The events in Ferguson, Missouri have opened up yet another national conversation on race. This time, however, something is different. The images of a mostly white police department dressed in military outfits using military weaponry and vehicles while attempting to control a largely black crowd protesting the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer has opened the door for libertarians to talk about the intersection of the militarization of the police, the war on drugs, and race.
What is promising about this opportunity is that it gives libertarians a way to talk about race that does not fall into the trap that snares so many conservatives as well as too many libertarians: blaming the victim. One reason that progressives (including the media) think libertarians cannot talk seriously about race is that progressives assume, and they are correct disappointingly often, that libertarians think blacks are responsible for the problems in their own communities. Certainly conservatives are often quick to point to the “behavior” or “culture” or “attitudes” of people of color as the cause of their problems.
Progressives, by contrast, talk about the structural factors that cause racial disparities, distinguishing such “structural racism” from both conservative victim-blaming and the idea that racism is only about acts by individual racists. The progressive analysis of structural racism focuses on how capitalism (though not only capitalism) is, in their view, responsible for the racial disparities that characterize economic outcomes in the United States.
We libertarians would be wise to eschew the right’s victim-blaming and pick up the idea of structural analyses from the left. This is so since the major cause of racial disparities in the United States today is in fact structural racism. However, the libertarian analysis of race would focus not on problems supposedly inherent to markets, but rather on how government intervention in markets produces results that disproportionately harm poor Americans, and especially Americans of color.
When (mostly white) local police forces get military gear and supplies for SWAT teams and then use them to prosecute a war on drugs that is far more likely to target black than white users, you have structural racism.
When (mostly white) politicians, often at the behest of (mostly white) businesspeople pass occupational licensure and zoning laws that raise the cost of entering occupations or of engaging in home-based businesses that are particularly attractive to nonwhites, you have structural racism.
When government-run schools continue to fail students of color and when minimum wage laws, which have a long history of being passed to keep nonwhites and immigrants out of the labor market, contribute to a black teenage unemployment rate of 36.8 percent (twice the white rate), you have structural racism.
A libertarian approach to racial disparities should be structural in pointing to these institutional factors. From a social-scientific perspective, we should talk about how markets tend to penalize racist behavior by raising the costs, and how markets improve living standards for all, especially poor and lower-skilled workers. We might point to David Levy and Sandra Peart’s work on the origins of the reputation of economics as the “dismal science” to explain how classical-liberal defenders of markets have historically been on the side of what they call “analytical egalitarianism” and against the racism of the Romantics, who saw markets as destroying the racial hierarchies they favored. Markets, especially their exclusion of all forms of monopoly privilege, are racial equalizers.
We should also make great use of Public Choice theory to describe how public policy gets made. The theory of government intervention regarding rent-seeking and concentrated benefits/dispersed costs helps us to understand why those with resources are likely to persuade politicians to intervene in markets in self-serving ways that harm those with few resources. If it is true that whites have more wealth and power, why expect government intervention in markets to be a source of racial equality?
Finally, libertarians need to know their history. Understanding the ways that government intervention, especially in labor markets, has been used as a tool of racial oppression is central to a libertarian approach to the structural causes of racism. From the minimum wage to unionization to occupational licensure, whites have historically used the state to shut nonwhites and immigrants out of the labor market. The consequences of that history remain with us today. Many of the problems facing black communities are to a significant degree the result of a long history of just this sort of interference with economic freedom.
If we libertarians want to have a voice in the conversation about race in this country, we will have to move away from victim-blaming and toward a structural analysis of racism and racial disparities. This is not a great leap because we have all of the tools in our libertarian toolkit to provide just this kind of analysis.
I don’t know whether libertarians will persuade the American public, but I’m optimistic that progressives will be more likely to engage with libertarians who agree that structure matters, but lay the blame on government, than with libertarians who join the right in blaming the victims.