NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Discrimination Only Works When Enforced By Government

December 30, 2002

It was not until Harry Truman became president that the Democratic Party took the first baby steps toward instituting civil rights for blacks. But even small steps, such as outlawing discrimination in the military, were then seen by Southerners as unacceptable. That is why Strom Thurmond ran against him in 1948--an action praised by Senator Trent Lott.

Where Republicans got on the wrong track is by not explaining why it is government that is at the root of meaningful racial discrimination.

  • Private businesses really have no incentive to discriminate.
  • They would just lose sales and the services of valuable employees by doing so, since, as economists such as Gary Becker have clearly shown, discrimination in the private sector simply doesn't pay.
  • Discrimination only works when enforced by government.

And historically, most discrimination was imposed by state governments. To the extent that federal laws broke it down, that is unambiguously a good thing. It is no coincidence that the wage gap between blacks and whites narrowed sharply after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Republicans should have been much more vigorous about attacking "Jim Crow" laws in the South.

  • But they saw federal intervention as a two-edged sword, in the sense that eliminating discriminatory state laws was good, but increasing federal power was not.
  • They feared (rightly) that passing new federal laws to offset the effects of bad state laws was potentially counterproductive.
  • The correct course was to repeal the discriminatory state laws, not superimpose new federal laws.

Unfortunately, today's discriminatory federal laws to do not appear as overtly anti-black as the Southern "Jim Crow" laws did. It is much harder to explain why the Davis-Bacon law or the minimum wage hurt blacks more than state laws requiring separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for them in Southern states. Depriving someone of the right to earn a living is the worst discrimination of all.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, December 30, 2002


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