As the vast majority of the United States celebrates the 50-year anniversary of the March on Selma (see here for a different stance), I was reminded of something I wrote toward the end of Loathing Lincoln (page 315) regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
one of the reasons that the United States became a more racially inclusive nation after World War II was due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law opposed by many whites and one that paleolibertarians still condemn. Indeed, Ron Paul said on the floor of Congress in 2004, the forty-year anniversary of the legislation, that “the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.” In defending his fellow paleolibertarian from conservative attacks during the 2012 presidential campaign, DiLorenzo called the 1964 legislation “inequality under the law in the form of institutionalized discrimination against white males, which is what ‘civil rights regulation’ became immediately upon passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
One of the more interesting and I think important books published in recent years is Gavin Wright’s Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (2013), a work that shows in painstaking detail that Congressman Paul was wrong that the Civil Rights Act resulted in “diminishing individual liberty.” Not only that, Wright’s volume also illustrates that some of our current concepts about the ineffectiveness of federal power or the wisdom of business (or the political and economic expertise of some Lincoln critics) needs some serious reexamination.
To set the context for Wright’s book, it is a longstanding idea among some conservatives (at least as I interpret it), that the Civil Rights Act was, if not unconstitutional, unnecessary. Here is Thomas Woods (another of Lincoln’s detractors), quoting Thomas Sowell, a widely respected and influential economist – and fan of Abraham Lincoln – at the Hoover Institution:
The rise in the number of blacks in professional and technical occupations in the two years from 1964 to 1966 (after the Civil Rights Act) was in fact less than in the one year from 1961 to 1962 (before the Civil Rights Act). If one takes into account the growing black population by looking at percentages instead of absolute numbers, it becomes even clearer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented no acceleration in trends that had been going on for many years. The percentage of employed blacks who were managers and administrators was the same in 1967 as in 1964 — and 1960. Nor did the institution of ‘goals and timetables’ at the end of 1971 mark any acceleration in the long trend of rising black representation in these occupations. True, there was an appreciable increase in the percentage of blacks in professional and technical fields from 1971 to 1972, but almost entirely offset by a reduction in the percentage of blacks who were managers and administrators.
Now, in 1991, The Journal of Economic Literature published an important piece by John J. Donohue III and James Heckman entitled “Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks.” In a detailed piece, Donohue and Heckman argued that federal policy had in fact been quite effective. Their conclusion (please take the time to read the entire piece)?
However such a division might be made, the nature, location, and timing of black progress in the decade following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance support a Federal enforcement story. With the greatest relative black improvement coming in the South, which was the target of a comprehensive Federal effort to dismantle segregation in schooling, voting, accommodations, and employment, the inference is buttressed that Federal civil rights policy was the major contributor to the sustained improvement in black economic status that began in 1965 (emphasis mine). Future work will have to explore more carefully the mechanism by which the Federal antidiscrimination framework translated the command of law into significant black economic advance.
Wright’s Sharing the Prize is, it seems to me, the “future work” that Donohue and Heckman called for. Here is a fair summary of Wright’s argument:
The Civil Rights revolution could hardly have been an inevitable byproduct of economic change, because if the white South had been left to its own devices, the revolution would not have happened. As David Chappell points out, in every major Deep South election in which segregation was an issue between Brown and the Voting Rights Act, the segregationist candidate won. Jason Sokol, who emphasizes the diversity of southern white responses, nonetheless writes, “All but the most liberal of southern whites opposed school integration.” With rare exceptions, southern business leaders held very similar views, acting first to delay and then to minimize racial change. Only the prospect or experience of economic losses – from boycotts, from the effects of turbulence and school closures on the climate for investment, and from the threat of withdrawal of federal contracts and funding – induced some business groups to support moderate accommodation to the cumulating pressures.
To be clear, the foregoing summary is not meant to downplay the significance of the belated conversion of southern business to desegregation, nor even to belittle the ex post facto efforts to rewrite history and celebrate the Civil Rights revolution as proud chapter in regional history. The point is simply to reject claims that the transition was merely an epiphenomenon driven by deeper economic and demographic forces. . . . In the end, there is a core of truth in the assertion that southern business chose “economic rationality over racial order,” . . .
here we have a case in which groups fought tooth and nail against changes that turned out to be good business moves. A closely related lesson is for economists, who tend to assume that business firms know best how to maximize their own profits (page 18-19, Sharing the Prize).
Indeed. So, I think we can conclude that the Civil Rights Act was a constitutional (on this point, see here), economic, and moral success and one that Americans justly celebrate while at the same time being a bit more skeptical – to say the least – of those today who claim the law was unnecessary or caused a narrowing of freedom’s scope. I’ll close with some words of Lincoln’s that I think are particularly apt:
the Jefferson party were formed upon their supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.
The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.
I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.
But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.