Between former Sen. Rick Santorum’s comments about not wanting to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s food stamps comments and Rep. Ron Paul’s refusal to affirm that a business should not be allowed to refuse service to people because of their skin color, America’s historical commitment to white supremacy has been bubbling to the surface of the Republican Party presidential campaigns in the past few weeks.
While members of both parties are deeply entrenched in this historical commitment, it is the conservative commitment to making the federal government as small as possible that is wholly ideologically invested in whiteness.
It is Paul’s comments that I’d like to focus on, since they manifest as the logical extension of a true unbridled commitment to small-government conservatism or libertarianism.
In multiple interviews in the past month, Paul has commented on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that repealed Jim Crow laws which forced schools, bathrooms and buses to desegregate and banned employment discrimination, saying that it “undermine[d] the concept of liberty” and “destroyed the principle of private property and private choices.”
Before you scoff that this is one crazy opinion, take the time to consider what’s packed up into these comments because they make explicit the logical conclusion of a commitment to the ultimate sacrosanctity of private property rights and an understanding of liberty which is fundamentally negative – the two ideas most central to small-government conservatism and libertarianism.
To deal with property rights first, if one is committed to keeping the government out of private businesses, the fact that a private business owner cannot autonomously choose to bar certain people from their services is a violation of that commitment. In principle, anti-discrimination laws are the government telling private business owners what they can and cannot do, which is against the principle that one ought to have total autonomy over one’s own private property.
This in turn is based on a fundamentally negative view of liberty.
Negative liberty is having a freedom from interference of one’s actions or choices by other people or institutions. In contrast, positive liberty is having the power and resources to carry out one’s potential. Small-government conservatism and libertarianism place more emphasis on negative liberty, while big-government liberals and conservatives place more emphasis on positive liberty. As such, if you’re truly committed to maximizing negative liberty, you will – as a matter of principle – have a huge problem with the government telling you that you can’t decide for yourself who can and cannot come into your private place of business.
This is the foundation of the “take our country back” and “get the government off our backs” brand of conservatism that is so popular today and this happens to be the nesting place of white supremacy in conservative ideology. White folks have the unacknowledged privilege of being able to think strictly in terms of negative liberty because the social space of whiteness endows its occupants with unacknowledged power and resources for carrying out individual potential that those who are not included in the space have to work disproportionately harder to access.
So, quite simply, in order to combat our own history of white supremacy, we need to have a federal government that has its nose in our economic business. No matter what Ron Paul or any other libertarian says, it is unequivocally unacceptable to say that a business owner ought to be allowed to determine for themselves if they want to bar certain kinds of people from their private place of business.