The Libertarian Anti-Apartheid White Supremacy of W.H. Hutt

James M. Buchanan’s defenders argue he was not racist because of his ties with the anti-apartheid economist W.H. Hutt, but this defense fails miserably

The great student of rhetoric Kenneth Burke described the output of his era’s “debunkers” in a manner that also captures the conduct of many libertarians who have rallied to the defense of Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan over the past few years. “It would seem they are no longer seeking good arguments; rather they are seeking any arguments, if only there be enough of them to keep running through the headlines,” wrote Burke. “Are there no eagles among their utterances? Very well, let them be instead a swarm of mosquitoes.”

One swarm of mosquitos let loose by the sentries of the libertarian cause circles around the South African economist, William Harold Hutt. Buchanan’s acolytes are adamant that his support of tax-funded subsidies for segregated private schools in the midst of Virginia’s Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education had nothing to do with a racist preference for the maintenance of separate schools.

To establish Buchanan’s non-racist outlook, his reputation’s guardians point to his intellectual and personal comradeship with the South African economist known professionally as W.H. Hutt, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society. The guardians point to Hutt’s opposition to the apartheid system of legal segregation as evidence of anti-racism, or at least non-racism. In their line of reasoning, Hutt was against apartheid, so Hutt was not a racist; Buchanan endorsed and supported Hutt; therefore, Buchanan was not a racist.

In our new INET Working Paper, “Setting the Record Straight,” we describe this as a case for “innocence by association.” Buchanan’s mere relationship with Hutt absolves Buchanan of the taint of complicity in perpetuating segregation. However, as we demonstrate in undeniable detail, Hutt turns out to be a faulty shield.

In fact, Hutt was both anti-apartheid and a white supremacist. He was a rare type but not by any means a unicorn. From the early years of legal racial separation in South Africa, there were white opponents of apartheid who, primarily on pragmatic grounds, subscribed to the premises of black/African inferiority. Even in today’s post-apartheid South Africa, many whites who are ostensibly sympathetic to the needs of Black South Africans commit so fervently to “color blindness” that they ultimately engage in “white denialism” about the continued presence and impact of racism.

In “Setting the Record Straight,” we show that Hutt’s economic rationale for eliminating apartheid was not anti-racist (as advertised), but rather an all-too-familiar attempt to preserve white elite power through the promotion of economic liberty via “free market” activity. Hutt’s principal objection to apartheid was the restrictions it imposed in the labor market, hence the competition at the heart of capitalism, not the system of racialized inequality in and of itself.

That helps explain why Hutt saw no incongruity in later praising Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, two senators from the U.S. South who built their careers on race-baiting and opposition to civil rights reform, as among “the most enlightened congressmen in the United States.”

Our paper excavates the logic that enabled Hutt to simultaneously oppose apartheid and seek to shore up what he called “white civilization.” Indeed, in the very opening paragraph of his most aggressive attack on apartheid, Hutt even suggested a genetic foundation of “natural handicaps” as partly responsible for why the “non-white peoples of the world today enjoy a much lower average standard of material well-being than the white peoples.”

Hutt envisioned an end to apartheid that would ensure white dominance in a South Africa where whites were a distinct numerical minority. He advocated voter eligibility requirements tied to income and education under a putatively race-neutral electoral process, knowing full well that these conditions would limit Black voting power, because of the combination of impoverishment and poor education afforded Black South Africans.

This, Hutt advised apartheid-era South Africa’s prime minister P.W. Botha, would enable the cessation of legal segregation with white minority rule preserved–and insulated from any future challenge by a series of constitutional shackles Hutt also recommended.

As striking, while Hutt sought to establish guarantees that there would be no land redistribution or reparatory action taken on behalf of Black South Africans, he thought it fair to provide some “subsidy” to white South Africans to shelter them from any adverse impact produced by ending apartheid.

This is the figure Buchanan’s defenders adduce as exhibit A of his racial innocence. With friends like these…

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