @gabe: Thanks for the update. I did some quick research, and Hayek is listed as Jewish in some sources. But this is apparently wrong – he had Jewish extended family, but was not raised Jewish nor did he consider himself so.

    @Jacob: I wanted to leave Southern white anti-state rhetoric for a different post, but you are right. Ron Paul fits that mold. Doesn’t seem to be overtly racist and has even come out against the drug war as anti-black, but tolerated a lot of racism in his circle, which is disturbing at the very least.



    October 9, 2012 at 2:23 am

  4. Historian John Brewer has a book about the British administrative bureaucracy during its wars with France and Spain that tangentially addresses someof these issues. Brewer notes that Britain’s ability to get its elites to contribute to policy initiatives (mainly war) through taxation is what distinguished it from its French and Spanish rivals. There were always opponents to the central state’s project of taxing the landed gentry for the purposes of fulfilling policy; opponents of taxation of the gentry often used the rhetoric of liberty to argue against increased state power (and the taxes that often went with it). Brewer noted that it is difficult to separate the instrumental use of the rhetoric of liberty for tax avoidance from genuine belief on the part of the users of said rhetoric.

    I think there are libertarians out there who genuinely abhor discrimination/segregation but hate the idea of using state power to fight them just as much. But a lot of White-Caucasian so-called “libertarians” out there are simply cowards who hate the idea of having to face the fact that their ancestors (or even people who looked like them) intentionally took part in horrible acts of violence and social degradation against others. They hate that they must face some guilt over what their forebears did to blacks, and they thus become disingenuous critics of the Lincoln and the North.

    You’ll find lots of self-professed libertarians among the Confederate flag-waving crowd.



    October 9, 2012 at 4:49 am

  5. At least Cato and affiliated folks have the guts to engage in self-criticism and say things like “There was never any golden age of liberty!” (

    I’ve run across Rothbardian/Misesean libertarians on the inter-webs before – shocking numbers of people who talk about how the Confederate was a misunderstood “glorious lost cause.”



    October 9, 2012 at 4:52 am

  6. Fabio raises an interesting issue. But, before things get out of hand, let’s correct the record on Ayn Rand.

    She may have written that racism is bad in some generic principled sense. But, she was hopelessly racist. For example, take her writings on Native Americans:

    “Now, I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayals of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you’re a racist if you object. . .Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights – they didn’t have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal ‘cultures’ – they didn’t have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using.” (Mayhew 2005: 103)

    “The Indians were savages, with ghastly tribal rules and rituals, including the famous ‘Indian Torture.’ Such tribes have no rights. Anyone had the right to come here and take whatever they could, because they would be dealing with savages as the Indians dealt with each other – that is, by force. We owe nothing to the Indians, except the memory of monstrous evils done by them. But suppose there is evidence of white people treating Indians badly. That’s too bad; I regret it. But in the history of this country, it’s an exception. It wouldn’t give the Indians any kind of rights. Look at their history, look at their culture, look at their treatment of their own people. Those who do not recognize individual rights cannot expect to have any rights, or to have them respected.” (Mayhew 2005: 104)

    Or, consider her views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that deserves credit for securing the right to vote to millions of African Americans. Writing in 1963:

    “The ‘civil rights’ bill, now under consideration in Congress, is another example of gross infringement of individual rights. . .It [the government] has no right to violate the right of private property by forbidding discrimination in privately owned establishments. . .Needless to say, if that ‘civil rights’ bill is passed, it will be the worst breach of property rights in the sorry record of American history in respect to that subject.” (Rand 1964: 156, 157)

    I don’t know to what extent Rand had a real influence on liberatianism. Fabio calls her a “major libertarian intellectual.” However, Rand was highly critical of libertarian thinkers like Nozick and Friedman. Still, I think it is fair to say many libertarians in the U.S. read and were influenced by her. Therefore, if she did shape libertarianism in any meaningful way, her racist views might tell us something about the lack of attention to racism in libertarianism.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dave Brady

    October 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm

  7. Hayek wasn’t Jewish, but he was formed by German-speaking central Europe, which is much more to the point.

    I do think the counterfactual black libertarian masterwork would be interesting.



    October 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm

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