Freedom to Be a Villain, Research Time, 26/07/2017

Yesterday evening, the GF and I were talking about the widespread famine and food shortages throughout Africa and the Arabian peninsula right now. Caused by drought crisis and exacerbated by war and less official political violence, there are serious food shortages in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Yemen.

The Jewish community of eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya, is currently
at risk from drought and food shortages.
Those are only the countries suffering most from famine – millions across the continent are at risk. The famine doesn’t have much mainstream media attention – Donald Trump succumbing to dementia at a Boy Scout Jamboree seems more important to Jeff Zucker and his ilk than actually informing the public about life-or-death issues.

Now, I want to ask you, reader, a question. If someone asked you to donate some money to a famine relief activity for one of these areas – say, for a community in eastern Uganda – would you do it?

A follow-up. Say you give them a few dollars. Not much, but what you can spare. Would you consider it your free choice? I think so. Someone explains the famine and what their organization was working on to help people, follows it up with a request for a donation, and you give some money. You’ve considered it, and chosen to do so.

But what if you decide not to. Same scenario – explanation of the famine and the organization’s relief work – but you say no. That would also be your free choice.

Now, one last question. Is the person who would help a community in such distress a better person than the one who wouldn’t?

Peter Singer is one philosopher, quite popular in the circles where I did
my doctorate, who has advocated that we have a moral duty to give to
charity and overcome unjust inequalities.
It’s reasonable to say yes. Someone who wants to ease the suffering of others and help people in need where the opportunity presents itself is a decent person. Someone who turns away from others’ pain and cares only about his own desires is, at minimum, a bit of a douche.

Yes, you’re free to be a douche if you wish. But why would you wish it?

I bring up this example because I want to discuss this point from Milton Friedman in its context. Someone who makes even a small gesture to help others in need is a better person than someone who won’t. It makes you a good person to want to improve and heal the world.

Contributing to your society’s overcoming racism is one way to heal the world. Friedman considers free markets themselves to do this, because of the inherently anti-racist character of a totally open economy. This does make sense.

When you open your society and economy to people of all ethnicities, cultures, castes, and religions and refuse to racialize any of them into an underclass, you’ve made a better society and a better market. You don’t cut anyone out of the market for any reason other than incompetence. You’ll become a customer of any business that gives you a fair deal on what you want, regardless of identity. That’s great.

When I grew up, everyone in my education system – formal and
informal – spoke about segregation as a terrible crime against
human dignity. Now, mainstream conservative politicians across
the United States and in Canada want to enshrine the right to
discriminate and economically marginalize others
as an
essential human freedom. Fuck you.
Unfortunately for Friedman, his argument about racism in a free society in Capitalism and Freedom doesn’t stop there. He follows up this very insightful point about how economically ridiculous racism is, by defending our right to be racist.

The right to be racist is an aspect of the human right to liberty. Here is Friedman doubling down on the paradox of liberty – if my freedom includes a liberty to reject others from my society, then my inviolable liberty includes the freedom to violate others’ liberty.

If the members of a community all freely choose to run their businesses without hiring or selling to a racialized group, then that is their free choice to do so. The freedom to be racist should be respected as an uncomfortable but necessary element of liberty.

Here’s a paradox that popular libertarians can’t seem to escape. If our freedom includes the liberty to be a racist jackass, then we can freely marginalize and suppress the freedom of others.

Any business owner can choose not to allow someone to be their customer for whatever reason they want. The liberty to force someone else into exile? Into penury? Into poverty? Into the destruction of their dignity? Can liberty without obligation stand?

I don’t think so.


  1. The problem with your argument comes at the final hurdle. Libertarians like Friedman aren't imagining the state playing any role in these decisions to sell -- or not -- to people of whatever race. So the totalising conclusions you reach don't necessarily apply. He's imagining that even if some sellers are racist, it will be to the advantage of others not to be racist because they'll get the discriminated people's custom. Yes, you might end up with a 'separate but equal' sort of society, which is 'racist' in the sense that not all vendors are available to all buyers. But there will be at least one vendor available to all buyers. In fact, that one vendor could become quite rich, if the other vendors stick to their racist guns. The state simply observes all this stuff, but doesn't adopt an ideological position. I don't endorse this view, on either normative or practical grounds. But it's more sophisticated than your cartoon version. Specifically, Friedman's point is that you would actually need the state to intervene in the market to bring about the sort of totalising racism you're railing against. You should be thinking about arguing against a 'separate but equal' position, which is allowed by Friedman's thinking.

    1. You make a very good point. I may write a follow-up for tomorrow responding to what you remind me of here.

      I will say one thing in defense of my caricature, though, which is that the cartoonish version is actually the popular belief of libertarian activists. These are the folks who support discrimination laws in different American states as empowering business owners in the name of their own religious freedom. This is one thing I'm interested in figuring out: the disconnect between the more nuanced and thoughtful arguments of a political philosopher and the extremist and too-simple ideas of their activist followers.

      As well, I'd say "separate but equal" can't actually exist because once you prevent access to resources from any source but price and availability, that separation can't be equal. The social exclusion of racializing separation itself creates inequality. That might be a whole other rant. We'll see when I put the ideas together.