Classical Liberalism Is Not Colorblind

Jonah Golberg argued last week that there is something “unlibertarian” in pointing out, as I did, that 

American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election. 

Jacob Sullum has replied in much more detail than I could have, concluding:

From a libertarian perspective, the war on drugs would be unjust even if its victims were a statistically precise cross-section of the American population. But the fact that it disproportionately harms members of a racial minority that was long subject to official discrimination in this country is additional cause for concern, especially since the laws it enforces grew out of explicitly racist anxieties.

But I’d like to single out this claim of Jonah’s:

It seems to me that the classical liberal is supposed to see people as autonomous and sovereign moral actors, not identity politics groups.

This sounds to me like Jonah thinks the classical liberal is supposed to play stupid. Jonah is fully aware that this is a country that for most of its history has been dominated by “identity group politics,” if you want to call it that. Blacks have been legal slaves. Jim Crow established legal racial segregation. We’ve not overcome the legacy of this. We live with urban policies that were initiated as thinly veiled attempts to reinforce residential segregation. We live with education policies that create a de facto segregated and highly unequal system of education. And, as Jacob emphasizes, drug policy has never been color-blind. To point out that it burdens blacks disproportionately is simply to point out that American public policy has never stopped being racist, has never stopped reinforcing a shameful structure of racial stratification squarely at odds with the classical liberal ideal of equal freedom under the law. Classical liberalism is not the stupid idea that there is no history. Nor is it the stupid idea that individuals who are members of groups that have been, and continue to be, victims of discriminatory state action are as fully free as individuals who are not. Classical liberalism is the demand that the state treat mature individuals as equally autonomous and sovereign moral agents, which is why it is necessary to point out the disturbingly discriminatory nature of American drug policy.

[Update: Please also see John Schwenkler and Mark Thompson. Update update: Also and especially John Holbo. How did I miss all this stuff I apparently started.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

20 thoughts

  1. To complain slightly …. The “problem” with drug laws isn't the laws. Weed is weed, whether you're black, white, hispanic or a prize poodle. And to judge from what I've seen (some rigorous studies, some anecdotal evidence, some reading online) whitey likes his weed as much as anyone. The “problem” such as it is has to do with unequal enforcement of of the existing laws. Suburban white guys can stuff their stash in the back of the liquor cabinet, and curl up on a basement couch with 60 pounds of M&Ms on a saturday. Your urban poor don't have that option. They're renters, etc, meaning their drug use is more likely “public”. (Please note I'm not suggesting the po-leese, like, arrest dopers with black and brown skin. Heavens no! Not in this country!) Anyway – the problem is not the laws. It's their administration, and enforcement. Could be a class thing. Harder to light up in a rental. etc.

  2. The war on drugs is a failure in every way. It burdens the police, courts and prisons. It's a choice – certainly a very bad one in the case of crack, powder cocaine or heroin. Pot is not entirely benign, but I would argue that it is less harmful than alcohol. The DEA grows with no positive results – whatever results society might want or expect from it. Goldberg's wish to now go after more whites is absurd. Legalization or decriminalization.

  3. Careful, Will, or you'll find that Jonah's next book will be titled “Libertarian Fascism”. Then you'll be sorry.Hey, by the way, you're lately giving me some reason to reassess my doubts about the “liberal” part of your liberaltarian moniker. Keep it up.

  4. Thank you, Will.You fill a void. I'm used to self-identified libertarians having a knee-jerk reaction to any talk of racial injustice. And I'm used to liberals assuming that libertarians are blind to these sorts of problems. Every time I stop in here, you remind me what sanity is.

  5. There are all sorts of other factors as well. Just look at the social networking. Many small-time white dealers deal with people they know.It's rare you see a white guy out on the corner selling stuff to people in cars (I've seen it in Cops a few times, but never in person whereas I've seen blacks dealing on street corners quite a few times).

  6. Has Jonah voiced similar concerns when conservatives argue that immigration disproportionately harms blacks? While conservatives claim to oppose playing the race card they will always play it when it suites their argument.

  7. Will, if it turned out to be the case that drug prohibition hurt blacks no more than other poor people, would you agree that it would be disingenuous to single out the effects on black people?Because surely you would agree that if we know someone who is a misanthrope it would be quite misleading to describe him to someone else as a misogynist.The post I linked on my blog has more on this.

  8. Precisely. I find that the responses to Jonah so far have largely missed the point. Jacob Sullum points to the racist roots of drug policies, but are those supposed to be a prima facie argument against those policies in 2009? I don't think so. If the racial stratification that is created is an incidental effect of drug convictions largely occurring among the poor, then it's clear that the switch to emphasizing race is only done out of rhetorical opportunism (because people are easier to rile up with claims of “racism” than claims of “classism”), which is what Jonah is complaining about. It's reminiscent of an old Onion article that I wish I remembered better, with a headline of something like “supervolcano devastates civilization, women and blacks hit hardest.” Obviously a racist and sexist volcano, right?I'm not saying that the argument that the drug war does employ explicit racism can't be made – there are a lot of statistics concerning it with troubling residuals that we can't control for that are probably largely attributable to real racism in some form. So people should go ahead and make those arguments and be prepared to defend them. But failing to do that, I think that libertarians stand to lose much more than they gain by employing these rhetorical tactics, largely because there are a lot of liberals who love the idea of throwing the same arguments back at them – cutting taxes is racist, cutting entitlement spending is racist, not voting for Barack Obama is racist, etc.

  9. “Classical liberalism is the demand that the state treat mature individuals as equally autonomous and sovereign moral agents, which is why it is necessary to point out the disturbingly discriminatory nature of American drug policy.”

    1. Only if it's equally necessary to point out the discriminatory nature (and discriminatory history) of the minimum wage, union organizing, Davis-Bacon, etc.. Or of a host of other laws. Nearly every government action (or even inaction) can be said with some truth to be “disturbingly discriminatory” against blacks; in some cases “merely” because blacks tend to be poorer, in other cases because of underlying racism. 2. Because of reason 1, arguing on the basis of the discriminatory nature is extremely unlikely to achieve your goal of having the laws repealed. Instead, you'll only encourage comments like those of Paul G. Brown, who says that the laws are okay, just the enforcement is not, and the whole thing will get papered over. You end up sounding like someone who talks about the unfair enforcement of speed limit laws and “driving while black”, an argument that has never convinced anyone to raise or eliminate speed limits. Nor do I think that discussion of the racist history and disparate effect of minimum wage laws and Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates has ever convinced a significant number of people to be against them, as interesting or relevant as the facts may be.3. To give an example of 2., take Dan's comment about immigration. It is indeed very easy to make a case that, while immigration benefits society both in the short run and even more in the long run (in addition to, importantly in my and your eyes, benefiting the immigrants), short run pain does tend to disproportionately affect blacks. It does so because of the legacy of slavery and racism that has left blacks, on average, poorer and with less skills, competing with the low-skill immigrants. Do you find it “necessary” to point this out? Would such a fact ever change your mind about the overall policy? I don't think it would without other, underlying arguments. Instead, it might cause someone to favor ameliorating measures designed to decrease the disparate impact. And so in other areas, like the drug laws. Disparate impact as an argument will never achieve your goals. It will only cause people to argue that the implementation should be tweaked. (Which may or may not happen.)

  10. We live with education policies that create a de facto segregated and highly unequal system of education.

    True. But to what degree has the argument that public education has disparate impact resulted in support, particularly among the Left, for libertarian solutions like vouchers or tax credits? It certainly didn't stop the DC scholarship program from being shut down?Instead, such arguments seem to lead only to the idea that we must continue state education, but with tweaks like busing.Claims of disparate impact are indeed often true, but the same claim can be made against nearly any government policy. But focusing on them too much leads only to proposals for reforms of the execution. Without discussion of the fundamentals behind a policy, it also leads people to tune them out– when everything plausibly can described as disturbingly discriminatory, you need additional argument to know that this policy needs to be fundamentally changed rather than tweaked or reformed.Certainly an argument that relied on discriminatory impact alone would be somewhat unlibertarian. Libertarians are motivated by other principles as well, and would not reject overall certain libertarian policies (free immigration and movement of people, free trade, free divorce, etc.) even if those policies could somehow be shown to have disturbing disparate impact that harmed blacks while being overall positive. So disparate impact is not sufficient to the libertarian argument.In addition, neither is disparate impact necessary to the libertarian argument. “From a libertarian perspective, the war on drugs would be unjust even if its victims were a statistically precise cross-section of the American population.” Quite true.So you're left with an argument that is neither necessary nor sufficient. It may indeed be a cause for legitimate additional concern (I like to think so), but surely you understand then either suspicions that it's merely a cover and not sincerely held (claims made more quickly over concerns offered by libertarians or conservatives about blacks regarding vouchers/educational policy, or conservatives about immigration), or Mr. Goldberg's argument that, because the line of argument is neither necessary nor sufficient from the libertarian perspective, that it's somewhat unlibertarian, or at least outside the fundamental philosophy. Those suspicions are only natural when you feel that someone's opinion on, e.g., the drug laws would be affected not at all (or not substantively at all) if the “disturbingly discriminatory nature” was completely absent. Will, what policies exist where disparate impact would or has caused you to change your opinion about your recommended policy? If none exist, then I think it's fair to say that, however important discriminatory nature is to you, it's not a fundamental part of your philosophy.

  11. Goldberg's wish to now go after more whites is absurd.

    Actually, he doesn't say that at all in the linked post. He also reiterates that he supports decriminalization of pot.

  12. “And I'm used to liberals assuming that libertarians are blind to these sorts of problems.”

    Not that they're blind, but that they don't really care. But modern liberals are justified in that assumption. It's all very well to point out the discriminatory impact of a policy you oppose anyway. But when, ever, do libertarians say, “Colorblind classical liberal theory would cause me to support X, but because of disparate impact I'll oppose it?” In general, they don't; if they did, they'd be modern liberals. Most modern liberals I know are libertarian in theory but believe that certain facts, like disparate impact, force sacrifices of that principle in certain cases.You can recognize the problem of disparate impact all you want, but if it absolutely never changes your preferred policy recommendations, then I think that people are justified in being unsure how much you care about the problem, or whether you're just using the rhetoric. Even if you wholeheartedly believe that classical liberal policies decrease disparate impact and are better for everyone in the long run, so that there is no contradiction between being cognizant of discrimination and a classical liberal, you will never be able to convince people that you “really mean it” so long as you can't point to a single policy where the disparate impact alone was either necessary or sufficient for you to hold your current views.I say this as someone who agrees with Will about both the drug war and its disparate impact, and as someone who is not a modern liberal.

  13. As a rule of thumb, you always stand to gain more than you lose when you figure out what you think the truth is, and argue for that.

  14. Well, I kind of agree with that. I'm more saying that the libertarian community could stand to improve, especially on race.

  15. I don't know that that is the right way to read it.I don't use the terms “liberaltarian” but I do think a lot like Will on most issues. And I agree wholeheartedly on this one. That said, I think that impression of libertarians toward racial injustice depends on the issue. Sometimes…it must be said…, cries of racial injustice are nothing more than the politics of victimization and these cries are a precursor to some really bad idea for the government to do XYZ and make it worse or not fix the problem.Drugs are different matter. Here, we have a bad government policy that exacerbates the “problems” of drug use and makes a unsavory situation worse. It's bad enough that people are junkies. That can be a problem for them and their families. But the violence of black market drug sales and the insult to injury on junkies and their families by throwing them in jail is far worse and deplorable.That is quite different…though subtle…from the abstract stereotypical arguments one would expect from someone like Jesse Jackson who comes off quite differently when he plays victim politics with blacks over generic matters of poverty and the like where comes off as divisive and unhelpful.

  16. It is obvious that the war on drugs should end but I would not claim that it is unjust because more blacks wind up in jail because of whites. The laws are supposed to be colour blind and do not discriminate. They don't say that a white person selling drugs should get a lesser sentence than a black one. And while there may be some race based discrimination in the application of the laws I would say that the jails are disproportionately populated with blacks because the more violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks. The racial argument is diverting us from the issue because race should not matter. Drug laws are unjust because they create victimless criminals and interfere with voluntary transactions among competent individuals. As such, they have no place in a free society.

  17. We live with urban policies that were initiated as thinly veiled attempts to reinforce residential segregation. We should know that Libertarians are motivated by other principles ..

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