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A Free Market Cannot Guarantee Civil Rights

Senate nominee Rand Paul’s position that private businesses open to serve the public should be able to discriminate has raised a firestorm of protest. Paul contends that a free market will punish businesses that discriminate, and therefore government does not have to intervene to guarantee rights of access to all Americans.
 

Of course, 100 years of the failure of the free market in the South to punish businesses that discriminated is a hundred years of history that the Libertarians have to deal with. In response to that fact, they have come up with the ingenious argument that the Jim Crow laws created government support of segregation. Their argument goes on that if left to itself, a free market would reward businesses that did not discriminate and punish those that did.

 

This is an attractive, common-sense argument many believe. Shouldn’t we have the right to associate with whomever we wish? And if we have a business, shouldn’t we have the right to serve whomever we wish? If we want to discriminate, shouldn’t that be our right as free citizens? All of this sounds very American and democratic, but unfortunately it is neither. Nor is it common sense or logical.

 

The problem with their argument is that Libertarians treat economics as if it were an isolated component of society. But economics, or markets, are intertwined with other aspects of our society, such as social mores, behavior, preferences and religious convictions to name just a few. Economics is power, and the white business owners in the South knew that. Because the white majority controlled the bus line in Montgomery, Ala., they could insist that African-Americans ride in the back of the bus.

 

In fairness, Rand Paul has said he supports government intervention to guarantee access to public institutions and transportation, so this should be a nonissue. But the principle is the same. Money is power and whites did, and still do, control a disproportionate amount of economic power.

 

That economic power was used to sustain the social structure of the South after the Civil War ended. Supporters of Paul say that happened because Jim Crow laws were enacted. But there is another force at work. Fifteen years before Jim Crow laws began to be passed in 1876, white terror organizations were formed to guarantee the white Southern way of life would continue. The first Klan organizations were formed immediately following the Civil War and were led by former Confederate soldiers and officers. Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate general, was the most famous early Klansman.

 

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The Ku Klux Klan enforced the segregation of the South, and the denigration of African-Americans before Jim Crow laws existed. Klansmen were often the leading white citizens, who donned white hoods and robes to mask their identities, and carried out their raids at night. They were among the first domestic terrorists, to use a 21st century label. My point is that informal social systems are more powerful than free markets in shaping the economic reality of any given society. Free markets will not self-regulate and reward noble purposes because we cannot assume good will by the majority toward the minority.

 

Government exists to guarantee the rights of all its citizens, which is not a problem for the majority. But for the minority, those with the least economic power and the fewest votes, it is only the law of the land enforced by the federal government that can guarantee rights of access to all institutions, both public and privately owned, that are open to serve the public.

 

Further, market forces and economics actually work against minorities. Majority business owners, white in the case of the South, could easily elect to discount 10 percent or more of their potential business. That amounts to the approximate population of African-Americans to whites in the South of the 1950s. To maintain social standing, to go along with the social structure, and to avoid the wrath of activist white racists, white business owners either did not serve blacks (restaurants, hotels and so on) or subjected blacks to demeaning business practices, such as using a separate entrance, sitting in the balcony of the theater, drinking from separate fountains, using separate restrooms or being denied privileges reserved for white patrons.

 

Simple economics, lovingly called free markets, cannot guarantee that those in the minority will have access to public institutions or those open to serve the public. This is not a freedom of association issue, this is not a private property rights issue, this is not an infringement upon freedoms issue. The government exists for the welfare of all its citizens, not just the majority.

 

If we reject that notion in America, and embrace the idea that our society can discriminate against the minority population, then we deserve to take our place on the ash heap of cultures who favored the strong over the weak, the majority over the minority, the rich over the poor, men over women, whites over blacks, the well over the sick, and the young over the old.

 

This is not a theoretical debate. It is the lived reality of millions of Americans. Ideas are powerful, and words mean something. Those of us committed to a just, fair and equitable society cannot remain silent and allow ideas discredited 50 years ago to gain traction today. We are a nation of “we the people” not “me the individual.” We must remain so to be true to the idea that once was the United States of America.

 

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Amicus Dei.