Ted Kennedy’s contributions to freedom

by Roger Koppl

Friends of liberty should be kinder and gentler toward the memory of Edward Kennedy. He was the poster boy for the American “liberalism” that exaggerates the power of government to act in socially beneficial ways. He has thus drawn acerbic commentary from some liberals in the old fashioned sense of free exchange and individual liberty. Some conservatives have been unkind as well. I suppose the conservatives have nothing to thank Kennedy for beyond being a convenient target of vituperation. But liberals in the good old fashioned sense have a few things to thank Kennedy for and they should therefore be kinder and gentler to his memory. I wouldn’t comment on Kennedy’s overall legacy, but I would like to point to some important ways in which he helped to increase liberty in America and the world.

As the David Henderson, Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie, and the Wall Street Journal have all noted, Kennedy was the vital legislative force behind deregulation of trucking and the airline industry. The WSJ article quotes former aide Phil Bakes saying, “I don’t think airline deregulation had any chance around that period unless he took leadership as he did” and “He took a lot of flack and was way out in front of it.” Helping to kick off the global deregulation movement is a big deal and we who love liberty should thank him for it. As Nick Gillespie said Wednesday, “We are incalculably richer and better off because something like actual prices replaced regulatory fiat in trucking and flying. Because they do not fit the Ted Kennedy narrative preferred by his admirers and detractors alike, these accomplishments rarely get mentioned in stories about the late senator.”

Kennedy was also instrumental in passing two important pro-liberty measures in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended Jim Crow in the South. In the country as a whole it ended many forms of discrimination based on race and gender. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas that had been in place in the United States since the Immigration Act of 1924. These were pro-liberty measures.

The United States was a freer place because of these legislative measures. In 1960 a woman often had no protected right to buy a house on her own. Black people in the South were forcibly segregated, black people in the rest of the country faced several forms of discrimination, including the laws against miscegenation in some states. Today women can buy homes and otherwise in legal equality with men. Many women live in terms of substantive equality as well. Today black people vote, sleep in the same hotels as whites, and otherwise live in legal equality with white people. Many black people live in terms of substantive equality as well. In 1960 our immigration policy was restrictive and favored Europeans over others. Today, the United States has seen a large influx of new immigrants from all parts of the world. Their relative freedom to gain entry to this country has helped them and their families. It has made the US a better and richer country. And it has encouraged other countries to treat their own people with greater justice and liberty. In 1960, deregulation was nowhere in sight. Today, airlines and trucking have been deregulated and the global deregulation movement has helped to make market forces stronger throughout the world. These are all important changes touching on fundamental freedoms. These increases in liberty owe much to Senator Kennedy. Whatever else he may have done to frustrate liberty, he also did important things to promote it and we who love liberty should thank him for it.

10 thoughts on “Ted Kennedy’s contributions to freedom

  1. Kennedy was a symbol — a symbol of lifelong and intergenerational royal or oligopic privilege and power above and beyond the law. All justified in the name of “helping the little people”.

    It was this symbolic — and sometimes actual — attack on classical liberal values and principles which most troubled people.

    Most people don’t now what goes on in the Senate — besides log rolling and mutual rump smootching.

  2. My uncle was involved in organized crime — and the Kennedys consult
    his boss (my uncle’s girlfriend’s dad) on who should be appointed to the Federal court in his region.

    This is the sort of above and beyond the law behavior the Kenedys were famous for — all in the name of “the little guy”.

  3. I suppose we oppose some of this narrative because it’s not true. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was no slam dunk for liberty, at least as it is usually discussed on this blog.

    It outlawed discrimination in a lot of public places, which we agree is good, but it cost the liberty of many business owners who, up until then, decided who could patronize the establishment. In any event, discrimination had been well on the decrease up until 1964 — and it is therefore not a coincidence that the bill finally had enough support to pass… though notably with far more GOP support than Democratic support.

    Of course, it is vital that governments finally had to treat people equally. But that did nothing to change the actual hiring practices. The slope of increasing integration of the private and public workforce was unchanged from before and after both the enactment of this bill and affirmative action as implemented through executive orders. These changes were mostly a function of decreasing racism (a terrific discussion of which can be found in Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination) and increasing human capital in blacks.

    Another element that I haven’t seen discussed much is his collaboration with the USSR in the mid-1980s in order to oppose President Reagan’s foreign policy, which was a terrific force for liberty especially vis-a-vis its opposition to the USSR. For more, see Peter Robinson’s recent Forbes column on the subject or the end of John O’Sullivan’s The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.

    We’ll grudgingly give him the deregulation advocacy. 🙂

  4. Hi Admiral,

    I’ll completely spot you that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a mixed bag from the POV of strict libertarianism. OTOH, I don’t consider myself a libertarian. Even from the POV of strict libertarianism, however, I would think the 1964 act is a huge, huge advance. It ended Jim Crow and generally gave black people and women a much more nearly equal status in American life. Surely, those huge increase in liberty outweigh the other relatively small reductions in liberty as seen from the POV of strict libertarianism?

  5. Roger, I don’t think you can say surely the huge gains outweigh the other “relatively small reductions in liberty.” For one thing, a lot of libertarians are wary of using the federal government to come in and enforce liberty on smaller governments. (Stephan Kinsella has written the most eloquently on this, that I’ve seen, but I don’t have a link handy.)

    For another thing, look at all the subsequent legislation that has been spawned by the Civil Rights Act. That all has to go into the balance too.

  6. Hi Bob,

    Sometimes written communication is inferior to the spoken word. I was using “surely” with the question mark at the end to say, “Sure looks that way to me! How about you?”

    Anyway, I’m not a libertarian, so I guess you and I won’t have the same opinion about which bits of civil rights legislation were and which were not infringements on liberty. Fair enough. Still, I would have thought the restrictions on liberty caused by Jim Crow were so huge, deeply unfair and inequitable, and of such great material importance to black Southerners that killing Jim Crow alone outweighed the negatives, before we even get to stuff like women’s rights or the conditions of blacks in the rest of the country. OTOH you seem to doubt as does, apparently, “Admiral.” I confess, I don’t quite “get” that. I don’t quite see where the doubtful points are in assigning relative weights here even when I defer to you on what bits are pro-liberty and what bits are anti-liberty.

    One issue you raise is centralizing power in Washington. That’s an issue for me too. But in my mind you’ve got to trade it off against the risk of arbitrary local authority. Local authority was arbitrary and discretionary for black folks and the civil rights movement improved that situation greatly. (Didn’t fix it by long stretch, but that’s a separate matter.) Hayek teaches (rightly IMHO) that the big enemy is arbitrary authority rather than, say, size of government. Liberalism is against power. Well, black folks under Jim Crow were subject to lots of arbitrary authority. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a pretty fair representation of how it really worked under the old system. Actually, it was worse than her story represented as whites might literally get away with murder if the victim was black.

    Thus, we’re talking about life and death stuff, basic raw arbitrary power, and similar core issues. I’m not getting the intuition for why stuff like obliging restauranteurs to serve all races or shifting some power from state to federal government overwhelms that.

  7. You don’t want to comment on his overall legacy? But that’s precisely what damns him. Among champions of a giant, overreaching cradle-to-grave welfare state, he was a giant. Ugh.

  8. Hi Charles,

    You know, I had never questioned that idea. As you note, I was wise enough to abstain from an overall judgment of his legislative career. After writing my post, however, I really wonder how we should judge his overall legislative record. He represented the values of big government and left liberalism. Thinkmarkets types don’t like that, me included. That’s what he *represents*. But I start to wonder whether his overall legislative record is really so very bad from our POV.

    There are personal issues including his moves to squash wind mills where he liked to sail. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/09/why_liberals_are_turning_on_te.html


    Presumably, therefore, he wouldn’t do so well if we throw everything into consideration. But I start to wonder what the outcome would be if we had a careful accounting of all, but only, his legislative accomplishments.

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