Friday, May 28, 2010

Civil Rights and Libertarianism

Over at EconLog Bryan Caplan started a discussion about the relationship between libetarianism and the Civil Rights movement. I contributed a couple of comments. This is part of a post from someone doing some head-scratching regarding libertarian thought, and what follows is my response to him:

Will says...

"I'm really struggling with these analogies. If I own a restuarant and only allow service to my friends and relatives, I don't need a lighted sign visible to the highway that I am serving food. But if I advertise that I am selling food to passersby, then it makes sense that the government can prohibit my arbitrary discrimination of people based on gender, class, or race. A restuarant is not a private eating club..."

I think most of the the contention for libertarians is two-fold here:


The first issue is that of what is private property. It seems that most of the people who are in support of government intervention here do believe that these places of business are private property - yet there is some sense in which owners of these properties have less rights than others. If I own a house, I can openly discriminate regarding whomever is allowed to enter my house, regardless of the reason. It's my ownership of that property that entitles me to remove tresspassers. Having the right to do what I wish with that tract of land or the object in question (including deciding who may interact with it) is inherent in the Lockean concept of property itself. I don't have to have morally virtuous reasons for excluding anyone from taking or using that which is mine.

As mentioned, detractors do seem to view businesses as private property, but they seem to ascribe only partial property rights to the owners. Libertarians might (and do) contend that, if I don't have the right to exclude another person from using my property, then how do I really even own it? In a way, it seems we treat it as more of a communal property claim in reality than a private one, even though we attempt to acknowledge it as private.

And even if we were to openly accept the idea that property becomes somehow public when commerce occurs, I think it becomes even more fuzzy. I won't answer the questions for you, but consider some of the following:

  • Is it alright to discriminate regarding who enters my house?
  • What if I start giving away free food?
  • What if I start charging for said food?
  • If I advertise for people to come over and eat, is it still within my rights to not let anyone into my house if I choose to do so?
  • If someone wants to cut my grass for free, can I say no?
  • What if it is because of their race?
  • If someone wants to cut my grass for $20, can I say no?
  • What if it is because of their race?
  • If I'm the one mowing lawns, can I refuse to even attempt to offer service to a resident?
  • What if it is because of their race?

I think with many people, the answers to these questions would be completely different if we were talking about a "business," even though commerce between individuals on private property is clearly taking place. It doesn't even really seem that it's commerce that's making the situation different (when's the last time you were forced to pay into FICA or extend employment benefits for your baby-sitter?). So when do I start losing my property rights here?


I won't be overly tedious with this point, but I think it has to be made. It seems to me pretty atrocious that we're under-handedly buying into the concept that you should be forced to provide a product or service for any given person. Even if I advertise that I'm selling something, I'm under no contract to labor for anyone. If you went by a child's lemonade stand, and they decided they didn't want to squeeze any more lemons just so you could have a cup of lemonade (it could even be because you're "stinky"...) it's not apparent to me what right you have to put a gun to their head and make them squeeze the lemons.

It seems to me that even if we can't agree to the idea of owning external property we could at least acknowledge that we own ourselves and our own bodies. If you had an elderly African-American who owned a small cafe, and because he felt sleighted by arrogant whites in his youth he did not wish to offer his labor to them, I would consider it pretty shameful that our collective view would be that we could force this black man to serve whites - regardless of whether we felt it was racist or not. The idea of not being able to control your own labor seems to clearly disregard our historical struggles in America (particularly one in the 19th century).

Now, I think it's entirely appropriate to entertain the idea of what we should do. Clearly racism is no virtue, and we should do whatever we can to combat it. But what we shouldn't be doing is abridging the rights of other people in the process. There is a difference between a crime and a vice. I think that's the point most libertarians are trying to make.

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