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Liberty and Social Justice

You can't have one without the other.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 18, 2010

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Liberty and Social Justice

A friend recently asked about libertarianism and social justice. Particularly, the question of slavery and racial discrimination. The concern is that the libertarian movement does not address these things often or adequately, which hinders its ability to persuade and attract minorities.

First, institutionalized, state-enforced slavery would not be legal in a libertarian society. Contractual arrangements may be different matter, and is an arcane point of libertarian theory. In any case, even if it is possible for one to sell himself into slavery, he has no right to sell anyone else - wife, children, etc. - into slavery. No one can be a slave without his or her consent, because self-ownership is a cornerstone of libertarianism.

The 19th-century Democratic Party was somewhat libertarian only insofar as it remained firm to the principles of a limited federal government. But obviously, state laws establishing and enforcing slavery were immoral to the core. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in The Ethics of Liberty, not only should slavery have been abolished, but the slaves should have been compensated.

But did the federal government have the "right" or jurisdiction to abolish slavery by force? According to the Constitution, it did not. If it was morally obligated to abolish it regardless of what the Constitution said, you could also say that the British Empire, as the world's superpower of the day, had the moral obligation to invade in order to abolish slavery. The King of Belgium would have had the same "right" to invade with the intention of abolishing slavery. Or the Russian Czar. Indeed, this principle says that any government can make war on any other government that has morally objectionable policies.

Slavery was a grave evil. But war is also a grave evil, even when its stated intentions are "humanitarian" and "moral." War is, almost all the time, an impermissible means even to just ends.

Libertarians of the day such as Henry David Thoreau and Lysander Spooner would have preferred that the North secede from the Union rather than uphold the Slave Power. And letting the South secede would have been deadly to slavery as an institution, for the very reason that the Union would no longer have had to accommodate the slavemasters with policies such as the Fugitive Slave Act.

To the extent some libertarians criticize Lincoln and claim the Civil War should never have been fought, it is because libertarians have a strong bias against war, and because they believe in secession - the same principle of 1776. Furthermore, it has long been common knowledge that Lincoln's intention was not to abolish slavery but to preserve the Union. Slavery's abolition was a result of the war, but was not its purpose.

That said, slavery's abolition was undoubtedly one positive outcome of the Civil War. In the war's aftermath, the 14th Amendment was written to extend federal jurisdiction whenever individual rights were violated by state governments. While this has been misinterpreted and misapplied, it is clear that no state could . . .

  • discriminate in political rights (such as the right to vote)
  • violate the property rights and freedom of association of business owners by requiring segregated facilities
  • discriminate in the allocation of state benefits and privileges, or require segregated state facilities

Denial of liberty based on race, as well as race-based social engineering, are unconstitutional. Hence, it was quite proper within our Constitutional system to pass federal laws protecting the right to vote, and to overturn state laws requiring segregation. Libertarians may believe in limited government, or they may be anarchists. They may strongly advocate the Constitution, or they may call for the break-up of the Union. But in no libertarian mind are laws designed to preserve racial inequality tolerable.

As I've stated before, the rule of law "is about equal respect for the equal rights of everyone to their own person and their own property. Genuine law stems from this impartial respect for the equality of rights." Without this, social justice is impossible.

The libertarian society empowers each person to find their own way and develop their own solutions to problems. It also empowers them to come together voluntarily to solve common problems and to help those in need. It allows new businesses to start without license fees or red tape. It will open the prison doors of those whose only "crimes" were engaging in consensual behavior.

State control invariably helps those who are already rich and powerful. Freedom allows the lowliest of the low to work individually and together to better their lives without harassment from cops, social workers, or tax collectors. Libertarianism seems to me to be the only compassionate political philosophy because it values the dignity of each person.

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Jonathan Wilson from Chicagoland writes:
March 18, 2010
For the first time I have seen a lucid explanation of how the decision to fight by the Union may have been wrong-headed even from an abolitionist perspective. Imagine if the north had said 'good-bye.' Then fugitives become refugees, the industrial competition forces southern plantations toward mechanical labor rather than human chattel labor, and slavery collapses under the twin weight of its own immorality and its economic infeasibility. Even so, I can still imagine myself in those days and in those hypothetical circumstances as a John Brown type, heading south with a buckboard filled with Bibles and rifles to stir up trouble. I know, James, I know. I'm saying your explanation is lucid. I'm not saying I've bought into it 100% with my heart. Or in the words of those damn Yankees: "Glory Hallelujah!"

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