I read the editorial “What’s Paleo, and What’s Not by Paul Gottfried (December 2019) with appreciation. It did raise some questions for me. He mentioned the controversial view of seeing continuity between the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the current situation we are in. Given the obvious injustice that existed in both the North and South, was there a better plan than the legislation passed? Can conservatives allow change in areas that obviously need it? Does conservatism mean ossification or [being] hermetically sealed, so no change is possible? The particular application of Jim Crow in the South was an Achilles’ heel. It was not defensible, but change can go beyond correction and create new problems. Does he think it best to have left things as they were?

Edward Whealton
Norfolk, Va.

Prof. Gottfried replies:

Mr. Whealton raises a question that I have thought about for many years: Is it possible for our government to seek to right “historical wrongs,” without producing even further injustice or weakening republican constitutional government? My answer, for better or worse, is “No.” Every attempt the government has undertaken since the 1960s to empower a previously discriminated-against group has resulted in a diminution of freedom for other American citizens, the reduction of a real right to private associations, and the imposition of compensatory justice—usually at the expense of white, male Christians. Although I am happy that racial segregation has ended, I am far less pleased with other changes that have come about because of intrusive social engineering, pushed by the government and courts and cheer-led by our media and educational establishments.

It is naïve to believe these changes are unrelated to the landmark congressional legislation of the 1960s, which transformed America politically and demographically and which greatly increased the government’s power to police our social relations. Both this legislation and the related expansions of government control in the 1960s aided the remaking of America. This was done by placing districts (inside and outside of the South) under federal supervision for not having a high enough black-voter turnout, by pushing programs that exist to find and combat sexism everywhere, and by bringing to bear an already-entrenched anti-discrimination apparatus against, among many others, “homophobes” and “cisgendered bigots.” It is impossible for me to see how this explosion in government behavioral control and an electorate that endorses it could have come about without the congressional legislation that took place more than 50 years ago.

What I would not deny is that the social engineers and political reformers of the 1960s were addressing an unjust situation with respect to American blacks. The question however is whether their imposed solutions were the best ones for dealing with the problem. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 not only increased the black vote by almost threefold nationwide, but also empowered a radicalized black electorate to decisively affect the American regime. And, as a form of social reeducation, whites were imbued with a sense of racial guilt for not having undertaken a civil rights revolution even sooner. This too is a legacy of the civil rights revolution and of the public consciousness that its advocates generated. The same guilt trip has been laid on us for not accepting various spin-offs of the earlier revolution of the 1960s, such as movements for political empowerment and moral approval of gay and transgendered claimants.

National Review, in an earlier, more conservative manifestation, once asked whether it would have been possible to treat Southern black voters more justly without pushing our government as far to the left as it has subsequently moved. A related question that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has raised, to the horror of former National Review editor Jonah Goldberg, is whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could have been crafted in such a way as to protect public accommodations from a barrage of anti-discrimination suits and investigations. These moderate solutions may not have worked, given the overwhelming force for change that was already prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.

My own research has revealed that by 1966, the Civil Rights Commission was strongly urging the adoption of affirmative action programs in both business and education to remove even the suspicion of race- or gender-based discrimination. The 1960s also saw the beginnings of a significant political-historical trend that I have written about elsewhere: the fusion of therapeutic public administration with the pursuit of radical equality. Mr. Whealton and the rest of us may simply be stuck with the social policies of our present government as a result of the irrevocable political and cultural change that began in the 1960s.

For full disclosure, in the 1960s I was a Rockefeller Republican who happily supported the Civil Rights Act, but not the Immigration Reform or Voting Rights acts of 1965.