Sunday, May 23, 2010

Grasping the past (4): What government wrought

The New York Times has editorialised on the limits of libertarianism (via), in response to comments by Rand Paul on civil rights and racial matters.

Now, there are some perfectly reasonable criticisms to be made of Rand Paul's comments on race. Scott Sumner makes some of them here. Nevertheless, the New York Times editorial makes some deeply stupid comments:
It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market.
American slavery was created by government. The common law did not recognise slavery: only statutory acts by colonial government's created slavery in British possessions, as Lord Mansfield ruled in the famous Somersett's Case of 1772.

Similarly, Jim Crow was an act of US state governments. Jim Crow were the Jim Crow laws. Government as an institution is hardly to be credited with abolishing what it had created in the first place. As I have pointed out before, commerce generally has a better record in its treatment of minority and disadvantaged groups than government or religion. For example, in the US, commerce still treats gay folks better than governments do.

The stupidity continues:
It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression
There is an excellent case that government policy turned an otherwise normal cyclical downturn into the Great Depression and that FDR's policies as much hampered recovery as helped it.

As for:
... and promoted safety and equality in the workplace.
Leaving aside all the ways government promoted inequality in the workplace, insurance premiums had at least as much positive effect on workplace safety as anything the governments did.

Now, the New York Times's comments on the Depression and workplace safety are nowhere near as stupid as its comments on slavery and Jim Crow, but nor is the editorial spouting the "obvious truths" it thinks it is. What is on show is the progressivist mindset, where government failure is turned into market failure and so becomes invisible.

There are reasonable criticisms to be made of Rand Paul's comments. Pity the New York Times does not make them: instead, it puts on blatant display its own historical ignorance and ideological insularity leading to comments of breathtaking stupidity.

ADDENDA There is also the question of how libertarian Rand Paul is actually.

FURTHER: Jeffrey Ellis has gone into more detail about why the NYT editorial is nonsense.


  1. Lorenzo have you heard the line that goes it was judicial libertarian ideology that was responsible for Jim Crow? The line goes that libertarians are anti-centralist government and thus pro-State's rights. If the US Supreme Court had rejected State's rights legal arguments, the federal government would have quashed Jim Crow decades ago.

    But what this elides is that State governments are still the State! What these people are thus advocating is that when it suits them they will go up the chain to the most powerful State power for legitimation, but that still doesn't get them out of the problem with State power in the first place.

  2. Quite so. This is really complaining about federalism as stick to beat libertarians in a tribal sense, rather than thinking in terms of government being used in an abusive way.