Originally, my plan was to completely ignore the Donald Sterling fiasco. I considered this to be another non-story, hyped up by a bunch of sports “journalists” envious of their friends who work in “real” news. To me, “old man continues to hold beliefs that were widespread during his youth” is something of a “dog bites man” story. It’s not surprising, and it’s not particularly relevant to anything.
But as the days wore on and the story refused to die, it started popping up on a lot of the “libertarian” sites I regularly visit. As it tends to happenwithn these things, each individual author wanted to offer the “libertarian view” on this mess. There doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus. Some decry the politically correct thought police for crucifying an old man whose statements weren’t that racist, some defend the NBA’s right to disassociate itself from Sterling and maintain that the non-aggression principle was not violated, therefore nobody has any right to complain. Meanwhile, the leftist agitators who ginned up this controversy in the first place are happy to sit back and automatically dismiss any criticism of the NBA’s actions with a, “Ha ha you stupid libertarians, this is your free market in action! Now shut up and like it!”
After reading a lot of back and forth that left me ultimately unsatisfied, I found some pretty great discussion of this issue over at Economic Policy Journal, where Robert Wenzel and various commenters have shed some unique light on the situation and offered a robust debate. My understanding of Wenzel’s position is that libertarians can be simultaneously outraged and disturbed by the public lynching of an individual for borderline-racist comments made in a private conversation while simultaneously upholding the NAP and refusing to suggest that any actions involved with this issue either are or aren’t “libertarian.” I agree with Wenzel on this point: Libertarianism = following the non-aggression principle, but that does not preclude libertarians from suggesting that certain actions, even ones that don’t violate the NAP, are wrong and should be condemned.
While reading one of Wenzel’s posts on this topic, commenter Josiah made a point that really resonated with me. He says:
“The free market viewpoint is interesting. If Sterling is this outrageous bigot, why does he hire a black coach, why doesn’t he have all white players? Because he wants to win and make money. Free markets lead to cooperation.”
I made a brief reply to this, and the purpose of this post is to further explore this issue in more detail. I think this really is the heart of the story, and this is the “libertarian” angle to this issue that is largely going ignored. It’s a great opportunity for libertarians to make a critical point that, for the most part, we seem to be wasting.
Freedom of association is a pretty common topic on this blog (over the long-term, this is my most popular post). Libertarians regularly make the case that not only are government policies prohibiting discrimination against private parties morally wrong, but that they are completely unnecessary. Racism would not run rampant on the free market, because racism is bad for business. Stores who refuse to serve blacks have immediately alienated a large portion of potential customers. Employers who refuse to hire blacks will find themselves with either less efficient employees, or a more costly labor force. In either case, these companies should be thoroughly out-competed by their more tolerant competitors, who will do what’s most profitable without letting prejudice stand in the way. If that was true in the Jim Crow south (remember: a private company sued to get Jim Crow overturned), then it is far more true in 2014 America. Putting the question of whether racist actions (not thoughts, this is a key distinction here) are immoral or not, we can safely conclude that they are terrible corporate policy, and will lead to public backlash and likely boycotts, in addition to simply being economically inefficient.
The left usually chimes in here to reject this line of thinking entirely. They accuse us of being utopians who don’t understand how entrenched racial hatred really is. They insist that there are plenty of white business owners who are so racist that they wouldn’t mind making a little less profit in order to discriminate against blacks. That without the government vigorously forcing businesses to integrate, Jim Crow would come roaring back and we’d have “colored only” drinking fountains in a manner of weeks.
How does this relate to Donald Sterling? Well, Sterling would appear to be living proof that libertarian predictions are correct. Sterling, who, according to media analysis, is a repugnant and unrepentant racist, is also an employer. According to my research (which consisted of looking at the Clippers roster on ESPN and examining the photos of the players), their current roster consists of 10 out of 14 non-white players, who collectively made over $71 million this season. The NBA has no affirmative action policy. The evil racist Donald Sterling is free to draft and sign players based on his racism. And yet he does not. Why? Two possibilities. Either he’s not really that much of a racist after all, or, more significantly, he IS at least partially racist, but as a businessman, he’s far more concerned with profitability than with indulging his racism. He understands that the vast majority of great basketball players are black. Therefore, he employs them on his team, because he wants his team to be successful. He may secretly despise every last one of these black players. It may bother him a great deal that they are on his team. But he continues to court them nonetheless. This is the exact scenario the left regularly proclaims would not ever happen.
In addition to the players, Sterling employs Doc Rivers, a black man who is currently the coach of the Clippers. In contrast to black players, black coaches are hardly a baseline requirement for success in the NBA. Of the last five NBA championship teams, two were coached by an Asian-American, and three were coached by whites. While truly great white players are now a rarity, outstanding white coaches are abundant in the NBA, and readily available. Why didn’t Sterling hire one? Why did he agree to pay $7 million to Doc Rivers? It might have something to do with the fact that Rivers himself is the last black coach to have won an NBA championship, with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Rivers is a good coach. So Sterling hired him, because that’s what businessmen do. I haven’t researched it, but I think it’s also probably safe to assume that Sterling employs minorities in his various non-basketball business ventures as well. We know for certain he employed one as a girlfriend/prostitute/archivist.
Once again, there are only two possible explanations: Either Sterling isn’t really much of a racist at all, or he is willing to put his racist thoughts aside to engage in non-racist actions because it is profitable to do so. This is precisely the outcome that libertarians regularly predict would occur in a society where the government respects the freedom of association. A few small-time businesses might choose to discriminate, but they would never meet with any real success. Meanwhile, actual racists would, in most cases, choose to hire and serve minorities, because they care more about profit than they do about racism. Donald Sterling is living proof that “anti-discrimination” laws are a completely unnecessary violation of our natural right to free association, and that the free market has built-in mechanisms to readily combat the evils of racial discrimination.