In the aftermath of the Rand Paul civil rights controversy a surprising number of self-identified libertarians have endorsed state-restrictions on freedom of association. In essence, the argument is that historical and contextual circumstances can warrant the broadening of anti-discrimination laws to the private sector. This is not just a trivial exception to libertarian support of strong property rights but also ignores the distinct classical liberal outlook that the *withholding of a benefit* should not be treated as a harm and punished by the state. As a matter of fact, it seems to be an argument that past “crimes against humanity” and “group rights” should trump peaceful individual choice.
Libertarians who advocate such restrictions on the freedom of association have argued that libertarianism should not be treated as an a-historical set of dogma’s. That is not an unreasonable argument but it is interesting to note that such claims are made by the same people who display a similar kind of dogmatism on the issue of open borders. It appears that dogmatism is more objectionable when it leads to politically incorrect conclusions.
Perhaps a more plausible explanation for the recent eagerness to embrace elements of modern liberalism is that libertarianism has become too popular to concern itself with controversial views. There are now many self-identified libertarians who wake up in the morning and go to work advocating smaller government and public policy changes. Some of them even run for office. The current transformation of libertarianism is similar to what happened to classical liberalism in Europe. We are inclined to think that ideology shapes politics but we should not ignore the fact that politics shapes ideology as well. What is urgently needed is a “public choice of political ideology.”
Another problem with this position is that it ignores the broader role that “racism” accusations play in progressive thinking. For example, let’s say Rand Paul proposes to repeal the welfare state to prevent a sovereign debt crisis. One obvious “liberal” response is to argue that such a course of action will disproportionally hurt minorities and Paul is back defending himself against racism charges again. It is hard to see how libertarians can effectively counter such accusations unless they simply reject the egalitarian premise that informs contemporary political debate.
It is also interesting to note that small government libertarians are more vulnerable to the racism charge than anarchists. I am not aware of any claims that anarchists are “racist” because they advocate abolishing all government laws, which necessarily will also include laws against racial discrimination. This feature of anarchism might explain why socialist anarchism is no longer popular among progressives. After all, it is hard to imagine how a stateless society will produce radical egalitarianism across the globe.
The libertarian critics of Rand Paul are correct that libertarianism should not be conceived as a sterile rationalist ideology. If there is any chance for libertarianism to survive it should be conceived as a form of rational choice firmly rooted in empirical reality. But if Ben O’ Neill’s Independent Review article “The Antidiscrimination Paradigm: Irrational, Unjust, and Tyrannical” is any indication, the practice of discrimination can be reconciled with rational decision making. Despite this article, and Walter Block’s heterodox articles on discrimination, it is remarkable how little thought libertarians have given to formulating a coherent moral perspective on anti-discrimination laws.