Martin Luther King Jr Day and Civil Rights: A (True?) Libertarian’s Lazy Perspective

History professor and fellow Notewriter Jonathan Bean has an op-ed out in the Daily Caller titled “Civil Rights Are Too Important To Be Left To Special-Interest Advocates.” From the opening paragraph:

“War is too important to be left to the generals,” the saying goes. Similarly, civil rights are too important to be left to professional advocates who champion only their own particular racial, ethnic, or religious causes. Unfortunately, in the “official” civil rights community of today a spirit of inclusiveness may be the exception, not the rule.

Read the rest.

Dr Bean’s post has reminded me of how to best tell the difference between a libertarian and a conservative (overseas readers: here is my reminder to you that, in US parlance, libertarian means liberal): libertarians have a deep, principled commitment to equality that is simply missing in conservative thought.

Libertarians will argue that all individuals are born equal, whereas conservatives will tell you individuals are not. Libertarian notions of equality are thus caught in the middle of two extremes: on the Right you have conservatives who believe that inequality equality is not possible on an individual, regional, national, or international scale and on the Left you have egalitarians who harbor all sorts of utopian pipedreams based on “equality.” These three paradigms are by no means obvious, and sometimes you have to think about the implications of a person’s argument.

The libertarian notion is utopian, as it has never been reached and probably never will be, but it is always within reach and is based upon civil and legal equality rather than some of the asinine notions of the Left. When I say “civil and legal equality” I mean that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental individual rights. Conservatives don’t believe in this (think about their views on immigrants, for example, or ethnic/religious minorities).

So the libertarian, when faced with a hypothetical that looks at an immigrant who came to the US illegally, will say the immigrant is deserving of the same legal and civil rights as a native. A conservative will not. I know many self-described libertarians will give the second answer, and my response to them would be, “well, I guess you’re a conservative then, and not a libertarian.”


I understand that the complexities of politics in federal democracies make ideological arguments useless, so my only goal with this post is to help readers clarify their own political views. If you don’t support the civil and legal rights of illegal immigrants (for example), you are not a libertarian. I don’t mean to be in such a purge-y mood, but that’s a fairly basic tenet of the creed.

Also, Malcolm X did more for the civil rights of Americans than MLK did. The government chose MLK to represent the civil rights struggle, though, because he never toted a gun in public. Same thing happened in South Asia just before the UK left. Gandhi didn’t have nearly as much influence as the armed insurrections happening all over the subcontinent. Bring it!

7 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr Day and Civil Rights: A (True?) Libertarian’s Lazy Perspective

  1. “Also, Malcolm X did more for the civil rights of Americans than MLK did.”

    I can’t tell whether you are stating this as a matter of fact or an opinion. Let’s assume it’s an opinion and not subject to falsification; how did you come to hold this opinion?

    • I think X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech was just as popular as King’s “I Have A Dream” speech when they appeared during the era.

      The two were contemporaries. From an elite lens, I think X’s black nationalism (initially) and his Islamic credo (post Mecca) and his penchant for publicly toting guns made far more of an impression on people in high places.

      From mass man’s angle, I think that in popular culture, even back then, a gun toting black man is going to get more attention from the masses than a non-violent preacher. You can crush a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, but defeating an armed insurgency – militarily, sociologically, economically, or psychologically – inside your own territorial borders is decidedly harder to do.

  2. Re: your comments on supporting the rights of illegal immigrants.

    I have said on this site before that I have a more conservative mindset, and I agree with your description of conservatism, that it is an ideology which does not believe in the possibility of equality between people, viz. “on the Right you have conservatives who believe that inequality is not possible on an individual, regional, national, or international scale” (I think you meant “equality” instead of “inequality,” since the former is not the state of affairs that prevails while the latter most certainly is).

    However, I disagree with your belief that a conservative does not believe that “all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental individual rights.” I think what distinguishes a conservative and a libertarian in this case is what their conception of an individual right is. For a libertarian, each individual has the right of movement, but this is denied by national governments, and so now we have the phenomenon of the “illegal immigrant.” The libertarian says this is a fundamental wrong, and that illegal immigrants should have the right of movement. The conservative thinks that it is proper, because it is within the prerogative of the state to designate which people it wants to enter into its territory. There may be a right to movement, but it is not absolute viz a viz a nation’s sovereignty. This reflects a fundamental difference in the conception of the role of the state for the libertarian versus the conservative. Whereas the libertarian sees most of what the state does as damaging, the conservative sees some value in the state, as something that preserves the way of life, the economic capital, and the ethnic composition of a certain population under its power. The libertarian and the conservative are thus cleaved apart on their conception of the role and scope of government.

    I hold the libertarian view as true in an idealist sense. It would be a far better state of affairs if people could move freely about. However, the consequences of allowing freedom of movement within the current system of the nation, without dismantling that system, offers a worse state of affairs: governments are notoriously incapable of assimilating immigrant groups, as we discussed earlier in my post on Islamism; the displacement of native labor by cheaper foreign labor, without offering an alternative to the natives, forces those natives onto the government dole; the competition between native and foreign groups is toxic to any sense of civic unity; and so forth

    I am sympathetic to the idea that removing government entirely would ameliorate these problems, insofar as government caused them in the first place. However, the problem is: how to get there! Theoretically, it would be better to exist with minimal states, but those states and those who benefit from them offer a lot of entrenched resistance, plus the common idea that we simply cannot function without government. I think doing things piecemeal is simultaneously the most attractive, and also the worst strategy. This is my very long way of, through words, throwing up my hands and saying “I don’t know!”

    • Ahhh shit. Hahah! Thanks for catching that Matthew. (Check out this old typo.)

      Everybody is a conservative in one form or another. Reading through the Daily Caller (but not JB’s piece) reminded me of how much I dislike the Cold War-era fusionist strategy of libertarians and conservatives.

      Re: conservatives and equality. Let’s say there is an American and a Mexican hanging out. Both are on their own side of the border. The American’s civil and legal rights are safer than the rights of his Mexican counterpart. The conservative will say “So what? Our respective states have equal sovereignty.” The libertarian will look for ways to get the Mexican on equal footing with his American counterpart. Can you see where the implicit support for inequality comes from? The fundamental difference between the two camps?

      I agree with your conclusion that there is cleavage between libertarians and conservatives in the US (hence my distaste for fusionism; I am a pragmatic anarchist, but fusionism goes far beyond pragmatism). Libertarians, though, see the state “as something that preserves the way of life [and…] economic capital” of a society, too. It is the ethnic qualifier that libertarians don’t like. We favor a state that treats everybody as an individual in the most abstract sense (“an individual stripped of his identities”). It’s utopian (as is the conservative notion of ethnic qualifiers), but it’s a practical utopia and a just one. In fact, come to think of it, I like libertarianism largely because it is the most practical of utopias (as long as it’s my kind of libertarianism!).

      It is true that “governments are notoriously incapable of assimilating immigrant groups,” but I don’t see how this bolsters the conservative argument or weakens the libertarian one. Did you have an example in mind?

      I have never encountered the “immigrant labor replaces native labor which in turn increases the number of welfare recipients” argument before. I could find absolutely no research on it, and hence no evidence, so it may be plausible. I am willing to bet precious beer money that it’s not, though. I also take reading assignments.

      My strategy is to change, or at least influence, minds but I’m a pretty lazy son of a bitch.

    • On your first point, this goes back to the distinction between libertarians and conservatives on the role of the state. Let’s say that you are on your lawn, and your neighbor is on his lawn, and there is a white picket fence dividing your properties from each other. You wouldn’t say to your neighbor “Hey, let’s tear down this fence and give each other equal rights to each other’s land. You have better sun over there, and I’ve always wanted to grow a squash patch…” Why is this absurd? Because this piece of dirt is mine, and that piece of dirt is yours, and we both respect this principle of private property so as to be secure in our effects and our homes. The conservative applies this analogy to the country as a whole, so that it can be seen as the property of the people who have sovereignty over it. The libertarian thinks this is hokum. So if I were to take the conservative position in this case, I would say as an American on the ‘Merican side of the border to a Mexican on the Mexican side of the border, “I was here first, this is my piece of dirt, and yo ramblin’ don’t rattle me.” There is of course inequality in this position, in the same way the private property holder has an advantage over he who does not hold his property. The question is, though, is this inequality wrong? Libertarians and conservatives will disagree over this point.

      On your second point, people seem much more inclined to support their individual groups, over some abstract notion of individual equality. Religion, race, ethnicity, etc. have more of a pull than do the rights of the individual, for most people anyway. Should we legislate to the lowest common denominator? No. But should we legislate a state of affairs that is difficult to achieve given human psychology? Also no. I will have to do some more reading into history to see what is actually possible for the human state, as I am unsure if the libertarian project, in trying to strip individuals of what they find most compelling, is actually capable of doing so (please forgive the tortured syntax. It’s 1:30 AM over here).

      On your third point, I made that point in an argument that to introduce libertarian principles of government to a bloated government bureaucracy may make things worse, rather than better. Allowing complete freedom of movement for immigrants when the apparatus of the state remains otherwise untouched seems unwise to me. I assume that would be the case, as most change is not systematic and abrupt, but piecemeal and slow.

      Finally, I am also a lazy fuck, and I don’t want to look up any studies on that point right now. I’ll get back to you on that later. Harangue me if I fail.

    • A good analogy, but it doesn’t quite square the circle. Check it out: if Neighbor A is unequal to Neighbor B because he is subject to a different set of rules (like not being allowed to use seeds, for example), then the libertarian would seek to lift restrictions on Neighbor A’s seed use. The conservative will say “So what? We both have equal plots of land.” While it may seem like the conservative harbors respect for equality (“we both have equal plots of land”) it is apparent that, if the two neighbors are subject to different sets of rules (as Mexicans and Americans are), the conservative position is supportive of inequality. Indeed, his position can only be based upon inequality. The conservative doesn’t give a shit about Neighbor A’s restrictions. Thinking in terms of the plots of land analogy, instead of the restrictions on seeds for only one of two neighbors analogy, leads to societies like those now found in Europe. I understand the conservative position. That’s one of the main reasons why I am not one!

      I agree with your observation that people are inclined to gravitate to groups, which is why it is so important to fight to uphold the abstract notion of the individual, both in legislation (parliaments) and also in law (courts). People should be free to associate with whoever they want, of course, but when it comes to the monopoly on violence that the state wields, forcefully applying a blind justice is a solemn necessity. The US is a good example of this type of government, despite its many failures and shortcomings.

      There is always a chance that introducing libertarianism to governance will make life worse than it already is, but I would again bet precious beer money that says otherwise. The past 25 years, for example, have been remarkably libertarian on a global scale (thanks largely to trade liberalization), and the results have been a steady rise in overall standards of living and a steady drop in overall inequality (economic and political).

      I agree that radical change on a societal level leads to bad things. I am not convinced that open borders is all that radical, though. I don’t think open borders would work because there are as of yet no political mechanisms to complement such a policy, so I share your caution.

  3. Nice post. I am an advocate of (relatively) open immigration, and have collected libertarian figures who hold the same in my reader _Race and Liberty_ (2009). However, I will note here that there is at least one libertarian writer who makes a case for immigration restriction, purportedly based on libertarian reasoning:

    Brandon’s point about libertarian commitment to equality is true. Libertarians are often falsely accused of being for freedom at the expense of equality. In fact, a free society would be one free coerced discriminations backed by law or the State. Historically, it is worth noting that 19th century American liberals often spoke of their philosophy as one rooted in “equal rights doctrine” – if the State were to treat everyone equally, it could not do all the interfering, preferring, discriminating and differential taxing, etc. that it does! See, for example, works by and about William Leggett (who appears in my reader as well): and

    As for X versus King, you are wrong about their relative popularity. Here is an excerpt from my lecture notes on civil rights: “In late 1964, pollsters asked blacks in big cities to name the leader who had “done most to help Negroes.” MLK received 88%, Malcolm only 1% (5% in his native NYC). When asked to name people they didn’t like, 1% named King, 48% picked Malcolm (and 55% in NYC!).

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