BLIND SPOT POLITICS

a contemplative approach to politics

Economic Freedom and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Posted by blindspotpolitics on November 8, 2012

Economic Freedom and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In his aptly named “Stride toward Freedom,” Martin Luther King describes the means by which he and other Montgomery, Alabama African Americans achieved social justice on the bus system through nonviolence. The focus of the book is clearly these elements: a) nonviolence and b) justice. King writes of the former as the method and of the latter as the sickness. But the goals? Well, none other than freedom.

While reading King’s account I could not help but analyze the means by which social injustice occurred in Montgomery. At almost every flip of the page, another element of injustice stared me and Dr. King in the face. Interestingly, however, this “social injustice” was anything but social—meaning merely relegated to the social sphere of life. The social injustices that prevented the boycott and kept alive the gross inequalities of segregation were political, expressed through economic action.

The Negro taxi companies were unable to help the boycott because there was a mandated minimum charge for their services. The boycott was put under legal strain because of an old law that prevented, essentially, a conspiracy in the marketplace (forcing consumer to buy without their consent). The city played it tough by demanding compensation for the lost funds during the strike (a 15% fee from the busses, which, for some reason, they were legally entitled too). These protectionist policies continually hindered the progress of freedom.

Such a realization not only links the social, political, and economic spheres of life (and the disciplines) but also highlights the danger of positive liberty expressed against economic freedom. For, from where did the social justice derive? In short, from the government’s positive economic laws. Without such sanctions on the economic rights of African Americans (although never explicitly expressed of course, except for segregation itself), the boycott would have been far easier; the protestors, as consumers, would have had more options to attempt the overthrow of social injustice.

The marketplace could have provided them leverage against the evil forces that be. But instead, the government held them down through its attempts to equalize the market—equality and liberty struggled to keep in balance, the former preventing the latter. This conclusion suggests the need to limit the government’s ability to infringe on economic freedom, and more generally to limit its ability to effect positive laws—especially at a local level where factional and subjective values dominate.

There are many uses for the government, but manufacturing economic equality is only necessary if economic inequality has already been manufactured. The one precipitously leads to the other, with the power of government the benefactor of factional interests that aim to undermine one another. When power and money collide the effect is structural inequality that cannot be bypassed except by battling within the system. When money and power are kept distinct, the consumer is free to act as she pleases.

King’s “stride toward freedom” was unnecessarily a battle against government power instead of solely against the social inequalities constructed by the two race’s history. It was a stride toward economic freedom, toward negative liberty, as much as a nonviolent movement against the discriminations of the social status quo.

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