There are two kinds of libertarians: true believers in the constitution and racists hiding behind the constitution. Determining what kind of libertarian someone is, though, is as easy as asking his or her opinion on Ferguson.
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has once again highlighted the bitter divisions between left and right and black and white in America. As might be expected, the usual suspects on both sides have lined up to support their view of events and lambast the other side’s interpretation of what went on between Mr. Brown and the police officer who killed him.
As usual, very little is being produced by these arguments except a lot of hot air and angry feelings.
Yet, there is a place where watching the debate between the two sides is both useful and productive, though not for the reasons you might think. For outside observers interested in the ebb and flow of right-wing politics, some of the most enlightening discussion is taking place among libertarians. Why? Because it is highlighting the deep divide that exists between true devotees of small-state conservatism — who have mostly progressive views on Ferguson — and the racists in Libertarian clothing who have closed ranks in support of the Ferguson police.
Perhaps one of the best places to watch this debate in real time is in the comments section of the flagship libertarian publication, Reason. To Reason’s credit, the magazine has stuck to its libertarian principles by consistently highlighting how deeply wrong police militarization is in Ferguson and has actively condemned the excessive use of force there against both protesters and, indeed, the murdered Michael Brown.
That this should be so isn’t surprising, after all, Reason was once the home of Radley Balko, the journalist who got the ball rolling in libertarian circles on the subject of police and prosecutorial misconduct and police militarization. What’s more, the publication has, for years, demonstrated a strong commitment to covering police brutality and injustice and has done so far better than many ostensibly liberal or mainstream outlets. Their record in this area, in particular, is superb and would make any progressive proud. Bottom line: Reason is on the side of the angels on this issue.
The same cannot be said, however, of many of its readers, some of whom have vociferously called out the magazine for jumping onto a media bandwagon in order to score points before all the facts were in. One comment on Reason’s Facebook page, for instance, argues that Reason’s writers sound like they are “sheltered enough by their wealth to ignore the very real need for security in especially urban areas.” “Urban,” of course, is universal code for “black.” The commenter goes on to say that Reason “sounds a lot like sheltered wealthy liberals,” while another further down the page asks if the libertarian magazine had suddenly been bought by MSNBC.
To be fair, not all of Reason’s commenters have been so critical of the publication’s record. In fact, many have stood up for its coverage of both police misconduct, in general, and Ferguson, specifically. Still, a good number — some even proudly bearing a version of the Confederate stars and bars as their avatar — lambasted Reason for being anti-cop and too quick to play into the hands of liberal activists who, apparently, plot and scheme to ruin the good name of police everywhere.
A split in the ranks
What’s more, this split in the libertarian ranks isn’t something that’s merely fodder for Facebook flame wars and comments section hissy fits, but is seen more broadly in the larger movement. There are, for example, many national-level politicians who are widely seen as being very sympathetic to libertarianism, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, that have been pretty critical of events in Ferguson and of the way in which the justice system generally comes down like a ton of bricks on people of color. So, too, have libertarian pundits like John Stossel and Glenn Reynolds, both of whom have long questioned America’s love affair with zealous cops and increasingly militarized police forces.
Yet, there are also libertarians who nonetheless come down squarely on the side of the cops in ways that don’t just seem racist, but are racist. Take, for instance, the words of the actual Libertarian Party Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, Tea Party activist and and current Fox News commentator Wayne Allyn Root. He commented: “It’s like we’re reliving the 1960s with Barack Obama. He didn’t come in to help us end the specter of racism, he brought it back, folks.”
The police in Ferguson, continued Root, were afraid of a black president indicting them for racism and so allowed rioting to occur.
Root isn’t a senator, of course, so it is wrong to use him to demonstrate that the clearly racist portion of the libertarian movement is as powerful as the Reason/Rand Paul side, but his words and the voices from Reason’s comments section nonetheless highlight something that has long gone unremarked upon by many in libertarian circles: many in their movement do not actually support small government, but, rather, support libertarianism because it is a way to oppose advancement for minorities like blacks without instantly being labelled a racist.
This has been so since the dawn of the modern American libertarian movement and it should come as no real surprise that the first overtly sympathetic libertarian presidential candidate for the 1964 election — Arizona’s Barry Goldwater — attracted a great deal of following in the Deep South precisely due to his opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights legislation, especially public accommodation sections. No one, Goldwater honestly felt, should be forced by the government to serve those they did want to serve or sell or buy from someone they did not want to sell or buy from. As it happened, the Southern segregationists felt exactly the same way once Washington went against them.
As a result, an alliance — still in operation today — was born between small-government libertarians and conservatives and white racists who wanted to keep blacks and all other non-whites in what they assert is their proper, inferior place. Known as the Southern strategy, the segregationist political doors unlocked by Goldwater led, in turn, to their further opening by Nixon and Reagan — who famously opened his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech on states’ rights at the Neshoba County Fair in Deep South Mississippi near where three civil rights workers had been slain by the Klan for trying to register black people to vote.
By all accounts, Goldwater held his position on civil rights for principled reasons and there is no indication that he, himself, had an animosity toward black Americans or, indeed, anyone else. Similarly, his latter day ideological descendent, Rand Paul, has also gotten tripped up over the public accommodation sections of America’s civil rights laws for the same reason: it requires government power to regulate private interactions — the thing libertarians hate the most. Like Goldwater and his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, Rand Paul is more than likely not a racist and shouldn’t be taken as such, yet his ideological beliefs leave him supporting a position, like Barry Goldwater, that was nonetheless very attractive to racists.
This leads us, in turn, to why it’s so interesting to watch libertarians arguing over Ferguson. It highlights in a rather stark manner this old alliance of convenience between well-meaning, if naïve, ideological libertarians and the racist variety who use the movement to cloak their animosity toward blacks. After all, as their support for the Ferguson cops clearly demonstrate, the latter brand of libertarian isn’t actually so against government or state power — they, just like the conservatives they really are, want the government to support people who look and live like them and not support those who don’t.
So, the next time you talk to a libertarian, just ask his or her opinion on the Ferguson police. If the libertarian answers one way, you’ll know he’s a true believer, but at least a consistent and honest one. This isn’t a bad thing — after all, there is a lot in the libertarian movement to respect, admire and support.
If, on the other hand, the libertarian answers another way, you’ll know exactly who you’re dealing with: someone who uses libertarianism not because he actually believes in it, but because libertarian ideas advance the interests of his group at the expense of others.