That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
October 4, 2020

Racism and limited government


LET ME BEGIN BY DEFINING some terms. By "racism" I mean racial bias by one person toward another. This bias can be slight ("I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one") or harsh ("To the Gulag, all of them").

By "limited government" I mean the kind of "night watchman" government advocated by Objectivists and most libertarians: a government whose only functions are the defense of person and property from aggression (usually handled by a police force), resolution of disputes (usually handled by a court), and national defense (usually handled by a government-run military). Whether it possesses any of the features of the federal government that the Framers talked about is not clear. What is clear is that it is usually thought to be necessary for a free market to function, and in any case is supposed not to intervene in the free market. (I have argued in "A Penrose Stairway" that a free market and a limited government are inherently incompatible, but for the purposes of this discussion I am going to pretend that I didn't write that or formulate the arguments in it.)

With those definitions under our belt, I ask a question: In a mixed economy (such as we have in the United States) is it legitimate to allow Communists to teach in public schools?

On the one hand, it may be argued, Communists who are citizens have every right to work as teachers in a public school. They pay taxes for the schools to operate, and in this country we do not prevent people from holding jobs because of their beliefs. Every man is entitled to hold whatever beliefs he wishes without fear of any kind of punishment on the part of the government.

On the other hand, it may be argued, Communists are dedicated to the destruction of the government as we know it. It is not proper that non-Communists should be forced (through their taxes) to pay the salaries of people who promulgate views abhorrent to themselves. It is not proper that they should be forced to send their children to schools where they will be propagandized to hold ideas abhorrent to themselves.

Libertarians (whether of the limited-government sort or the no-government sort) point out that the problem of Communists' teaching is just the sort of contradiction that arises when you have government-run schools. There is no way to solve the contradiction, except by allowing one group holding one set of ideas to have its way and preventing another group that holds a different set from having its way. The only solution is a single decision that embodies force against one group in favor of the other. The matter is not settled by reason, but by force and power.

The two libertarianisms propose to cut through this Gordian knot by doing away with government-run schools. If all schools are privately run, the decision whether to hire Communists may be made by owners, and no one has to support the decision if he doesn't want to. No one has to go to any particular school. No one has to support it. Owners and parents paying for education are all free to act according to their own beliefs, and no one's rights are violated.

Clear enough. But what about other government jobs? Does it make sense to place Communists in jobs in the State Department? in the Defense Department? Even a night-watchman limited government is going to have a state department and a defense department. Can it hire a Communist to occupy a position in them? How high a position?

I confess that I do not know how a libertarian limited government will answer that question. The no-government libertarian, however, has a simple answer, and it was suggested by Frank Chodorov when he said that the best way to get Communists out of government jobs is to get rid of the jobs. Other non-government libertarians make the matter even more explicit: get rid of the government.

By now the reader must be thinking that he is reading an article that has mistakenly been given the title from some other article. But bear with me.

These days one can scarcely read a paper (or even a book) without encountering the word "racism," a word that none of the great writers and thinkers of the past found any need for. More and more often, this is becoming true also of libertarian publications. And no wonder. Libertarians, as much as any man, see that there is racial strife in American society and they turn their attention to it and ask questions about it. It has become as important as Establishmentarianism was to an earlier generation.

Now, the underlying principle of libertarianism (limited government and no-government) is the nonaggression principle. It can be stated many ways, and one way is that no one may employ the use of force against anyone who has not committed a crime, who has not himself attempted to initiate force (including fraud) against another person or another person's justly held property. Every other idea in the two libertarianisms is supposed to be derived from this one.

It is for that reason that some libertarians have been bold enough to write that there should be no laws against racial discrimination. Refusing to sell to or buy from someone because of his race does not constitute initiating force against him. Neither does refusing to hire him (no one has a right to be hired) for racial reasons; and neither does refusing to apply for a job someplace for racial reasons. No one has initiated force against anyone else. Doubtless, the person who has experienced discrimination finds it unpleasant, but so does the young man whose marriage proposal is rejected because he has an ugly face or a displeasing laugh. Libertarians say that people must learn that others are not their slaves, that they cannot require others to enact a will not their own, and that no one should use force (or have another person use force for him) to accomplish his ends. If persuasion and other inducements are unsuccessful, that is life, and sensible people learn to live with disappointment.

Racial bias, then, say the two libertarianisms, is a matter of individual belief, and libertarianism, as such, has nothing to say about it. If a given libertarian wishes to add his mite to the struggle against racial bias, he is free to do so, but he does so not as a libertarian. No libertarian principle can be invoked to make his case, for no aggression is involved when one person merely holds a belief, or acts on it non-aggressively (say, by refusing to sell his home to someone because of the latter's race, or refusing to rent to someone because of the latter's race).

In other words, libertarians, as libertarians, should stay out of the discussion and, as they do on other matters of personal beliefs, mind their own business. Racial bias is as legitimate a belief — where libertarianism is concerned — as belief in the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, as the belief that UFOs come from secret government facilities, or as the belief that climate change is not man-made.

But what about those government jobs? Does the limited-government libertarian have a point in objecting to racial bias when it comes to placement in government jobs?

Particularly in jobs that involve some interaction with the rights of other citizens, it would seem that the limited-government libertarian has a point. The law, after all, is supposed to be applied to all indifferently, favoring no race, no sex, no religion, no national origin over another. Since all are supposed, by the natural law, to have the same rights, all are entitled to the same treatment by the state.

But we cannot be talking merely about those jobs that people are hired to do (e.g., the police). We must also be talking about jobs that people are elected to do (judges in some states) or are required to do. For example, serving on juries. It is thought that racial bias is incompatible with rendering an impartial verdict. Should the racially biased be allowed to serve on juries? Should they be allowed to testify?

Is it right to exclude some people from participation in civic duties because of their beliefs? How did their beliefs lose them their rights to hold elected office or to serve on juries? or to work at the polls on election day? Are there other rights that should be denied them, perhaps gun ownership? Is it really not possible for a racially biased person to perform his responsibilities impartially? (Earl Butz lost his job because people believed that of him when he made what is called a "racially insensitive remark"; no one bothered to ask whether his record as secretary of agriculture bore them out.)

Once again, the no-government libertarian has no problem. If all enterprises are private, whether a given businessman hires the racially biased is not really the business of anyone else. Whether he refuses to is not really the business of anyone else. All are free to deal with him or not deal with him as they like, and for any reason they like.

But to get back to the limited-government libertarian, suppose he believes that there is such a thing as what is now called "systemic racism," and suppose further he thinks the government should do what it can to eliminate it from itself.

For the no-government libertarian, the solution will be familiar: the way to get racists out of government is to get rid of the jobs. Or, rather, the government.

But what can a libertarian limited government do? Well ... if a racially biased person makes it explicit that his bias has kept him from performing the job for which he has been hired (or appointed or elected or chosen) to perform, I suppose that he can be reassigned or fired or something.

But if he has not made it explicit, how will the limited government deal with the problem? And now we have at last arrived at the point I had in mind from the start. Officials of the limited government may either impute views to him and act on their imputation, or they can look into the person's opinions, perhaps by monitoring his reading, his conversations, his social-media posts. They can hold a hearing, or perhaps even a trial.

That is, the limited government can — indeed, inevitably will — define some opinions as thought crimes. The limited-government libertarian who wishes to "impose" his racially egalitarian beliefs on others can do so only by the same means authoritarian and totalitarian governments do it: by spying on its citizens, subjecting them to self-incrimination, or arbitrarily attainting them. Perhaps even re-educating them.

So that's the choice for the libertarian limited government: leave racial bias to free men to settle for themselves, or get into the dictatorship business. Either racism is none of the state's business, or the inner sanctum of the individual person's mind is its business.

We know for a certainty that some libertarians — Gary Johnson, the LP's presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016, for example — are willing to invade that inner sanctum by enforcing anti-discrimination laws. And once that barrier is breached, Room 101 cannot be far behind.

As I argued in "Penrose," the libertarian's limited government is cybernetically unstable: it must ultimately be as intrusive in the realm of belief as it must be in the realm of the market. Ω

October 4, 2020

© 2020 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2020 by WTM Enterprises.

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