Wasn't government action necessary to halt slavery and racial oppression?
Published April 04, 2011 in Short Answers by
I recently saw the movie "Amazing
Grace," about the end of the slave trade in England. How does
libertarianism respond to the American Civil War and the Civil rights
movement? In both of them, government action was used to enhance
Government action made slavery possible, and kept
it possible -- and the government only backtracked when the citizenry
For example, prior to the Civil War, slavery was legal and enforced by
governments of both North and South. Slaves who escaped to the North were
returned -- by law -- to their Southern "owners." It was
against the law in the North to help slaves escape. To fight slavery it
was necessary for freedom lovers to fight the law.
Members of the Underground Railroad, who tried to get the escaped slaves
to Canada where they couldn't be extradited, were routinely hauled into
court. Courageous individuals serving on the juries refused to convict.
(Juries have the constitutionally-granted power to "nullify"
laws that they believe to be unjust; to learn more, see the
Fully Informed Jury Association)
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until the Civil War
had been underway for years, and it only "emancipated" slaves
in states that had joined the Confederacy. Towards the end of the Civil
War, indignant abolitionists, supported by President Lincoln, lobbied for
an amendment to the Constitution to free the blacks still enslaved in
Although Southern states didn't vote on this amendment, it still did not
Similarly, government power enforced, and often mandated, compulsory
racial segregation in the South in the first half of the twentieth
century. For example, economist
Sowell points out that racially segregated seating on public
transportation, far from being a traditional Southern policy, only began
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- and it was government that
created the problem.
Writes Dr. Sowell:
"Many, if not most, municipal transit systems were privately owned
in the 19th century and the private owners of these systems had no
incentive to segregate the races.
"These owners may have been racists themselves but they were in
business to make a profit -- and you don't make a profit by alienating a
lot of your customers. There was not enough market demand for Jim Crow
seating on municipal transit to bring it about.
"... Private owners of streetcar, bus, and railroad companies in the
South lobbied against the Jim Crow laws while these laws were being
written, challenged them in the courts after the laws were passed, and
then dragged their feet in enforcing those laws after they were upheld by
"These tactics delayed the enforcement of Jim Crow seating laws for
years in some places. Then company employees began to be arrested for not
enforcing such laws and at least one president of a streetcar company was
threatened with jail if he didn't comply.
(Dr. Sowell discusses this in greater detail in his book
Preferential Policies, An International Perspective, 1990,
This is not to say that these transportation company owners were not
racists, or were champions of black freedom. They simply wanted to make
money. And free markets make racial discrimination extraordinarily, even
Because of such government-mandated discrimination, the modern Civil
Rights movement was pioneered by individuals such as Rosa Parks and
Martin Luther King, who practiced peaceful
Without the courageous sacrifices of such people, it's unlikely that
Congress would have been inspired (shamed?) into action.
Dr. Ruwart's outstanding books Healing Our World and Short
Answers to the Tough Questions are available at the Advocates
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