With Martin Luther King Jr. day just around the corner in the U.S. (1/16/2012), now is a good time to bring up what is often construed as racism by strict libertarians who hold property rights as sacrosanct. MLK is widely acknowledged to have played a key role in promoting the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by leading massive protest marches. This includes the famous “Great March on Washington” and even more notable “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, regarded as controversial at the time of passing, desegregated much of the federal bureaucracy and public accommodations at the state and municipal level in addition to eliminating poll taxes and literacy tests used to disenfranchise minorities in the southern United States. None of these stipulations are controversial from a libertarian perspective per say. Public facilities, funded by money acquired through forceful acquisition, should be open to those who have no other choice but to fund them. The existence of these public institutions is what tends to irk libertarians.
The problematic aspects of the Civil Rights Act come down to Title II and Title VII which outlaw discriminatory hiring and selling practices by private employers. Such an egalitarian mandate, admittedly, sounds wonderful from a social engineering perspective. If your idea of what constitutes a just society is one where everyone treats all races and genders equally, how better to accomplish such a utopia then literally forcing people to behave accordingly with threat of monetary penalties and imprisonment?
From a liberty perspective however, such a policy is a direct affront on basic property rights.
Property rights, despite the opposition from those on the radical left side of the political spectrum, are a fundamental and necessary arrangement for societal order, conflict mediation, and the efficient use of scarce resources. The means of economization are best achieved when resources are firmly in the ownership of an individual or group of individuals. As economist Ludwig von Mises declared:
If history could prove and teach us anything, it would be that private ownership of the means of production is a necessary requisite of civilization and material well-being. . . . Only nations committed to the principle of private property have risen above penury and produced science, art and literature.”While not horrendously damaging economically, the Civil Rights Act is a violation of a principle responsible for the great standard of living many of us enjoy today. Forcing an individual to serve another is no better than the sanctioning of slavery. Whenever someone decides to open a business, they invest their time, capital, and various resources into what they see as an end-fulfilling endeavor. When a storefront is acquired, such is necessarily private property whether it be in the ownership of a buyer or financier. There is absolutely no difference between a business or place of residence. And just like how I have the right to exercise my preference in allowing certain individuals into my home, this extends to whatever property I maintain control of.
Therefore, it is concluded that Title II and Title VII are in direct violation of basic property rights. Mandating that private business owners sell their goods and services to certain individuals is no better than putting a gun to their head and enforcing the practice. The libertarian opposition to the Act has nothing at all to do with racism; implying so demonstrates a deep ignorance on the views of those who value property rights.
To come full circle on the case against Title II & VII of the Civil Rights Act, the irrationality of restricting one’s customer base to certain genders or races must be pointed out. Business owners are in pursuit of a profit; this provides an incentive to acquire as much market share as possible. Greedy capitalist pigs are greedy capitalist pigs; are they not? Even if a given community has a number of businesses that practice discrimination in selling their wares, the opportunity exists for an entrepreneur to open a business and reject this trend to steal away market share.
Overall, the libertarian opposition to certain portions of the Civil Rights Act is based on private property rights enforcement only. Whether a business owner refuses to sell to someone based on racial prejudices, hatred of certain hair colors, or disapproval of bone structure is irrelevant. The ability to reject an individual from one’s property is a fundamental aspect of private property. Begin chipping away at this crucial axiom of liberty and there is no telling how far down the road to serfdom a society will go.