How Libertarian Was the Civil Rights Movement?
By Bryan Caplan
1. Government discrimination should be illegal.
2. Private discrimination should be legal.
3. Private discrimination is immoral.
In striking contrast, in his speech at the Cato Intern Alumni Reunion, Cato veep David Boaz seemed to say that the civil rights movement was one of the libertarian highlights of the Sixties. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Boaz thought that everything about the civil rights movement was libertarian. But unless my memory fails me, he didn’t qualify his praise.
It would be convenient for libertarians if the civil rights movement were indeed broadly libertarian. But frankly, the glove doesn’t fit. Like all decent people, libertarians can identify with the civil rights movement’s pleas for meritocracy and against blind hatred. Libertarians can also embrace the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other resistance to state-sponsored discrimination – and point out that libertarians opposed pro-discrimination laws from the start.
But that’s about as far as the commonality goes. Unlike libertarianism, the civil rights movement rarely distinguished between state and private discrimination – and even more rarely distinguished between discrimination and unequal outcomes. By 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” his program already contained plenty for libertarians to oppose. He called for “an end to racial segregation in public school [libertarian]; meaningful civil rights
legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in
employment [libertarian for government employment, not libertarian otherwise]; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality [libertarian]; a
$2 minimum wage for all workers [not libertarian]; and self-government for Washington, D.C. [unclear]…” By his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, King was calling for the openly redistributive “second phase” of civil rights. Of course, MLK wasn’t the only civil rights leader, but as far as I can tell, the most common internal complaint was that he was too moderate.
Overall, I see the civil rights movement much as I see the Protestant Reformation. Both attacked blatant injustices, many of them government-imposed. But the thrust of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t separation of church and state. It was state-mandated Protestantism. Similarly, the thrust of the civil rights movement wasn’t separation of race and state. It was state-mandated group equality of result. Whether they’re quoting Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, libertarians shouldn’t forget these facts.