All Commentary
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader / Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America

Two recent books criticize racial discrimination from a classical-liberal perspective.

The first, Race & Liberty in America, is an anthology edited by Jonathan Bean, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University. It includes dozens of selections, from 1776 to today, arguing eloquently for colorblind equality before the law and against slavery, Jim Crow, and racial preferences (affirmative action). Fittingly, Bean also includes much from the immigration context. (Bean earlier authored another important book in this area, Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration.)

In his introduction, “Civil Rights and Classical Liberalism,” Bean notes that, given the domination today of “the politically correct view that left-wing liberals or radicals completely dominated the struggle for racial freedom,” it is no surprise that “classical liberals are the invisible men and women of the long civil rights movement.” Bean illuminates their role in the fight against government discrimination.

Some of the names and selections in the book are unsurprising. There are several pieces by Frederick Douglass, for example, and the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are also some surprises, like the excerpts from Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Most of the pieces pertain to the oppression of blacks, but there are several excellent ones regarding government discrimination against Asians, especially the Chinese. The point is unmistakable: Those who hold a principled belief in liberty oppose all government oppression.

Especially useful are the selections Bean includes that show how the business community, so often accused of being in favor of racial discrimination, often opposed it. A series of letters regarding imposed segregation in trolley cars, for example, proved to be an eye-opener.

Bean balances readable and relatively short excerpts with intelligent commentary in the introductions. The big message of the book is that many of our great thinkers shared the vision that equality and progress will result from freedom, not the heavy and coercive hand of the State.

That’s also the thrust of Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America by Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey state judge and frequent commentator on the Fox News Channel. Napolitano claims in his introduction, “The real culprit throughout our racial history has been the government,” and his book accordingly documents and condemns a variety of bad government policies and actions from the colonial era to today.

Freeman readers will not be surprised to hear that governments, rather than the private sector, have been the most systematic and powerful purveyors of racism and discrimination. (This theme is both explicit and implicit in Bean’s book as well.) Conversely, slavery, Jim Crow regulations, and our current mania for racial preferences would have been much more difficult or impossible under a system that limited government power to its proper defensive functions and maximized individual freedom.

In other ways, too, there is considerable overlap in the two books. Both Napolitano and Bean abhor racial discrimination as not only unconstitutional but deeply immoral as well.

Despite the fact that I’m sympathetic to Napolitano’s instincts, I cannot recommend his book for a number of reasons. He believes courts should ignore the Constitution if it is inconsistent with the judge’s view of what natural law requires, which is an endorsement of judicial activism. His historical arguments conflate the failure of federal government intervention with active discrimination. And sometimes Napolitano tries to get by with assertion where proof is called for.

So the cost-conscious libertarian (is there any other kind?) should purchase Bean’s book rather than Napolitano’s. To be fair, no matter how persuasive Napolitano’s opinions were, they would not be as valuable as the treasury of original sources that Bean has compiled. Napolitano himself—as well as Shelby Steele, Richard Epstein, Linda Chavez, Stephan Thernstrom, and Ward Connerly, among many others—favorably blurbs Bean’s book, calling it “a history buff’s dream,” and he’s right.