Hey libertarians: Stop trying to claim Frederick Douglass

(Public domain)

very year, when February rolls around, libertarians always have a hard time coming up with good Black History Month content. There aren’t a lot of black libertarians, historical or otherwise, and you can’t very well do a feature on Thomas Sowell 28 days in a row (29 this year). This shortage of black libertarian heroes leads to some desperate reaches. For instance, the Libertarian Party kicked off the month with a tweet honoring the socialist Black Panthers:

While it poses somewhat of a challenge, Black History Month presents a great opportunity for some much needed outreach to black Americans. Libertarianism is a generally monochromatic, male-dominated movement, so they resort to tortured history to shoehorn themselves into the tradition of racial justice.

They achieve this by annually robbing the grave of Frederick Douglass.

This year, the billionaire-funded Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) honored the great black abolitionist with a set of quotes carefully curated to show only statements compatible with libertarian beliefs. The author Bowdlerizes Douglass’ famous Fourth of July address, excerpting one of the few lines that isn’t a scathing rebuke of American hypocrisy and the “brass-fronted impudence” of patriotic displays, which he called “a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Conspicuously absent are Douglass’ condemnations of economic exploitation and inequality. One of the links in its “Further Reading” section is another FEE article titled “Frederick Douglass Insisted Identity Politics Is Not the Answer.”

Almost every node in the web of Koch-sponsored organizations has published something laying claim to Douglass. In 2012, he appeared as a mascot of the astroturfed pseudo-populist protest movement known as the Tea Party. The Cato Institute put out a book in 2018 titled Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man

But in terms of perverse revisionism of Douglass’ legacy, there’s no greater offender than Reason Magazine, which has been running articles trying to tout Frederick Douglass as a “libertarian badass” since the 2000s.

In one article, they claim he “hated unions”. Apparently, this hatred didn’t stop him from being the president of one. In another, they say he “hated socialism.” While Douglass had disagreements with some Utopian socialists, he counted many Marxists among his closest friends and allies, including Peter H. Clark and Victoria Woodhull. He even ticketed up with Woodhull for her presidential run.

Libertarians’ claim on Douglass is pure sleight of hand. He was a “classical liberal,” they argue, which is today nearly interchangeable with “libertarian.” However, nearly everyone in 19th century American politics — from Abraham Lincoln to slavery champion John C. Calhoun — was technically a “classical liberal.” They all believed in the fundamental tenets of liberalism, albeit with wildly different interpretations.

Political scientist Nicholas Buccola, who wrote a comprehensive study of Douglass’ political thought, has pushed back against this kind of ahistorical appropriation of his legacy by conservatives. He writes that while Douglass was an “ardent defender of self-ownership, self-reliance and several other lodestars of the classical liberal tradition, a pure libertarian he was not.”

Buccola points out that the left and right wings of liberalism are broadly divided based on how they prioritize the three core rights: life, liberty and property. He argues that Douglass properly belongs on the progressive side, known as “reform liberalism,” which holds that property should be subordinate to the other two.

We don’t have to guess where he stood. Douglass was explicit

The question [of] whether civilization is designed primarily for Man or for Property can have but one direct answer … The happiness of man must be the primal condition on which any form of society can found a title to existence.

He went on to say that if a civilization “constantly increases its wealth-creating capacities” while excluding from the benefits “at least seven-tenths of all who live within its influence,” then it cannot be said to “have realized the fundamental condition of its continuance.”

Douglass makes it clear that he does not believe liberty and equality under the law are sufficient. He believed that an equitable distribution of a society’s wealth was essential to its survival.

Oklahoma sharecroppers (Public Domain)

Libertarians tend to emphasize the “voluntary” nature of the relationship between employer and employee.

But in a post-war speech on the “labor question,” Douglass diverged markedly from this view. The same libertarian media outlets trying to use his name to bolster the legitimacy would denounce him as an unhinged left-wing kook if they heard this speech today.

Douglass compared the leverage that the rich landowners had over the freemen to the power that the slavemaster had over the slaves.

An empty sack is not easily made to stand upright. The man who has it in his power to say to a man you must work the land for me, for such wages as I choose to give, has a power of slavery over him as real, if not as complete, as he who compels toil under the lash …

Feeling themselves somehow or other entitled to our labor without the payment of wages, it was not strange that they should make the hardest bargains for our labor and get it for as little as possible. For them the contest was easy; their tremendous power and our weakness easily gave them the victory.

Rooted in a class-based analysis and a critique of labor exploitation, Douglass’ views were closer to those of Karl Marx than they were to F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises or any other foundational libertarian thinkers.

This sharp contrast of wealth and poverty, as every thoughtful man knows, can exist only in one way, and from one cause, and that is by one getting more than its proper share of the reward of industry, and the other side getting less — and that in some way labor has been defrauded or otherwise denied of its due proportion.

Douglass took the labor theory of value—a “classically liberal” idea—and followed it to the same conclusion that Marx did, saying that the “labor of a country is the source of its wealth; without the colored laborer today the South would be a howling wilderness, given up to bats, owls, wolves and bears.”

[T]he South is more prosperous than it ever was before and rapidly recovering from the waste of war … [H]ow happens it, we sternly ask, that the houses of its laborers are miserable huts, that their clothes are rags, and their food the coarsest and scantiest? How happens it that the landowner is becoming richer and the laborer poorer?

Douglass radically differed from libertarians not only in his political philosophy but also in his policy. While it’s hard to gauge accurately what a person from history would believe today, we can look at stances they took on issues that have analogues in the 21st century.

Education was the means by which Douglass liberated himself from bondage. He taught himself to read and write, then literally wrote his own ticket to freedom by forging a travel pass from his master. So it’s no surprise that he believed in education’s power to transform the lives of the largely illiterate freemen.

He supported the Blair Education Bill, which would have created nationwide universal public schooling. When it failed to pass, he lamented that Republicans had become a party of “money rather than a party of morals; a party of things rather than a party of humanity and justice” and later he said “this Congress has preferred protection of commerce and property to protection of personal and political liberty.”

Libertarians have consistently supported school privatization. In fact, the earliest issue that the libertarian movement coalesced around was Virginia charter schools, which provided Southern whites an alternative to state-mandated desegregation.

Convicts leased to harvest timber (Public domain)

Douglass was also a fierce opponent of the convict-lease system, the forerunner to today’s private prisons. Poor blacks would be arrested on petty crimes, like vagrancy and petty theft, and given decades-long sentences. They would then be leased to do a wide range of unpaid labor from farming to mining.

Foreshadowing the kind of critiques that would be made by justice reform activists and legal scholars, like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Douglass wrote:

The second reason our race furnishes so large a share of the convicts is that the judges, juries and other officials of the courts are white men who share these prejudices. They also make the laws. It is wholly in their power to extend clemency to white criminals and mete severe punishment to black criminals for the same or lesser crimes.

While many libertarians genuinely support some types of reform of the justice system, particularly drug policy, they’re largely okay with private prisons. Operating under the dogmatic belief that the free market is a panacea, libertarians make the case that the problem is a lack of competition in the incarceration business.

Libertarians are convinced that if Douglass were alive today, he’d be on their side. But let’s flip that: If libertarians lived in Douglass’ time, would they be on his side?

There were people who had the exact same beliefs as today’s libertarians, and all we have to do is open a US history book to know what side they were on.

Classical liberals believed that people had a right to “self-ownership,” but most of them didn’t think blacks were people. The French intellectual who coined the term laissez-faire thought slavery was great. Mirroring the libertarian view on our for-profit gulag corporate system, his only objection was the state monopoly on the slave trade.

The Supreme Court justices in the landmark Dredd Scott made their ruling on classically liberal grounds. Scott and his family were property and thus they couldn’t be taken from their owner without due process.

To quote one justice’s opinion:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order …; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

Libertarians are kidding themselves if they think they would be on the right side of the issue of slavery. Their ranks include people like Charles Murray, who uses racist pseudoscience to justify inequality as natural and attack interventions designed to address it.

But I can understand why they would want to claim Frederick Douglass as one of their own. His every word burned with a righteous indignation and rang true as only those said in the service of justice can. He had the power to inspire in a way that the sterile amoral ghouls libertarians idolize—Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard—never could.

Douglass saw the truth that equality under the law was meaningless without equality in face. He believed that people are more precious than property.

So, libertarians, if you’re reading, do us a favor and keep his name out of your mouth.

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

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