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No, Libertarianism Isn't a "White Supremacy" Theory

One of the most frustrating things about being a libertarian is the likelihood that much of your time will be spent correcting mischaracterizations of the philosophy and the movement it spawned. Perhaps the most common calumny hurled at libertarianism in recent years is the claim that it is an ideology of white supremacy. “Libertarianism is for white men” is just one example of the headlines screamed by left-leaning websites such as Salon and AlterNet in the past decade alone. As Cato Institute vice president Gene Healy once wryly remarked, “Never before have so many been so intimidated by so few, with so little political power.”

Now comes The Baffler’s Andrew Hartman to join in the chorus of hysteria with his recent article “The Master Class on the Make: How the White Backlash Found Its Academic Bona Fides.” His central thesis? “Libertarianism is a political philosophy shot through with white supremacy. Public choice theory, a technical language nominally about human behavior and incentives, helps ensure that blacks remain shackled.”

Hartman’s article and its fatal flaws cannot be done justice without reference to last summer’s academic controversy over Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It is probably no happenstance that Democracy in Chains is one of the first sources that Hartman cites. His piece closely parallels MacLean’s portrayal of Nobel Prize–winning political economist and libertarian theorist James Buchanan as the mastermind of a more than half-century-old conspiracy of right-wing intellectuals and plutocrats to “suppress democracy on behalf of the very rich” (in the words of Guardian columnist George Monbiot).

Unfortunately, another respect in which Hartman’s article parallels MacLean’s is that it gets its analysis hopelessly, tragically wrong.

Poor Analysis, Questionable Scholarship 

Its dubious credibility is perfectly illustrated by the fact that it begins with a strikingly simplistic assumption. Hartman opens with a citation of a 1992 article in the Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun,” written by George Mason University economists Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen. According to Hartman, “Tabarrok and Cowen...argued that the fire-breathing South Carolinian defender of slaveholders’ rights had anticipated ‘public choice theory,’ the sine qua non of modern libertarian political thought.”

It is highly misleading at best to characterize public choice theory as an indispensable element of libertarian ideology. As University of Mary Washington economics professor Bradley A. Hansen has already pointed out, a number of totemic scholars throughout history have made substantial contributions to libertarian thought without relying on or even merely referring to public choice. Seminal libertarian works like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia made no mention of Buchanan or his best-known thesis. This fact is unsurprising, because as neatly as public choice theory dovetails with the libertarian drive to limit government power, the latter can make do perfectly well without the former.

The central public choice insight is that, in Cato Institute EVP David Boaz’s words, “Bureaucrats and politicians are just as self-interested as the rest of us.” This reality often leads government officials to advocate and implement policies that benefit them and the specific state institutions for which they work, often at the expense of the public. (The rampant abuse of government powers such as eminent domain and civil asset forfeiture are only two of a great many examples of such self-serving practices.) Yet even if this insight were false, and people truly did check their human instinct to get ahead at the door whenever they went to work for the government, there would still be a strong libertarian case for trammeling the power of the state. Even if, for instance, police officials who defend the practice of asset forfeiture truly sought to fight crime rather than to pad their departments’ budgets, the practice of seizing people’s property with negligible due process and auctioning it off would still be deplorable in principle and destructive in its consequences.

A Massive Exercise in Confirmation Bias 

Here we see what is often called the “law of unintended consequences,” which is perhaps best summarized by the old saying that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The fact that well-meaning government interventions often inadvertently do more harm than good—or all harm and no good—would be enough to disqualify them from a libertarian perspective. The public-choice observation that such policies are often actually poorly motivated strengthens the libertarian case against them, but it is hardly indispensable to that case.

Hartman goes on to claim that Cowen and Tabarrok “mark[ed] Calhoun’s political philosophy as the crucial antecedent of public choice theory.” In his response to Hartman’s article, the above-quoted Professor Hansen neatly disposed of this inaccurate claim:

Cowen and Tabarrok did not mark Calhoun as a crucial antecedent of public choice. To the contrary, they argue that economists have ignored Calhoun. It would be more accurate to say that they argue that although Calhoun did not influence the development of public choice theory, there are some interesting similarities. They note some of these similarities, but also point to significant differences[,] including the differences that enabled him to include support for slavery in his philosophy.

Hartman at least acknowledges the fierce debate over the scholarly merit of Nancy MacLean’s analysis in Democracy in Chains. Yet his account of the controversy is tellingly shallow and fairly reeks of pro-MacLean bias. He tacitly praises MacLean’s claims by describing them as “blunt” while disparaging her countless critics as “several libertarian attack dogs.” In reality, Democracy in Chains has far more than “several” critics, and they are hardly all libertarians. Liberal political scientists Henry Farrell and Steven Teles have written, in more than one hard-hitting critique of their own, “While we do not share Buchanan’s ideology...we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.” Political scientist and historian Jack Rakove recognized that “Buchanan and his students are hardly alone in applying economic modes of analysis to political phenomena” and that “had MacLean prepared a better intellectual history, she would have done more, even by way of a survey, to convey the diversity and complexity of these approaches.” Even in a mostly favorable review of the book in the New York Times, left-of-center economist Heather Boushey admitted that MacLean’s “overt moral revulsion at her subject can sometimes make it seem as if we’re getting only part of the picture.”

“Only part of the picture,” of course, doesn’t begin to capture the countless analytical errors that litter Democracy in Chains—which is exactly why Hartman’s dismissal of libertarian responses to the book is so wrongheaded. It is true that a slew of libertarian scholars have provided a comprehensive deconstruction of the book’s countless misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Perhaps the best rebuttal comes from the Ball State University economics professor Steve Horwitz, who has observed that the book

became a massive exercise in confirmation bias resulting in misread and misinterpreted sources and factual claims unsupported by those sources. She had her story about libertarianism and, absent the intellectual tools to understand what she was reading, she interpreted her sources in ways that confirmed all of those prejudices. The result is a book that gets almost everything wrong, from the most basic of facts to the highest of theory.

Hartman writes, “Buchanan’s many ardent defenders seem unwilling or unable to imagine that their hero’s ideas have unsavory historical underpinnings.” MacLean’s detractors are not “unwilling or unable to imagine” any such thing. Rather—contrary to MacLean’s own lame complaint that her critics have not actually read her book—they have meticulously examined and disproved the “unsavory historical underpinnings” that Hartman and MacLean’s other defenders have carelessly and/or dishonestly misattributed to Buchanan. If anything, what is truly in doubt here is whether Hartman has attentively read any of the rebuttals of Democracy in Chains.

Stickman Arguments  

The rest of Hartman’s portrayal of Buchanan as a stealth white supremacist and of public choice as a white supremacist theory consists largely of a series of already-debunked misconceptions and caricatures. In some cases, Hartman himself actually admits that these mischaracterizations have been debunked but makes no serious attempt to reconstruct them. For example, he cites MacLean’s mention of a 1957 letter that Buchanan wrote to his old professor at the University of Chicago, Frank Knight, criticizing President Dwight Eisenhower’s dispatch of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“In contrast,” Hartman writes, “he believed desegregation should be a gradual, voluntary process, according to MacLean. Pointing out that ‘going slow’ in matters of racial justice was then a common refrain for postwar liberals and conservatives alike [emphasis mine], Buchanan’s defenders have further sought to refute MacLean’s claims about Buchanan’s intentions by pointing to other public statements from Buchanan that favor the advancement of racial justice.”

One would think that Hartman would follow this statement with an in-depth analysis of those rebuttals of MacLean’s claim. Instead, the best he can offer is, “But intention is beside the point. More important is effect.” These two sentences read like a grudging tacit concession by Hartman that MacLean’s critics are actually right—that favoring a gradual approach to desegregation (however politically and morally unsatisfactory) is not proof positive of racist intent. So why characterize it as a “piece of evidence upon which [MacLean] rests her case establishing the racist mainsprings of Buchanan’s work,” as Hartman does at the beginning of that paragraph?

His bright idea is that Buchanan’s ideas were made to serve white supremacist purposes in practice. The only concrete empirical example he cites to illustrate this point is Buchanan’s support for school vouchers:

On paper, at least, Buchanan was advocating a market-based, seemingly race-neutral policy solution. In effect, however, it allowed for the continued perpetuation of segregation. For example, Virginia’s Prince Edwards County shuttered its public schools in 1959 while doling out vouchers to students who attended private schools that only accepted white children. As a result, black children in Prince Edwards County went without formal education for more than five years.

Prince Edwards County’s voucher system was indeed a despicable ploy to maintain de facto segregation—hence its eventual invalidation by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional racial discrimination in the 1964 case of Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County. Nonetheless—contrary to both Nancy MacLean’s insinuation in Democracy in Chains and Andrew Hartman’s insinuation in The Baffler—there is no evidence of an actual connection between the county’s sinister scheme and Buchanan’s school voucher proposal. Moreover, local segregationists elsewhere in Virginia (in Charlottesville, of all places!) actually opposed school voucher programs, arguing that when some white students fled to private “seg academies,” they would leave in their wake a number of empty public school seats that would soon be “engulfed by Negroes.” Further still, seven out of eight rigorous empirical studies to date actually indicate that school voucher programs increase racial integration within American society.

It is also worth noting that later in his career, in a 1984 letter to Arthur Seldon at Britain’s Institute for Economic Affairs, Buchanan expressed his desire “to avoid the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce [emphasis mine]” and “to secure the potential benefits of commonly shared experiences, including exposure to other races, classes, and cultures.” These are not the words of a man who was out to advance white supremacy.

It says a great deal that there are so many holes in the one real-world example that Hartman saw fit to cite in support of his contention that libertarianism in general and public choice theory in particular have “tilted the scales of justice in favor of the white, rich, and powerful.”

Missing the Point

The rest of Hartman’s article is a somewhat meandering riff on various concepts, some of which have at least some merit—from “the close collusion between capitalists and the liberal state” to the virtues of anti-statism and the insight that “in addition to civil rights protections, the state is also Vietnam. It is drones, bank bailouts, tax cuts for the wealthy, prisons. The state is Trump.” One wonders whether Hartman is even dimly aware of libertarianism’s tradition of opposing wars like the one in Vietnam, the 2008 Wall Street bailout, and the prison-industrial complex, as well as the many libertarians who oppose President Trump’s agenda today.

One also wonders whether Hartman is aware of the work of libertarian organizations like the Institute for Justice (where I’ve interned in the past), which lobbies and litigates against government interventions such as eminent domain abuse, asset forfeiture, and occupational licensing, which disproportionately victimize the middle class, the poor, and racial minorities. Perhaps he is blissfully unaware of libertarians’ work opposing police brutality, mass incarceration, foolish foreign wars, and mass surveillance, while supporting immigration liberalization, etc. One imagines he is ignorant of the work of libertarian criminal justice reform advocate Radley Balko, who has written that public choice theory heavily informed works like his book Rise of the Warrior Cop, a trenchant analysis of the militarization of American law enforcement. Were Hartman to make himself aware of any of these and other libertarian causes, would he come to his senses and abandon his absurd smear that libertarianism is a bastion of white supremacy?

One can hope.

Born in Toronto, Canada and raised in Montreal, Akil Alleyne is a 2008 graduate of Princeton University and a 2013 graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, where his major areas of study were constitutional and international law. He most recently worked for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the civil liberties of free speech, freedom of religion and association, and due process.

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