Property Rights

A Libertarian Defense of Sit-Ins

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Some libertarians, thinking of private property rights, are leery of sit-ins as a solution to private racism. Sheldon Richman at the Freeman, in the conclusion of a very worthwhile walk through the reasons why there is more to the rich libertarian perspective on racism than "I disapprove of your bigotry, but I will defend to the death your right to live by it," explains why he thinks sit-ins are an appropriate non-violent means of opposing racism:

no doubt someone will have raised an eyebrow at my inclusion of sit-ins in the list of appropriate nonviolent forms of protest against racist conduct. Isn't a sit-in at a private lunch counter a trespass?

It is — and the students who staged the sit-ins did not resist when they were removed by police. (Sometimes they were beaten by thugs who themselves were not subjected to police action.) The students never forced their way into any establishment. They simply entered, sat well-behaved at the counter, and waited to be served. When told they would not be served, they said through their actions, "You can remove me, but I will not help you." (Actually, blacks could shop at Woolworth's and similar stores; they just couldn't sit at the lunch counters. Boycotts hurt the stores' bottom lines.)

I could buttress this defense of sit-ins by pointing out that those stores were not operating in a free and competitive market. An entrepreneur who tried to open an integrated lunch counter across the street from Woolworth's would likely have been thwarted by zoning, licensing, and building-inspection officers. He would have had a hard time buying supplies and equipment because the local White Citizens' Council (the "respectable" white-collar bigots) would have "suggested" to wholesalers that doing business with the integrationist might be, shall we say, ill-advised. And if the message needed to be underscored, the Ku Klux Klan (with government's implicit sanction and even participation) was always available for late-night calls.

Did the beneficiaries of that oppressive system really have a good trespass case against the sit-in participants?