Bad Argument

12.11.13

What Conservatives Like Liz Cheney Didn’t Understand About Apartheid

In 1988, the Wyoming Senate candidate said economic engagement would end apartheid faster than boycotts. Conservatives used the same argument with Jim Crow—and they still don’t get it.

Liz Cheney doesn’t just share her father’s neoconservative politics. As a young woman, she also shared his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In a 1988 editorial for her college newspaper, Cheney—now running a losing primary bid against Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY)—condemned anti-apartheid activists at Colorado College. “The real problem with divestment,” wrote Cheney, attacking a prominent strategy of apartheid opponents, “is that it won’t work. Like most moral statements, it accomplishes nothing tangible.”

Her argument was in line with the conservative conventional wisdom of the time, namely that economic engagement would do more to end apartheid than boycotts and pressure. “We can choose to make ourselves feel better by proclaiming our outrage and walking away or we can take the more difficult route of committing ourselves to bringing down the pillars of Apartheid by providing jobs, education and training for South African blacks,” wrote Cheney, who also raised the question of what happens if divestment works and harms South African businesses. “Blacks who lose their jobs when American companies divest face the bleakest prospects…for their very survival.”

What’s so striking about this argument is its similarity to the “principled” conservatism of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and others who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you leave the white South to its devices, they argued, economic activity will eventually dismantle Jim Crow. Segregation just isn’t good business. You can see some of this in Rand Paul’s 2010 statement that he opposed Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination by private businesses. “I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race,” he said, with the implication that the free market would lead to the breakdown of racial barriers.

The problem with the idea that capitalism will break the chains of bigotry is its refusal to grapple with the fundamental character of white supremacist regimes, here or abroad. In the Jim Crow South and Apartheid South Africa, white supremacy touched all aspects of life. It shaped relationships, institutions, and—crucially—markets. In both systems, racist violence was facilitated by the state and bolstered by the market. Business owners exploited black workers and capitalized on their disadvantage, using them for near-slave labor and denying them, and them alone, the ability to build a secure life.

What conservatives didn’t grasp about Jim Crow or apartheid is that markets aren’t immune to social realities and can reflect the prejudices and injustices that characterize all societies.

In both cases, racism wasn’t just bigotry, it was a comprehensive system of oppression, and its beneficiaries, white Southerners and white South Africans, were invested in its survival. Individual business owners may have sold to blacks, trained them for jobs, and offered them fair wages, but there was little chance that would develop into a general practice. The status quo was too entrenched. At every point, for example, Jim Crow was a drag on the economic development of the American South, and yet it survived for nearly a century. Why? Because most whites, including business owners, were committed to the system. For most, the economic and social costs of segregation—poor health and educational outcomes for whites and blacks, for one—were a fair price to pay for the privileges of white supremacy.

What conservatives didn’t grasp about Jim Crow or apartheid—and what, to a some extent, they don’t grasp now—is that markets aren’t immune to social realities and can reflect the prejudices and injustices that characterize all societies. Without explicit action in the other direction, markets are just as likely to perpetuate inequality as to provide for human flourishing.

To ameliorate racial injustice, it’s rare that anything just “works out.” Correcting for institutions such as Jim Crow and apartheid takes powerful, collective effort. As an ideology, liberalism is equipped to see that and act accordingly. Conservatism, as we’ve seen in the United States and South Africa, doesn’t fare so well.