[Editor’s Note: The following essay was written by James Padilioni Jr. as part of BHL’s “New Voices” program. James is the North American Vice Chairman of Students for Liberty, and a Ph.D student in American studies at the College of William and Mary focusing on the aesthetics and epistemology of identity construction.]
Libertarianism and racism is a topic that crops up repeatedly. Whether related to discussions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or debates over the causes of the Civil War, libertarianism as an American political movement in the 20th century has struggled to articulate a theory regarding questions of race that is conscious of history. Indeed, some libertarians even deny that any such historical contextualization is necessary since libertarianism is a theory about individual rights. A political theory stemming from self-ownership and the protection of individual liberty is incapable of racism, since, as Ayn Rand postulated, “racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”
WIth the US inmate population currently the world’s largest, mostly stemming from the failed War on Drugs’ disproportionate assault on African-American communities, I am sensitive to claims of institutionalized racism while equally skeptical, for public choice reasons, of the government’s ability to remedy these problems effectively. Martin Luther King captured this disappointment in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” lamenting:
When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men…would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
Critical race theory (CRT) examines the intersection of law, race, and power as it unfolded in American history, and as CRT legal scholar Roy L. Brooks wrote, it “focuses on the various ways in which the received tradition in law adversely affects people of color not as individuals but as a group. As a result, notes CRT founder Richard Delgado, “virtually all of Critical Race thought is marked by deep discontent with liberalism….” Libertarians who read CRT might like its skepticism about legislation, but might also think that CRT scholars’ deep skepticism about liberalism means that no productive discussion is possible.
However, Friedrich Hayek’s academic work can be read, too, as a critique of a type of liberalism, or at least a critical view of one branch of Enlightenment epistemology. Epistemology, the study of what’s knowable and how it can be known, forms the focus of Hayek’s intervention to Western philosophy. In his 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “The Pretense of Knowledge,” Hayek warned that
The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
But more than merely cautioning against the pretense of knowledge, Hayek sketched out a genealogy of the Enlightenment, thus providing us with a family tree for locating its source. In “Individualism: True and False,” Hayek traced the origins of 20th century totalitarianism and central planning to the epistemology of 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes. “Cartesian rationalism…always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism.” Distinguishing between Cartesian individualism and the individualism of the Scottish Enlightenment, he clarified that the former was a “product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it.” Hayek’s skepticism about this form of rationalism placed him in opposition to every technocrat whose false confidence induces the will to design. For Hayek, the fatal conceit is the Enlightenment’s Achilles’ heel.
CRT identifies this same twisted rootbed of Cartesian epistemology as the source of the deep entanglement of racism within American liberalism. The Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge in the realm of political theory took its model from the preceding emergence of the scientific method during the 17th century. Anthropology, the study of man, branched into an important source of discussion with two limbs of scientific questioning – one concerned with biology, the other applying to ethics and politics. Over time these limbs twisted together, and though mangled grew reinforcing and strong. By Jim Crow’s dominance in the first half of the 20th century, the strength of this limb sustained the black body on full display as a teaching tool or macabre exhibit in a museum of ideological racism, converting the everyday landscape into a place of knowledge.
In “A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” Cornel West questioned the simplified Marxist explanation of racism as ideological superstructure on top of the economic base – or racism as a mere twig compared to the rocky soil of capitalist exploitation. Turning from Marx towards Foucault, West questioned “the way in which the very structure of modern discourse at its inception produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity as well as aesthetic and cultural ideals which require the constitution of white supremacy” since the dawning of modernity. West identified Descartes’ fatal conceit as spurring the pretense of pseudoscientific race knowledge:
Descartes is highly significant because his thought provided the controlling notions of modern discourse: the primacy of the subject and the preeminence of representation. Descartes is widely regarded as the founder of modern philosophy not simply because his philosophical outlook was profoundly affected by the scientific revolution but, more important, because he associated the scientific aim of predicting and explaining the world with the philosophical aim of picturing and representing the world. In this view, the fruits of scientific research do not merely provide more useful ways for human beings to cope with reality; such research also yields a true copy of reality. Descartes’s conception of philosophy as a tortuous move from the subject to objects, from the veil of ideas to the external world, from immediate awareness to extended substances, from self-consciousness to things in space, and ultimately from doubt to certainty was motivated primarily by an attempt to provide a theoretical basis for the legitimacy of modern science.
The Cartesian trap in American history is embodied in Thomas Jefferson, who voiced a distinctively-American interpretation of the Enlightenment that continues to influence political, legal, and cultural institutions today. The author of the document claiming to express the “truths to be self-evident” also hypothesized in Query 14 of Notes on the State of Virginia that the difference between African and Anglo physical appearance was “fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance?” This line of questioning led to wild speculation into a whole host of issues, including if orangutans in Africa had sex with black women, and if a lack of forethought and rationality in blacks prevented them from making decisions “with more coolness or steadiness than the whites.” The 19th century pseudoscience of phrenology claimed the ability to know the character and mental abilities of an individual through the study of the shape and size of one’s cranium. Unsurprisingly, this “objective” research produced literature rendering African Americans biologically-incapable of the self-government a liberal republic required. It also associated blackness with a fundamental deformity that affected American aesthetics – the tropes, forms, and valuations of blackness in culture. Pictures of sheriffs in KKK uniforms and families in their Sunday best gleefully celebrating the public executions carried out in thousands of lynchings throughout the South and North bear grotesque witness to the entanglement of liberalism and racism in the context of US history. What at first seems paradoxical, upon a careful retracing is revealed to be an unintended consequence of bad epistemology. This offspring in the lineage of Cartesian rationalism births the “destroyer of a civilization” in Hayek’s admonition.
In Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault defined the term episteme as “the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.” If Cartesian epistemology is the basis for both Hayek’s central planning and Cornel West’s scientific racism, is there a potential for Hayekian CRT?