Where do libertarians stand on the Martin Luther King’s policy legacy?

Every year, I make it a Martin Luther King Jr. day tradition to reread his letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s a brilliant essay that makes the case for the rule of law, justified civil disobedience, and the necessity of demanding immediate rectification for legal inequality. If you haven’t read it in a while, read it here and come back.

For this article, I’m only going to get into civil rights policy legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for. There’s a lot to explore about Dr. King’s place in the history anti-war activism, government surveillancegovernment sabotage of domestic political movements, and worker’s movements but I’m just going to focus on civil rights and racial discrimination because Dr. King has in many ways come to represent the much broader Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

As libertarians, our position in this political space is complicated. Stopping state sanctioned violence against African Americans is one of our core beliefs. Advocating for the repeal of laws that explicitly discriminate against any group is a no-brainer. But addressing whether or not government has a role in combating other forms of discrimination makes many of us uneasy. Go ahead, ask a libertarian if there should be a law prohibiting an employer from not hiring someone explicitly because they’re black. There’s a good chance we’ll look incredibly uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable
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For people who don’t think about the consequences utilizing government force, the answer is easy; discrimination is wrong therefore there ought to be a law against it. But libertarians would ask, does the damage done by certain forms of discrimination warrant government violence as a corrective action? If so, what does that mean for the right to free association? When does a racist cross the line from being an asshole to being a criminal?

Furthermore, how do libertarians reconcile differences that continue to exist in economic opportunity, access to goods and services, and inequitable treatment by law enforcement when discrimination is de facto instead of de jure?

As Johnathan Blanks put it in his  essay “I Have a Dream,” 50 Years Later at Libertarianism.org:

What is a free market when you can’t even sit at the lunch counter to buy a sandwich, let alone apply for a job? What is equality when all your schools and school supplies are substandard? What is liberty when you’re harassed by a police officer for being the wrong color in the wrong place?

When someone asks me for my position on the Civil Rights act of 1964 (most of which rolled back unconstitutional government discrimination in Jim Crow laws), I usually end up doing what Rand Paul did on Rachel Maddow back in 2010; give a long, wonkish answer about the act’s complicated impact on individual freedom. But even acknowledging the nuances of government policy regarding discrimination and what it means for liberty elicits some strong reactions.

Dear white people, offended
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Because most Americans don’t accept a complex answer on the legality of prohibiting discrimination, being opposed to anti-discrimination laws carries political consequences. Not only does a controversial (but nuanced) position turn-off potential supporters, it further alienates potential allies by attracting unsavory white supremacist elements that poison our movement. Look at Barry Goldwater’s frustration with attracting racists back in 1964, any of the stupid stuff Ron Paul did in the 1980s, and modern crypto-fascist “libertarians” like Chris Cantwell. It’s not to say libertarians shouldn’t hold a position that a business owner has a right to refuse to do business with someone else, but it does have political fallout.

There’s also the political consequences of failing to address the very real quality of life gap that still exists between white Americans and black Americans (in aggregate). If libertarians want build our support among African Americans, what should libertarians do to address these problems? Equality of outcomes is neither just nor desirable, but lifting barriers to opportunity and minimizing violence that disproportionately impacts marginalized groups is certainly a worthwhile goal for libertarians. The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t form in a vacuum and they could be valuable allies in rolling back state power.

From the Birmingham Campaign
From the Birmingham Campaign

Much of Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail and other work in the 1960s deals with legal discrimination and the necessity of convincing moderates, including white moderates, to join the call to action. I don’t have a perfect answer on some issues, but fighting state violence and discrimination is where libertarians can fit into the the continued legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for African American legal equality. Discrimination is very expensive but it’s supported and enforced by all levels of government, including the north, throughout much of American history. Eric July outlined some of the many ways the government has done this in his article, Considering History, African American Libertarianism Should Not Be Suprising. Fighting big government is not only compatible with ending racism, it’s necessary.

Criminal justice reform, the war on drugs, civil asset forfeiture, school choice, licensing laws, and minimum wage laws are all government policies that disproportionately affect black Americans. As we fight those battles, we need need to fight private racism and discrimination without resorting to big government. Luckily, there are some libertarians doing the long overdue work of reaching out to these communities, listening, and spreading the small government message. (Including Presidential candidate Rand Paul, who wrote an article for Time today on this)

So, what do you think? How should libertarians address these tough issues without growing government? When should the state get involved?

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Kevin Wilson
Libertarian activist-professional fundraiser-hop-head.
Vice chair of the Greater Rochester Libertarian Party and at-large member of the Libertarian Party of New York State Committee.
Opinions are my own and not necessarily the opinions of the LPNY or my employers.

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