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Objectivism philosophically respects property rights, including, as I understand it, the right to exclude whomever one pleases from one's property. My question is whether racist policies by property owners are OK with Objectivists and if there are to be any limits on such behavior? Are there, for example, any differences between shops/hotels (i.e. places that serve the public) versus private homes?

Given the recent furore in Arizona over a legislated right to gay-exclusion by religious people, I wondered what would have happened without any civil rights legislation in the USA.

Clearly the United States' South in the 1960s and earlier was a hotbed of deeply entrenched racism with separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, separate schools for blacks and whites to say nothing of lynchings and murders. Many private businesses would not serve black people and many hotels would not house black people.

Civil rights legislation made such open racist discrimination illegal. Do Objectivists see this legislation as a great injustice against property owners --preferring a world where property owners can exclude whomever they like? Do Objectivists see the return to a South where a black person had to carefully read whether he was welcome at a hotel as a sort of "progress" towards the respect of property and freedom? Do Objectivists think that the society that existed prior to civil rights laws was a better one since property owners had broader rights to do whatever they pleased (after all there is no "right to service")? What's to prevent "Asians only" colonies and "Blacks only" colonies from sprouting up ? Is that a better society to live in?

asked Feb 27 '14 at 11:30

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


No. Racism is not acceptable.

(Feb 27 '14 at 11:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If unacceptable, then is there anything to be done? Do we just silently disapprove and shake our heads as "Whites Only" signs go back up on private property and businesses turn away Indians, Asians etc. due to "deeply held personal preferences and convictions"?

(Feb 27 '14 at 12:35) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

If unacceptable, then is there anything to be done?

There are lots of things to be done. Can you be more specific?

Do we just silently disapprove and shake our heads as "Whites Only" signs go back up on private property and businesses turn away Indians, Asians etc. due to "deeply held personal preferences and convictions"?

Who is the "we"? I'm sure the disapproval of this will be far from silent, in that at least some people will react other than by just shaking their heads.

Whether or not that'd be my personal reaction depends I suppose on the specifics.

(Mar 02 '14 at 09:04) anthony anthony's gravatar image

What do you think we should do about Westboro Baptist Church? Should we force them to let gay people go to church there? Are there any gay people who want to go to church there?

(Mar 02 '14 at 09:16) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If the Westboro Baptist church ran the hotel and the trains and the airport in my town, I might have a major issue if I were gay. I'd have to trudge to another town miles away to seek transport or lodging. That seems really uncivilized and yet it happened in the USA (for blacks of course). As long as the Church is a private entity and I don't need anything from them, I suppose I don't care. Once I am at their mercy for necessities of life, I would care (if I were gay).

(Mar 02 '14 at 10:49) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I thought we were talking about private entities. Anyway, you didn't really answer the question, but instead brought up a pretty strange hypothetical.

I was actually curious as to your answer.

(Mar 03 '14 at 02:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I should add that I think you raise some good points. We had some big problems in the South for a really long time, and it took the feds coming in there to get things to the relatively better point it is now.

Unfortunately, I can't really figure out what your specific proposal is.

Our current laws are abysmal both in terms of protecting rights and in terms of being Constitutionally sound. Most of this happened well before the civil rights movement though, especially during the New Deal. By the time Katzenbach v. McClung and Heart of Atlanta Motel were decided, the Lochner era was long gone.

(Mar 03 '14 at 03:22) anthony anthony's gravatar image
  1. To answer your question. We cannot do anything about the Westboro Church since it is a private org. However my answer rests on the fact that no-one really "needs" anything from them (vs. "wanting" to attend). Needs are things that cannot be indefinitely deferred without a risk to survival. If a private business is the ONLY source for, say, food in a town and the owner is a blatant racist, then I can see things being a bit more complicated. In the US South, this latter situation happened with food, transport, lodging.
(Mar 03 '14 at 08:58) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

What this boils down to is: does government allow open racism on the theory that people are free to do as they please on their property or do the feds use force to defend people being discriminated against (like they did)? If you think that we should not use force and that people will eventually "get it" that racism is bad for business, I would contend you're mistaken. First a lot of people will suffer for a long time and then you run the risk of racists creating fairly large race-exclusive type enclaves where they are happy to do business with each other and exclude others.

(Mar 03 '14 at 09:02) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

How is it possible in modern times for a single business to be the ONLY source for, say, food in a town?

Maybe some town in Northern Alaska?

I'm having a hard time imagining such a situation, so it's hard for me to analyse it.

(Mar 03 '14 at 12:19) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As for your other comment, I think you're putting a lot of words into my mouth.

I'm definitely not under the impression that people will eventually "get it" that racism is bad for business. That sounds like a magical Libertarian Party theory. Some people will never "get it".

(Mar 03 '14 at 12:23) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I was not suggesting that you personally said that people would "get it" merely that there is a sense I get in some Objectivist writings that this sort of behavior un-sustained by supportive racist laws somehow disappears or atrophies over since it is irrational and bad for business.

(Mar 03 '14 at 14:14) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

As for the question about a business being the ONLY source. I will concede that even in old times, there probably were some motels and restaurants that would serve blacks in the South (after all they didn't starve or die of exposure). The point, perhaps, is whether having to closely read up whether a motel will deign to serve you and checking to see if a restaurant's owner has a "no Asian" policy is civilized? It's not that there is only one place to get food and it does not serve customers of XYZ race, it's more about whether that sort of behavior by owners should even be tolerated?

(Mar 03 '14 at 14:18) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I think now we're back to the Westboro Baptist Church analogy. I was surprised you said we can't do anything about them. We could pass a law banning their behavior. Instead, I guess we tolerate it, in the sense that we don't lock the cretins up.

(Mar 03 '14 at 18:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Yes we could pass a law banning them but given that there is no real reason why anyone would depend on them for anything necessary for life (eg food, lodging, transport etc.) I guess I am OK with letting them bark. Now if I they ran the airport in my town or the supermarket and I were gay, I'd suggest some legal means of dealing with the situation. At some point I think the issue comes down to property rights versus the "need" of others. I know Objectvists take a dim view of "need" but I wanted to ask the question.

(Mar 03 '14 at 18:41) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I suspect a lot of people would rather give up their airport and supermarket than their church.

None of them are actually necessary, though. People can, and do, live without airports, supermarkets, and churches.

(Mar 04 '14 at 06:58) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The questioner asks whether private racism is “acceptable” from an objectivist viewpoint. This appears to conflate at least two separate issues: (1) whether private racism is morally wrong from an objectivist viewpoint, and (2) whether it is proper for a government to outlaw private racism from an objectivist viewpoint.

From an objectivist viewpoint, not everything that is morally wrong can properly be outlawed by a government. According to Objectivism, a proper government can only act to protect individual rights, and some actions that are morally wrong do not violate anyone’s individual rights.

Private racism is clearly morally wrong from an objectivist viewpoint, as the quotations provided in Ideas’ answer clearly indicate. However, private racism per se does not necessarily violate anyone’s individual rights, and thus cannot be outlawed by a proper government.

The questioner’s follow-up questions and comments indicate that the questioner is concerned that a society in which private racism is not outlawed would be intolerable. The questioner projects various ills that would result if the laws banning private racism were abolished and asks “Is that a better society to live in?” A few observations with regard to these concerns are warranted:

First, to ask whether a society would be “better off”, one must consider the entire context. It is indubitably true that private racism tends to make a society worse—the more private racism in a society, all other things being equal, the worse off the society is. However, it is also indubitably true that governmental rights violations tend to make a society worse—the more governmental rights violations in a society, all other things being equal, the worse off the society is. When one attempts to abolish private racism by means of laws that violate rights, one is simply substituting one evil for another evil. Moreover, once one has conceded the principle that it is okay for the government to violate rights in some instances, it is inevitable that the governmental rights violations will expand. Thus, it is clear that the evil of the rights-violating laws is much worse than the evil of private racism that the laws are meant to replace. Moreover, it is simply not true that we have to accept either private racism or governmental rights violations—it is possible to remove both of these evils from our society. Private racism can be combated by means that do not violate rights—it’s called changing people’s minds—and thus if one truly wants to make the society better one would not advocate rights violating laws, but instead would advocate both abolishing of private racism through cultural change and the upholding of individual rights.

Second, the questioner’s projections of what society would be like without laws banning private racism are based on a society that is thoroughly irrational. However, no society that is as irrational as the one that the questioner is projecting from would ever institute a proper government in the first place. To put the point conversely, if a society is rational enough to institute a proper government, then private racism—which is thoroughly irrational—would not be a widespread phenomenon. Thus, for example, by the time the US has culturally progressed to the point that there is enough political support to actually abolish those portions of the civil rights laws that violate rights, private racism would not be a widespread problem. (

Third, the questioner relies upon the historical context of the pre-civil rights era US South in projecting what society would be like if private racism were not outlawed. This context, however, is a poor choice, since the pre-civil rights era US South was a mixture of private racism and rights violating governmental action. Some of the worst examples of racism the questioner cites were legally sanctioned atrocities, not private racism. Moreover, it is difficult to separate the private racism from the governmental actions in the era. Those cases of purely private racism occurring in the era were made possible by the backdrop of rights violating governmental action. Thus, one simply cannot point to the pre-civil rights era US South and say “that is what it will be like” if rights violating anti-racism laws are abolished, since much of what constituted the horror of the pre-civil rights era US South was inextricably tied to the governmental racism of the era.

As examples of the aforementioned governmental action that caused and perpetuated the private racism of the era consider the following. It was governments (local and national) that failed to protect the individual rights of slaves by sanctioning slavery and enforcing pro-slavery laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it was governments that failed to protect the individual rights of both Freedmen and Whites who sympathized with the Freedmen, allowing them to be robbed, assaulted, murdered, and in some cases forced back into de facto slavery despite de jure slavery being abolished. There was literally a campaign of terrorism waged against the Freedmen and their White allies in the decades that followed the Civil War, and in the name of “reconciliation” the Reconstruction-Era federal government turned a blind eye to the horrors that were committed. Further, it was the rights violating Jim Crow laws established by governments that legally enforced discrimination following the Reconstruction Era—the segregated drinking fountains, restrooms, railcars, etc. that the questioner cites were all mandated by law. None of the foregoing atrocities are examples of the “private racism” that is the subject of this question. Moreover, the instance of private racism that were not mandated by law were only possible because of the backdrop of legal racism. In a free society, if a person encounters private racism—say they are refused service in a restaurant—they are free to combat the racism by any number of actions, such as publicly decrying the restaurateur’s racism, organizing a boycott of the restaurant, picketing outside the restaurant, and so on. On the other hand, in the historical era in question, if a person (White or Black) wanted to expose instances of private racism by any of the aforementioned actions the person would be prevented from doing so by the knowledge that if they did so they and/or their families would be beaten or killed and/or their homes or businesses would be destroyed, and the government would do nothing to protect them. Thus, the rights violating governments prevented the means whereby private racism might have been combated. It is therefore no surprise that private racism continued to flourish in the South for many years; however, contrary to the questioner’s conclusion, this does not mean that the flourishing of private racism is inevitable in any society. The flourishing of private racism in the US South had complex historical causes--including governmental racism--that would not be in play in every society (and certainly are no longer in play in the US today).

It is also worth noting that even in the horrible environment of the pre-civil rights era South, and despite the enormous disincentive to change that was imposed by governmental action, the culture eventually did change, even without the civil rights laws. Merely as one example, in the infamous case of Plessey v. Ferguson, a private company (the East Louisiana Rail Co) wanted to desegregate their rail cars, and it was the state government that prevented them by law from doing so. Thus, even in the South people slowly were shedding their racism despite the legal impediments to doing so. This certainly reveals the falsity of any claim that people could never shed their racism without being forced to do so by a law—if people in the pre-civil rights era South could do so, people in an even somewhat healthy society certainly could do so. It can only be imagined how much faster private racism would have withered away in the US South if it had not been propped up by the rights violating governmental actions of the era.

answered Mar 14 '14 at 12:03

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Mar 14 '14 at 12:23

The whole emphasis of this question is on race discrimination and segregation in the U.S. as a characteristic of private businesses:

Is open racism by private businesses acceptable under Objectivism?

... My question is whether racist policies by property owners are OK with Objectivists and if there are to be any limits on such behavior?

(Underline emphasis added.)

The attempt to blame capitalism, i.e., private businesses and property owners, for racial discrimination and segregation is a classic example of the massive error and distortion of history, philosophy and economics that Ayn Rand was talking about in the following passage from FNI (p. 53):

Let them both [businessmen and intellectuals] discover the nature, the theory and the actual history of capitalism; both groups are equally ignorant of it. No other subject is hidden by so many distortions, misconceptions, misrepresentations and falsifications. Let them study the historical facts and discover that all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy. Whenever they hear capitalism being denounced, let them check the facts and discover which of the two opposite political principles -- free trade or government controls -- was responsible for the alleged iniquities. When they hear it said that capitalism has had its chance and has failed, let them remember that what ultimately failed was a "mixed economy," that the controls were the cause of the failure, and that the way to save a country is not by making it swallow a full, "unmixed" glass of the poison which is killing it.

This FNI discussion goes on for many paragraphs explaining the importance of New Intellectuals committed to two fundamental principles (p. 55):

[These principles] are not axioms, but until a man has proved them to himself and has accepted them, he is not fit for an intellectual discussion. These two principles are: a. that emotions are not tools of cognition; b. that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.

After further elaboration of these two principles in some detail, Ayn Rand concludes (p. 58):

Those who will accept the "basic minimum" of civilization, the two principles stated above, will have made the first step toward the building of a new culture in the wide-open spaces of today's intellectual vacuum.

Another article by Ayn Rand titled, "Racism" (VOS Chap. 17), discusses racism and racial discrimination in depth. The article first denounces racism itself as "the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism," and explains why. The article then describes the actual history of racism, showing that:

Historically, racism has always risen or fallen with the rise or fall of collectivism. Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group (to "society," to the tribe, the state, the nation) and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests. The only way to implement a doctrine of that kind is by means of brute force -- and statism has always been the political corollary of collectivism.

As examples, the article describes the racism of Nazi Germany and the persecution of racial minorities in Soviet Russia. The article then names the antidote:

There is only one antidote to racism: the philosophy of individualism and its politico-economic corollary, laissez-faire capitalism.

Individualism regards man -- every man -- as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights -- and that a group as such as no rights other than the individual rights of its members....

No political system can establish universal rationality by law (or by force). But capitalism is the only system that functions in a way which rewards rationality and penalizes all forms of irrationality, including racism.

Capitalists seeking to profit from their business activities can do far better by trading with others without regard for irrelevant factors such as race, and the great majority of them will do so if allowed to do it. It is only government controls, such as segregation laws imposed by government (perhaps prompted in part by racist businessmen seeking to restrain racially blind competitors). The problem is the racist laws, which do not belong in a civilized society and ought to be abolished wherever they might still exist. Leave capitalists free to engage in production and trade, and the most successful ones will benefit the most by trading without regard for race.

The article describes the actual historical record in the semifree economies of the nineteenth century, where the freest countries weakened racism the most, and the more controlled economies fostered it. Where racist policies existed, they were sustained by law, by governmental force, not primarily by voluntary choices of private businessmen and property owners.

It is capitalism that gave mankind its first steps toward freedom and a rational way of life. It is capitalism that broke through national and racial barriers, by means of free trade. It is capitalism that abolished serfdom and slavery in all the civilized countries of the world. It is the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the United States.

The article then explains how the rise of collectivism reversed that trend, and how the reversed trend has accelerated. The article highlights the Negroes (Blacks) as major victims of racial prejudice:

The persecution of Negroes in the South was and is truly disgraceful. But in the rest of the country, so long as men were free, even that problem was slowly giving way under the pressure of enlightenment and of the white men's own economic interests.

Today [however] ... America has become race-conscious in a manner reminiscent of the worst days in the most backward countries of nineteenth-century Europe. The cause is the same: the growth of collectivism and statism.

The article explains how this works in a mixed economy:

A "mixed economy" [mixture of freedom and controls] disintegrates a country into an institutionalized civil war of pressure groups, each fighting for legislative favors and special privileges at the expense of one another.

People are driven to seek protection by joining a group of some kind, the most concretely easiest of which to identify is race. The article describes the current policies of both businessmen (seeking government favors) and Negro leaders (seeking reverse discrimination and racial quotas that favor Blacks). In 1963, a major piece of legislation under consideration in Congress (passed in 1964) was the Civil Rights Act:

The "civil rights" bill, now under consideration in Congress, is another example of a gross infringement of individual rights. It is proper to forbid all discrimination in all government-owned facilities and establishments: the government has no right to discriminate against any citizens. And, by the very same principle, the government has no right to discriminate for some citizens at the expense of others. It has no right to violate the right of private property by forbidding discrimination in privately owned establishments.

No man, neither Negro nor white, has any claim to the property of another man. A man's rights are not violated by a private individual's refusal to deal with him. Racism is an evil, irrational and morally contemptible doctrine -- but doctrines cannot be forbidden or prescribed by law. Just as we have to protect a communist's freedom of speech, so we have to protect a racist's right to the use and disposal of his own property. Private racism is not a legal, but a moral issue -- and can be fought only by private means, such as an economic boycott or social ostracism.

The article describes that "civil rights" bill as "the worst breach of property rights in the sorry record of American history in respect to that subject" (as of 1964).

To reiterate: as evil as racism is, the initiation of physical force against others is a far worse evil -- and laissez-faire capitalism (protection of individual rights equally for all) is the only social and economic system that inherently penalizes and discourages all forms of irrationality, including racism.

answered Mar 01 '14 at 21:05

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Thanks. I appreciate the quotes. I have read them as well. I am not blaming capitalism for anything. I am simply stating that, given what I see of people's behavior (especially in certain large regions of the USA, for example) that a "leave them alone" approach will almost certainly result in a much less benevolent and crueler society. You may argue that eventually these Neanderthal types would reform and would realize that racism is bad for business. I disagree, I think racism worked for the deep South and the power elite defended it as a cultural asset.

(Mar 02 '14 at 10:53) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Remember, that while Objectivists are against preventing a racist from the use and disposal of his own property according to his own wishes, this does not preclude others from protesting and boycotting that business on moral grounds. A racist is just as worthy of objective judgment and proper treatment thereof as any other person.

I certainly wouldn't shop at an establishment that was openly racist, and if it really meant something to me, I may even inform and organize my friends and relatives not to shop there either.

(Mar 02 '14 at 11:54) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

You sound like an enlightened person. I am sure most people on this message board would also be repulsed by openly racist businesses but the fact remains that in areas like the US deep South, there were not many people willing to stand up against the wrath of a deeply entrenched power elite in the 1960s. Protesters came from the North in buses and even then they would have achieved nothing without the feds pulling out troops. There was deep injustice against the blacks and I think it could have continued and worsened over the years w/o any forceful intervention.

(Mar 03 '14 at 09:05) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Didn't the feds have to get involved because the state government officials themselves were racists?

(Mar 03 '14 at 12:44) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Great points Denneskjold_repo. Though laissez-faire capitalism is the only system to inherently discourage immorality, it does not guarantee its elimination nor the existence of a universal rationality. That a majority would look down on racist behavior as immoral and boycott it does not mean it could still not thrive. A truly free society makes it possible for any group to exist despite some ostracism, because there would be others with the same values to trade with without any government interference or penalty.

(Mar 07 '14 at 17:57) AndruA AndruA's gravatar image

AndruA: thank you for your comments. Nicely said. The issue for promoters of freedom and Objectivism is getting people to understand what you're saying. I look at it as prohibition which was supposed to eliminate vice and the ills of drunkenness but ended up creating more crime and more deaths from alcohol. Just because something is allowed doesn't mean it's good. Just because it's banned doesn't mean it goes away. Hard points to grasp but critical ones IMVHO.

(Mar 08 '14 at 09:38) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Just because it's banned doesn't mean it goes away.

Is that supposed to be an argument for or against banning discrimination?

(Mar 08 '14 at 11:27) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Even when banned, discrimination will probably occur as it probably still does today. The question is whether today's covert and shadowy racism is worse than the open practice of it in days when it was not prohibited at all. That's the question. My contention was that the prohibition is probably on the whole a good thing but I fully realize than banning overt racism in businesses is impossible to fully achieve.

(Mar 08 '14 at 11:38) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I think there are other, more important questions, which were pointed out by eric. But to answer the question you pose, I'd say getting racism out in the open is an important step in defeating it.

If a business owner hates Italian Americans and doesn't want to do business with us, I'd much prefer them to put a sign on the door which says "No Italians".

"When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side." - Ayn Rand

(Mar 16 '14 at 16:45) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Feb 27 '14 at 11:30

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Last updated: Mar 16 '14 at 16:51