Rational Racism

Unless I'm misreading him, Will Wilkinson sees a potential area of conflict between libertarianism and antiracism:

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it. Maybe I’ll get into the complexities of that question some other time.

I think the key to resolving this conflict is Bryan Caplan's theory of rational irrationality. Racism is irrational, and people are most likely to indulge their irrational preferences when given the opportunity to do at little or no cost to themselves. And rarely is the cost of irrationality lower than it is at the ballot box.

No doubt there are some people so thoroughly racist as to be willing to turn away paying customers or highly qualified job applicants just because they happen to be of a different race, but they are a strict subset of people who are willing to vote for racist policies or politicians.

The upshot, once you add in the feedback effects of the market system, is that any society in which voters are willing to pass anti-discrimination laws is a society in which discrimination is likely to have only a limited detrimental effect on racial minorities. How limited, I'm not quite sure, but the nightmare scenarios predicted by defenders of anti-discrimination law, where blacks would be totally shut out of the mainstream economy, are utterly implausible in any democratic society for which anti-discrimination law is a realistic option.

To be fair, there are cases where anti-discrimination laws can make a real difference. One is in the case of non-democratic governments. In theory, an enlightened despot or oligarchy could impose integration on a racist population. Another exception to this rule is when, as was the case with the American South, a national government uses anti-discrimination laws to impose integration on states or localities in which the concentration of racism is higher than the national average. Of course, as Dave points out, the situation in the South was a product of enforced discrimination, so it's not at all clear that this was in fact a real-world exception.

On top of that, as I have noted before, anti-discrimination laws are not simply a matter of giving up the freedom to be a bigot in exchange for racial equality. Bigots or not, we all pay the price for a legal framework in which the federal government regularly second-guesses the personnel decisions of private companies and local governments.

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Don't agree

There are plenty of people who would put riders on their deeds when selling their houses that would NOT allow blacks to purchase. In fact, it would be hard for you to argue that this would have the effect of reducing the value of their home. Also developers of large land tracts might also have an incentive to put such restrictions into their deeds.

I do think that the law of the land must be that everyone who is considered a member of the society be granted equal access to the purchase of land without regard to race, or belief. Just so long as that belief does not involve some criminal act. You certainly should be able to not sell to people who advocate or practice rape, murder, etc.

I also believe that it was legal to do so we would be seeing a whole hell of a lot more of this behavior than we do. I don't view such behavior as a vice either, but as a crime.

There are plenty of people

There are plenty of people who would put riders on their deeds when
selling their houses that would NOT allow blacks to purchase. In fact,
it would be hard for you to argue that this would have the effect of
reducing the value of their home.

Yup. In fact when that happens, it can create a downward spiral for  a whole neighborhood...Some have  pointed at this phenomenom to explain the demise of the Bronx  in the 60's.


There are plenty of people who would put riders on their deeds when
selling their houses that would NOT allow blacks to purchase.

I am not clear on what you are describing. By "riders on their deeds" do you mean a permanent limitation, valid for all eternity, on the use (such as resale) of the land? If this is what you mean, I am not sure that it can be supported. First of all, is it a contract with somebody living, or is it a way for a dead man's wishes to be respected until the end of time? If it is a contract with the living, then it can always be revised, so it is not really permanent. If it is the wish of a dead man, then I am not sure there is any way for a dead man to ensure that his wishes are respected to the end of time. I think the dead are at the mercy of the living, who have the power to disregard his wishes legally. Here's one way: nobody can be compelled to pay any attention whatsoever to the man's will. Yes, it's his property, but the living can simply neglect it, let squatters occupy it, and ultimately lose control of the property. So the power of the dead is limited.

Property is owned. A property right is the right to exclude. If someone (such as a black buyer) is excluded, there is somebody who possesses the power of exclusion, and that person can always choose to allow what he previously excluded.

In this case, the limitation

In this case, the limitation would not have value for the house itself but for the neighboring houses. Therefore, the right to sell the house to a black man would be pooled by the set of coowners. Since there are always living owners, the covenant remains enforceable and valid.

Similar covenants can prevent people from building a strip joint in the middle of a family oriented residential area for example.


You seem to be saying that it is joint ownership of all the properties with respect to certain exclusions "right to sell...pooled". But when I check websites that describe property covenants, they seem to talk about contracts. Well, a contract is one thing and ownership is another. If there is a lack of clarity in people's minds about what exactly a covenant is, this might be a sign of deeper problems.

Just because something exists now does not mean it could be sustained "in libertopia", which is all libertarians need to be concerned with insofar as they are stating what they do or do not support. And I am not sure what, if any, covenant-like things are really sustainable.

For example, if a covenant is a contract, then even if I am bound by the contract, the person I sell my property to is not, because contracts are with individuals, not land. If, alternatively, the contract states that the land may not be sold to someone who is not himself willing to sign the same contract, then if I sell the land anyway and disappear, then I have violated the contract and cannot be found to punish, and meanwhile the buyer is not a party to the contract.

If it is joint ownership, then while I'm not sure of the terms so I can't easily google it, I recall that there is something in property law that says people who jointly own something have the right to partition it into pieces, and I can see the courts deciding on the naturalness of giving each owner his own home when the joint property is split.

It doesn't even need to be

It doesn't even need to be contractual. When buying land your are buying a bundle of right. If the initial owner witheld the right of occupancy by a black person, no one can sell it to a black person. If the owner who initially witheld the righ is dead, that right belong to the heirs of the deceased. If none can be found, then the current owner probably has the best claim over this right.

In the case of a contract, the right can be transferred to a pool of rights associated with the properties. For example I can agree with my neigbor that none of us will install a huge satellite antenna in our garden. I exchange my right to use my garden for that purpose for his. If someone moves in, he does not own that right unless he buys it from me, and similarly when I sell my property, I most likely (but not necesseraly) sell that right along with it.

That covenants, exchange of property rights, contracts etc, can be hard to impossible to enforce is something I am more than willing to admit, but as far as rights are concerned, they are entirely legitimate.

sustainability not legitimacy

I did not question the legitimacy but the sustainability of a given arrangement. In addition to legal destruction of an arrangement there is as you point out the question of enforceability, which I consider to be potentially internal to law. That is, what is not enforced is in reality sometimes legal precisely because it is not enforced. A law on the books but not enforced is not truly law. If I fail to enforce my property rights I will eventually lose them to squatters

Ah... well the

Ah... well the sustainability is a different business. I believe DF talks about it in law's order. I think the conclusion was that the newcomer would generally get screwed. The rights of the seller over his neighbor's property would be lost in the transaction but the right of the neighbor over the sold house would remain.

"There are plenty of people

"There are plenty of people who would put riders on their deeds when selling their houses that would NOT allow blacks to purchase."

They would be at a disadvantage in a free market. Those who didn't tack on such riders would find more agreeable home buyers, as these home buyers would be relatively freerer to sell to whomever they damn well choose.

Hmm...not sure.

I haven't thought this one through yet.

In fact, it would be hard for you to argue that this would have the effect of reducing the value of their home.

Actually, I think it might. There's a public goods problem here. If I don't want black neighbors, then I want my neighbors to have those riders attached to their deeds. But it doesn't benefit me to have such a rider attached to my deed, so I have an incentive to defect, since it gives me more options when I'm selling. Though if neighbors all got together and made a contract, I guess it could work. Likewise, as you point out, if the housing developer set it up that way from the beginning.

But is this really a bad thing? For obvious reasons, these neighborhoods would tend to attract racists. This has some advantages. First, it makes it easy to identify racists--they're the ones who live in contractually segregated neighborhoods. Besides, do minorities really want racist white neighbors anyway?

On the other hand, you might argue that in the long run forced integration is good because it erodes racism. I don't know whether and to what degree this is true, and I'm not particularly keen on this sort of social engineering, either.

In any case, even if you think this should be banned, it's not necessary to make it a crime--the government can just refuse to enforce such contracts. Unless you mean that people should be prohibited from discriminating against buyers when selling their own property, which is problematic because discrimination is hard to prove.

Why bother ?

“discrimination is hard to prove”

Exactly ! Therefore everybody should be allowed to discriminate as they please. If I don’t like somebody’s face or their tone of voice, I don’t deal with them. Period. Insurance companies would not be able to function without discrimination as their business model operates on statistics. First one has to judge people by their group characteristics, only second one can judge on individual merits. If crime statistics show that young blacks in run-down neighbourhoods are more likely to commit murder than elderly whites in wealthier areas, one should not tempt faith by entering a back street where a group of young blacks is hanging around. Of course, if one skips the group statistics and deals with the individual right away, one can either encounter a good business opportunity, a new friend, or one can be dead. Why bother ?

Riker: ”Trust always has the risk of betrayal”
Data: “Then why not live without trust?”
Riker: “Without trust there’s no friendship”
Data: “Then you put yourself at risk?”
Riker: “Every single time!”
Data: “Hmm, it seems I am very fortunate I do not share your human emotions …”

two edged sword

If a group of black people wish to exclude white people from their neighborhood or golf club they should also have that right.

But a less dramatic example, meeting people on the street. If I meet a white person on the street I can make an instant judgement about avoiding him from his appearance. If he passes the appearance test It doesn't take to much conversation for me to determine something about him. If I meet a black person on the street it is more difficult for me make any sort of analysis unless he has a short haircut and is wearing a suit/uniform. This is a sort of rational racism. If a white person appears/sounds OK that is my null position with him is he is OK. My null position with a black person is suspicion because of my lack of experience judging black people. It doesn't bother me that this is also a two edged sword. A black person should be suspicious of me as his null position.


I still haven't seen anything from Caplan that has persuaded me that any human action is anything other than rational.

Rationality can only be

Rationality can only be understood in regard to a certain goal. Since goals are not observable directly, it is actually impossible to tell if someone is acting rationnaly or not. Any behavior can be explained as rationaly self-motivated, then what? Rationality is only relevant if you have an hypothesis on the goals.