Thursday, March 13, 2008

what Democrats can learn from a dead Libertarian lawyer

The subtitle of Damon Root's article in Reason-- more (Libertarian) food for thought for Dems (and GOP'ers) and a history lesson on an important but obscure figure (important to Louisville and Supreme Court history), Moorfield Storey...

With Republicans apparently uninterested in pleasing the libertarian segments of their coalition, some liberals and libertarians—Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, and Reason contributor Matt Welch among them—have suggested an alternative: the libertarian Democrat, the sort of liberal who favors both free speech and free trade, both the right to bare pornography and the right to bear arms.

It’s far from clear, however, that the Democratic Party has room for candidates who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. But it did once. The Democratic Party actually has a very distinguished libertarian legacy, one that combined principled anti-imperialism, respect for economic liberty, and a firm commitment to civil rights. If the would-be libertarian Democrats are looking for a historical model, they should consider the Boston attorney Moorfield Storey (1845–1929).

A fierce critic of imperialism and militarism...An advocate of free trade, freedom of contract, and the gold standard...An individualist and anti-racist, Storey was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he argued and won the group’s first major Supreme Court victory, Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a decision that relied on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law....

Storey was a successful lawyer whose politics tended toward “good government” reform until the mid-1890s. Then came the presidential election of 1896, when the Democrats selected the agrarian insurgent William Jennings Bryan as their candidate....Opposition to Bryan’s “50-cent Democrats” fractured the party....drove many Democrats to support the pro-gold Republican William McKinley, who beat Bryan by a decisive 600,000 votes, collecting 271 electors to Bryan’s 176.

Though pleased at Bryan’s defeat, Storey saw little reason to cheer the new president. For one thing, there was McKinley’s support for high trade barriers....Storey had already opposed the fully declared Spanish War, which he denounced as an act of imperialist meddling, but he was especially outraged by McKinley’s undeclared war in the Philippines....[And] Storey was horrified when the Democrats again selected Bryan for president in 1900....

Storey ultimately counted more defeats than victories....But Storey did achieve one unqualified victory, a win that improved the lives of countless African Americans and helped set the course of civil rights in the twentieth century. In 1917, the Supreme Court heard the case of Buchanan v. Warley, which centered on a Louisville, Kentucky, ordinance segregating residential housing blocks by race. Enacted “to prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races,” the law made it illegal for blacks to live on majority-white blocks and for whites to live on majority-black blocks. To test the law, local NAACP member William Warley arranged to buy property on a white block from real estate agent Charles H. Buchanan, also an opponent of the law. When Warley “learned” that he could not live on the property he was purchasing, he refused to complete payment. Buchanan sued but the Kentucky courts ruled against him, upholding the ordinance. NAACP president Storey, joined by Louisville attorney Clayton B. Blakely, argued the case before the Supreme Court.

In their brief, Storey and Blakely denounced residential segregation as a racist interference with economic liberty....In its Buchanan brief, the state of Kentucky took a dimmer view of economic liberty....The Court disagreed. “Property is more than the mere thing which a person owns,” Justice William Day held for the unanimous body....Storey was justifiably thrilled at the victory....

Buchanan also provides a telling contrast with the Court’s disastrous recent holding in Kelo v. City of New London (2005)...Several leading civil rights groups supported the property owners in their fight, including the NAACP, which filed an amicus curiae brief. But it was the Court’s liberals—John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer, along with the mercurial Anthony Kennedy—that comprised the majority, a telling commentary on modern liberalism’s failure to learn Buchanan’s essential lesson: that civil rights are impossible without economic liberty.

Moorfield Storey understood that. On the major issues of both his day and ours, he consistently got it right: He led opposition to a costly and unnecessary war, he stood against collectivism and racism, and he championed individual rights in every sphere of human life. Facing death in October 1929 at the age of 84, his body debilitated by a series of strokes, Storey took great pride in the fact he had left his country a freer place. More Democrats—and for that matter, more Republicans—should follow his lead.


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