When Congress passed the Johnson-Era Civil Rights Acts, America began an unprecedented expansion of personal liberty that reached far beyond the black community. For the first time ever, the meritocratic ideals that have always rested at the foundation of the American political experiment were backed by forceful Federal intervention.
The effects were rapid and dramatic. In a single generation, Southern states nearly caught up with the rest of the country in terms of literacy, average incomes, even life expectancy. A solid African-American middle class emerged along with vast new political power. Frustrating gaps still exist, but the expansion of basic personal liberty for African-Americans and other formerly marginalized communities has been impressive.
This presents a conundrum for libertarians. The Civil Rights Acts expanded personal freedom by expanding the role of government in our private lives. There may be no major Federal legislation in history that stretched the fingers of the central government more deeply into realm of personal decision-making, or even personal opinion, than the Civil Rights Acts. The use of intrusive Federal power to successfully expand personal liberty puts the whole foundation of modern libertarianism in doubt.
The Acts regulated how personal opinions could be expressed in almost any economic terms. Freedom of association, as it had been previously interpreted was deeply curtailed. State and local government rights were severely limited. Civil Rights legislation was even interpreted to define, in some circumstances, how religious opinions could be expressed.
For libertarians, freedom is almost always defined by the extent to which individuals are unencumbered by the coercive power of government. By that absurdly narrow definition the Civil Rights Acts were a dramatic reduction in freedom. The libertarian obsession with government leaves them blind to other, more powerful forces that destroy personal liberty.
By libertarian standards, Southern states in the pre-Civil Rights Era were a paradise of personal liberty. There was virtually no government to speak of. Personal choices were almost entirely unburdened by intervention from an organized central authority.
Want to dig a coal mine? Go for it. Want to dump industrial waste in the river? What you do with your property is your own business. Want to lynch a black teenager for whistling at a white girl? No one is going to stop you.
In the libertarian paradise of the Old South, no central authority interfered with a man’s basic freedoms. As a result, the strong, the popular, the well-organized, and the wealthy were able to run roughshod over those with less power.
Enforcement and maintenance of white supremacy did not come from the state. Governments in the South were too weak to enforce anything. Jim Crow was conceived, implemented, and held in place by informal, voluntary, popular arrangements as one would expect in a libertarian community.
A dense, organic network of paramilitary and terrorist groups performed the day to day work of maintaining white supremacy. The KKK is by far the best known of these organizations, but much of the dirty work of maintaining segregation was carried out by local, less formal groups.
Sitting above the paramilitaries were more dignified, “moderate” local assemblies, like the White Citizens’ Councils of the late Jim Crow period. The secrecy of the paramilitaries meant that a man could sit on a more respected assembly by day, urging the peaceful resolution of differences while coordinating or even participating in more violent groups.
Very little of the structure of Jim Crow was ever reduced to law. The laws were only necessary to limit the ability of high-minded law enforcement from attempting to restrain “public will.” Jim Crow was almost entirely informal, cultural, and driven by extra-legal enforcement. Jim Crow is what happens when libertarians get what they want.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rallied African-Americans to resist Jim Crow, they faced some resistance from local law enforcement, but it wasn’t a sheriff who murdered Emmett Till or Medgar Evers. No civil authority bombed churches or lynched Civil Rights workers. When local law enforcement feebly tried to enforce the law, attempting to prosecute those who harassed or even murdered civil rights workers, they were thwarted by a liberty-loving community bent on preserving their own freedom to discriminate.
For Republicans in our era looking to restrain growing Federal power, it is critical that we demonstrate an understanding of the risks. Smaller government could potentially make our society wealthier, freer, and better able to compete in the world, but only if we know what to cut and what to preserve.
Successful streamlining of our Federal government must preserve its core functions or it risks nightmares. No one will trust our efforts unless we have the sense to acknowledge this fact. The experience of the Jim Crow South, or the Caribbean, or Mexico, or much of the Third World shows that weak government is not a value unto itself.
Smaller government is not about indiscriminate cuts. Smaller government means developing smarter ways to operate. We seek to streamline government for the same reason that companies seek to streamline their operations. Being able to perform core tasks while consuming fewer resources improves liberty and wealth. Cutting government blindly merely releases demons to do their work.
We will never successfully restrain the relentless expansion of Federal power unless we understand the valid reasons it exists. On Martin Luther King’s birthday, it would be wise to acknowledge the permanent tension between small government and personal liberty. We must learn to intelligently protect the latter if we will ever achieve the former.