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Published on January 24th, 2013


Chris Ladd: How Libertarianism Failed African-Americans

Want to feel better about the Republican Party’s problems in minority communities?  Spend some time with the Libertarians.

You won’t find a lot of black Libertarians because libertarian theory runs counter to every lesson learned by African-Americans in the real world struggle for civil rights. The long, sad decline of the Republican Party as the primary vehicle of black political expression corresponds closely to the rise of libertarian philosophy as a force in Republican politics. It is a story of unintended consequences and unwelcome alliances that offers crucial lessons for Republicans as we struggle to restore the party’s influence in minority communities.

Republicans began embracing libertarianism about a decade before the term found its modern American meaning.  Barry Goldwater embraced individual liberty as a paramount political value in the early ‘60’s. Libertarians formed a separate political party in the early 70’s when a small core of anti-war conservatives broke from the Soviet hawks over Vietnam, but the two movements never fully disentangled from each other.

To this day figures like Ron Paul and Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, move easily between Libertarian and Republican circles because the boundaries are muddy. The libertarian movement today is still the heir of the Goldwater Republicans.  It was Goldwater who launched the Republican shift toward libertarianism and it was under Goldwater that the libertarians failed Black America.

The proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 presented the libertarian wing of the conservative movement with a wrenching choice. Libertarians loathed segregation, but breaking Jim Crow would demand a sweeping expansion of Federal power that would intervene deeply into private life. The dilemma was that African Americans repression rose not only from government, but from the culture and personal choices of their white neighbors.

The Civil Rights Acts proposed to do something that libertarian ideology insisted was impossible –expand personal freedom by expanding central government power. Goldwater made a fateful decision to break from the core of the Republican Party and oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His decision alienated the black community and shone a glaring light on a fatal weakness in libertarian theory.

Libertarianism protects personal liberty from being impaired by government. It creates weak states on the assumption that without government intrusion personal freedom will blossom.  

The black experience is a living reminder that government is not alone as a potential threat to personal liberty. It is possible, as in the Jim Crow South, to build a government so weak that no one’s personal liberties can be protected.The libertarianism Goldwater embraced had its eyes fixed firmly on Communism. In the fight against the tyranny of a totalitarian ideology, the right failed to recognize that tyranny can flourish under a weak state. Libertarian conservatives watched Medgar Evers’ funeral without recognizing small government oppression at work.

The high-minded pursuit of personal freedom from government made Goldwater an accidental hero for segregationists. In the most noxious irony of the 1964 election, Goldwater as the standard-bearer of personal liberty earned the endorsement of segregationist Democrat Strom Thurmond and became the first Republican to win the Deep South since Reconstruction.

Goldwater’s awkward alliance with racists launched a troubling trend. By elevating ideology over experience, the party of Lincoln was forging a strange new path. Those alliances, and the stubborn refusal to re-examine the choices that inspired them, continue to make the Republican Party a tough sell not just for African Americans, but for anyone with an ethnic or religious identity outside the white community.

A closer look at the weakness of libertarian ideology would provide ready opportunities for Republicans to right some wrongs. Our message of small government works only when it is tempered by a respect for the very real role that good government plays in guaranteeing freedom.

A more carefully crafted message of less intrusive government could appeal to a black urban working class who can’t get access to good schools because of the power of government employee unions.  Personal freedom and accountability are a strong fit with the values of a deeply religious community torn by violence and social collapse.

Our message has potential to appeal to minority audiences, but it will never ring true unless it accounts for some realities that many Republicans are loathe to acknowledge. For example, many hard-working, successful African Americans got their start on the economic ladder with progressive hiring and promotion policies at the Post Office or in the military.  It was a muscular, activist Federal government that gave African-Americans their first opportunities to participate in the American Dream.

Extreme anti-government rhetoric devoid of nuance or constraint creates well-justified fear in minority communities.  Libertarian values have historically failed them, leaving them exposed to terrifying oppression. Republicans cannot continue to clumsily paint government as a fount of endless evil and hope to appeal to minority communities whose own family stories render that message hollow.

In appealing to minority communities, we need a message of small government that is more nuanced than libertarians will tolerate. Smaller government is a better prescription for personal liberty and economic success, but only if it remains strong enough to protect basic civil rights. A government small enough to “drown in a bathtub” turns society into a playground for petty tyrants.


Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)

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9 Responses to Chris Ladd: How Libertarianism Failed African-Americans

  1. Jose says:

    Libertarianism like communism seems great in theory but like all other political/economic theories they suffer from the same flaw, people. The Civil Rights era proved that the federal government was the proper force to expand the freedoms in our nation. We all are a part of society and if the states/local governments wish to abuse the rights of its citizens then the feds should step in.
    Despite the claims of the Federal government restricting our rights by the far right, it is often the states and below that allow the denial of our rights.
    I do believe that a true dialogue needs to occur to determine which functions of society would best be done at a federal or state/local level. Unfortunately, our current state of a cold civil war make that impossible to happen.

    • kah says:

      The role of the Federal Government is to protect the (1) INDIVIDUAL and PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS of each person…..(2) Provide for the DEFENSE of the Country……….(3) and above all provide the people with a SOUND and STABLE MONEY SUPPLY.

      The Civil Right movement created the AVENUE Blacks needed for the protection of Individual and Property Rights.

      Now, since the 1960s, the government SKIPPED protecting Rights to in favor of taking care of people with more Social and WELFARE programs…..e.g. Food Stamps, Medicare, Obamacare, Dept of Education, etc….etc………. all of which has NOTHING to do with protecting the RIGHTS of individuals and their property.

  2. Jose says:

    I think the two most insightful statements from Chris’ article are:

    “The dilemma was that African Americans repression rose not only from government, but from the culture and personal choices of their white neighbors.”


    “The black experience is a living reminder that government is not alone as a potential threat to personal liberty. It is possible, as in the Jim Crow South, to build a government so weak that no one’s personal liberties can be protected.”

    I think that when theory meets reality, it is theory that needs to bend. We see something similar in economic markets, where we need *some* regulation to make sure that companies don’t become Standard Oil and erect all kinds of barriers and exert basically enough power to the destroy the free market. Market Collusion for instance, is forbidden, or should we allow businesses the “freedom” to collude which then takes freedom away from consumers?

    Not having any civil rights guarantees means that a group as whole has the ability to take away another group’s ability to have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and this isn’t just a theoretical concern, this is something that actually happened.

  3. Jose says:

    Barry Goldwater and Segregationist (property owners who did not want to sit/eat with blacks) together helped to destroyed the black community’s long relationship with the Republican Party. It was the Radical Republicans and business, and religious Republicans who advocated for Reconstruction and agressive government policies that empwered former slaves & allowed for many blacks to pursue econmic self-interst that would in time allow them to “flee the south”.

    Libertarianism sounds good in theory but not in practice.

    The thousands of accounts of beatings and lynchings by “local” white community’s (not the federal government) is a record few can ignore. Often, it took the Federal Government (Dwight Eisenhower) to come in a local community stop the racist violence perpetrated on blacks and others. For hundreds of years blacks were considered to be the property of whites. That was the reality…not a theory.

    • Fahad says:

      Come on Bernie, this kind of attitude is what made the Tea Party in the first place. Finally a deenltcy sized group of people are rising up against big government and choosing actual conservatives with real values and not just war-mongering, deficit spending, Medicare Part-D George Bush Republicans. Yeah O’Donnell is a bit a weird but at least we know that before she gets elected (if she even does) unlike some other Republicans caught trying to solicit homosexual intercourse in a public bathroom. I am sick of these so-called conservatives who claim to distrust government but then someone comes along who wants to privatize social security and they act like they are extremists. Look Bernie, you either approve of government programs or you don’t, don’t try to have it both ways. The same goes for rest of the kool-aid drinking Fox News crowd. There is no point criticizing liberals and MSNBC, their failed policies and idiocy are enough. But for conservatives claiming to not want gov’t healthcare but want to preserve Medicare, try standing behind your principles for once. The same goes for Reagan, he wasn’t the God you all claim he was, he was just as progressive and liberal as the rest of them. Someone who explodes the national debt and raises Social Security taxes four years in a row is no hero to me.

    • James says:

      Why pin this on Goldwater?

  4. Jose says:

    Quotes from: When Black Meant Republican”

    It would serve Republicans well to understand the difference between traditional black and white understandings of government power. For whites who look to European history as their guide, government is a necessary evil to be treated with great care. Its growth should be managed in order to prevent it becoming an interest to itself; capable of crushing personal liberty and economic freedom.

    Blacks’ experience with government power is almost a polar opposite of whites’. When central government has been weak, they have suffered. This suffering is not merely relative, but has left them vulnerable to random acts of violence, humiliation, and looting. They have good reason to see government power as protection and to be suspicious of white efforts to weaken it.

    Washington’s approach suffered from two crucial flaws. First he thought that institutional southern racism would weaken as the black community began to realize its economic potential. Secondly, he failed to appreciate that capitalism cannot work its magic without government protection of basic property rights. In the face of these tragic misunderstandings, blacks labored away for decades building remarkably successful businesses, professions, and civic institutions, only to watch them crushed over and over again by discriminatory laws and outright violence. There was no hope for economic progress without the most basic civil rights.

    A wave of race riots in the teens and ’20s were particularly devastating. Only a fraction of the incidents were documented at the time, usually in the form of a brief, euphemistic reference in a local paper to “troubles.” But postcards (that’s right, postcards), stories, and victim accounts painted a clearer picture. Two of the most notorious riots occurred in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prosperous black communities were in many cases wiped off the map, destroying generations of hard-won gains. When the Depression came, the brief flowering of the separate black communities was effectively dead.

  5. Jose says:

    It’s great that “some blacks” left the south but most (due to economics) could not. But, even if they had, imagine leaving the south, on your way up north, and having a heart attack, and being told that you are unable to use the white only (private) hospital. Theories always sound good until they meet reality.

    • Symansh says:

      I was surprised to read that you bevelie Mike Castle is a moderate republican. You write “… Castle votes with Republicans only half the time. Isn’t that better than having a Democrat from Delaware in the Senate, who will vote with the Republicans none of the time?”NO. The logic is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the nature of the legislation in question. If the “Rhino’s” voted with the Democrats on legislation of little consequence it would be only a little problem. But the Senator you are defending:“Voted for budget-busting stimulus spending.Voted for the bailouts.Voted for Cap-and-Trade.Voted to ban ANWR and offshore drilling.Voted for Cash-for-Clunkers and tax increases while earning an “F” rating from Second Amendment supporters.Even voted to allow the courts to remove “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.” (According to CHRIS FREIND)Mr. Goldburg, if a Rhino has this kind of a voting record he IS a Democrat. And we are left with asking ourselves if compromising our core principles just to vote a Republican into office is worth it when we are getting the same outcome as having a Democrat in office. Put another way, if we are getting the same outcome from the Democrat or the Rhino, why do you find it necessary for us to compromise our principles in the process of voting? Should we be satiated because he voted on some inconsequential legislation like naming an airport after Pres. Ronald Reagan? Does that balance things for Republicans? Here is a thought; why don’t the Rhinos compromise their beliefs and vote for constraint?In my opinion it is the Republican Party that needs to wake up and act like Reagan Republicans. If not, then we need to acknowledge that we don’t have a two party system with different paradigms. We have just one party; half wanting to spend a trillion dollars fast, the other half wanting to spend it just a bit slower. And in the end, our children’s children will recognize that the legacy we left them was a life burdened by a debt they never accrued.

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