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Was Frederick Douglass a Libertarian?

March 12, 2018

By Timothy Sandefur
March 12, 2018

Nicholas Buccola—one of the nation’s leading scholars of Frederick Douglass—has a piece in the New York Times blog “The Stone” in which he challenges my classification of Frederick Douglass as a libertarian. Now, as I argued on Ricochet recently, there’s a point at which any such effort at classification is rather silly: it’s more important to understand the substance of what Douglass stood for than to label it. Also, any effort to classify the man as “libertarian” or “conservative” or “progressive” or whatever will depend on us defining these terms—and such definitions are complex and contentious. Another complication is the fact that there are disagreements within these groups. Randy Barnett for example, pointed out in 2007 that libertarians don’t always agree on the practical application even of the principles that they share, even on major controversies. And then there’s the fact that many of those who call themselves libertarians actually aren’t.

On the other hand, the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names. And classifying—well, it’s just what scholars do. So how should we label Douglass?

It’s probably best to define our terms in basic principles. What’s distinctive about the libertarian or classical liberal tradition is its overriding emphasis on the rights of the individual, as opposed to the purported “rights” of society or the state. The classical liberal begins with the idea that the individual is fundamentally entitled to freedom—to live his or her life without coercion from others. People create governments to protect them against coercion, so that they can lead their lives as they choose—and the government is therefore their servant, not their master. Libertarians apply this principle to both “economic” and “social” matters: people should be as free to run a business as they should to choose their own spouses.

Today’s conservatism and liberalism share some of these views in some ways, but also reject them in others. Conservatives hold that society is something that needs preservation per se—that it has its own just claims to survival and security—and that the individual’s rights can be curtailed to accomplish that. Today’s liberals believe that “social justice” requires the state to intervene and rearrange cultural habits and social patterns and individual rights in order to accomplish broader economic and social equality. (I’m trying to be generous, here.) And, as with libertarians, there’s a lot of debate within these groups, too, both about the merits of these values and how they should be applied.

Of these three, Douglass fits most comfortably by far into the classical liberal or libertarian category. He believed quite clearly that the individual is the sole bearer of rights, and that the government exists to protect those rights. In the messy and complicated aftermath of the Civil War, of course, it was never entirely clear how to apply these principles. But it is clear that he was not what we today would call either conservative or liberal. He did not believe in today’s “social justice” theories—he would have had nothing but scorn for the notions of “privilege theory” or “cultural appropriation” or the idea that inequalities in society are the result of social injustices instead of individual choice. His emphasis on self-reliance, on the values of individual initiative, and the possibility of personal success in a free society, make that clear. And he was certainly no conservative. He married a white woman in 1884, and was a lifelong feminist.

Buccola objects to my classifying him as libertarian because Douglass came to reject his earlier belief in non-intervention and to hold that the slaves would have been better off if the government had engaged in a program of redistribution and social control. “Douglass certainly believed that it was important to protect individuals from unjust interference,” but, at least later in life, “he did not believe this was sufficient to make human beings free.”

There’s truth to this. But the context matters a lot. Douglass was speaking of people who themselves had actually been enslaved, largely as a result of government intervention. Even the strictest laissez-faire libertarian would have little objection to the government restoring gains that it wrongfully seized to begin with. What Douglass did not believe, however, even late in life, is that government should be in the perpetual business of rearranging society in the service of “social justice.” In 1883, after the Supreme Court gutted the 1875 Civil Rights Act in the Civil Rights Cases, for example, Douglass took to the podium to denounce the decision as a betrayal of the Union cause. And yet, he also made a point of rejecting the idea that the government should devote itself to, in Buccola’s words, “counteracting the power of economic elites.” The government was obligated to protect civil rights in the south, Douglass told the audience—but it should not be in the business of seeking to enforce “social equality.” In other words, government should prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation—but not violate property rights by forcing people to accept each other as equals on a personal basis. “Equality, social equality, is a matter between individuals. It is a reciprocal understanding.” While he despised racism, he respected the individual rights of racists. (And this speech, too, he saw fit to reprint in his memoirs.)

But there’s a more important point here: Douglass did believe that “freedom as noninterference” wasn’t enough—and libertarians agree with that. Social institutions are critical to enabling people to make the most of their lives. Civil society institutions—charities, scholarly associations, community organizations, social clubs—are all essential in a free society, as every libertarian, from Friedman to Hayek to Rand, has emphasized. The only dispute is whether these institutions should be operated by the government or by private initiative. Libertarians argue—I think persuasively—that they work better, more justly, more effectively, if run privately than by the state. And one might argue that the experience of the Freedmen’s Bureau is good proof of that. But the idea that libertarians think that noninterference alone is enough is really a simplistic caricature of libertarian thought.

And that opens another layer of complexity. Real life is far messier than the abstractions of any political theory, and particularly in the wake of a catastrophe like the Civil War and the collapse of Reconstruction. The advent of sharecropping and the peonage laws in the south show how racial oppression was produced by an interaction of private prejudice and government interference—which built a chain that could not easily be dissolved by applying the acid of any philosophical ideas in their purest forms. Like all people of good conscience, Douglass struggled with these questions, often torn between the temptation toward government intervention and the fact that respecting people’s freedom means they’ll often make bad choices. Another good example of this is prohibition of alcohol—a proposition Douglass opposed virtually all his life, despite being strongly opposed to drinking. There’s some evidence (I think rather vague) that he came to embrace prohibition late in life, but if so, it was only reluctantly.

I make clear in my book that Douglass wasn’t a “pure” libertarian—if that term means anything. Indeed, his rejection of the “state action doctrine” in his speech on the Civil Rights Cases is quite un-libertarian. But even with these factors considered, I think it’s false to say that Douglass abandoned his belief in “freedom as noninterference.” There is no evidence of his thinking that government should redistribute wealth indefinitely to accomplish lasting economic equality. He certainly did not believe in anything like a regulatory welfare state. He was a radical individualist, who, even when he did think government should intervene, confined that to removing the weights that had been imposed upon them, so that they could achieve their own individual goals.

Over a public career that lasted a half-century, Douglass took many directions, but the overriding theme of his thought was that all people are created equal, with an inalienable right to their own lives, their own liberties, and the pursuit of their own happiness, without interference from others or obstruction from the state. And I think the best label for that is libertarian.

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation and holds the Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.



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