Dear Conservative and Progressive Friends,
Below you will find a very dry, academic overview of my argument that libertarians and conservatives should acknowledge the existence of systemic oppression, and that progressives ought to embrace the open economy as liberating for the least well-off, using African-American history in particular as my example. I'll do this is a series, so I'll break down some of these claims in much more detail as we go on. Let the paradigm shifting begin!
A Classical Liberal Account of the Systemic Oppression of African-Americans
I argue that conservatives ought to acknowledge the reality of systemic injustice, since it can be understood in terms of violations of property and contract rights. Also, based upon the same evidence, the left ought to reject the assumption that market forces generally promote injustice. Rather, the injustice consists in marginalized groups being coercively excluded from the market, and particularly, from asset appropriation. I hope to bring people on the left and the right to a deeper mutual understanding from a classical liberal perspective.
African-Americans had no access to the land grants available through the Homestead Act of 1862 until 1866, when their status as citizens was finally acknowledged. But through the machinations of General Oliver Howard, who was running the program, blacks were still largely unable to gain actual property rights through the act; less than half a percent of the grants went to African-Americans, then 14% of the population and many of those most in need of capital in the form of land. White mismanagement of the Freedman’s bank resulted in the loss of $31 million in African-American assets in 1872, which seriously undermined African-American confidence in banks.
In the early 20th century we see the rise of progressivist eugenics among social scientists. A majority of prominent economists were a part of this movement, and recommended minimum wages as a way of excluding ‘unemployables’, including the disabled, women, immigrants, and non-white citizens, from the market. Unions, which largely excluded blacks, used laws like the Davis-Bacon Act to require that federal jobs go only to unionized companies, thus excluding unskilled black laborers from both the jobs and the training that they might have otherwise acquired.
As blacks migrate north for industrial jobs in the early 20th century, zoning laws and restrictive covenants were used to control the home purchases, and thus location, of black people. In 1938, the Federal Housing Administration officially warned against insuring property that would be used by “inharmonious racial groups”. The FHA also red-lined (gave the lowest credit-rating) to all-black neighborhoods, so that black G.I.’s were excluded from the use of the G.I. Bill for home purchases, while whites were able to cheaply purchase homes which in some cases have increased in value by 600% today. As home ownership is the greatest asset source for most people, this helps to explain that while current black incomes are reaching parity with the average (for instance, 39% of blacks fall into the middle class, while 44% of the general population does), asset ownership is still abysmally low (hovering between 9% and 15% of white median net worth, on average). Furthermore, local city planners used the federal highway system to wipe out black (and immigrant) economic centers (to “get rid of the local nigger-town”, in their own words), using ‘blight’ and eminent domain to appropriate and destroy property. Recent studies have shown that the contention of both Justices O’Connor and Thomas in the Kelo v. New London case is correct: eminent domain which is used to transfer private property into private hands overwhelmingly targets the assets of poor, uneducated minorities.
The redistributive efforts of LBJ’s War on Poverty has had the contrary effect. Poverty rates were declining steeply in the 1950’s and 60’s, only to begin climbing again in the 70’s after the Great Society begins to take effect. Since the system subsidizes singleness, it created a perverse incentive that ushered in an almost complete breakdown of the institution of marriage among recipients. When the war on poverty began, 36% of poor families with children were headed by single parents. Today, the figure is 68%. This is a particularly disturbing trend, as growing up in a single-parent household also perpetuates a cycle of poverty in future generations. A shocking amount (possibly up to 2/3) of the amount of our social welfare expenditures goes toward the bureaucratic maintenance of the system (often over-complicated by attempts at social engineering) and not to the families themselves. Also, given the great migration north for industrial jobs, most African-American poverty is urban rather than rural, meaning that it is concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty is harder to overcome, as the impoverished are cut off from networks that include people at other income levels that might provide employment opportunities.
The rise of the administrative state in recent decades has worsened the economic hopes of marginalized people through steep increases in occupational licensing requirements and a plethora of regulations on the use of property, such as building codes, zoning laws, and government title to abandoned land. The Great Society provisions have crowded out traditional social networks such as fraternal organizations and the family, crippling the entire community in ways that directly undermine economic development. Government efforts to increase the economic well-being of the poor focus on income, not on asset appropriation. While the wealthy are incentivized by the tax code to save, the poor are not. Recent scholarship emphasizes the role of saving and accumulation for a pathway out of poverty.
Finally, in a stunning display of straightforward oppression, the number of incarcerated people in the United States has quintupled in the last 40 years. After a real spike in crime that most likely resulted from a demographic spike in the number of young males, tough-on-crime legislation such as mandatory minimums and aggressive prosecution led to ballooning sentences. Anyone who is impoverished is far more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted with a disproportionate sentence, since the powers-that-be are less intimidated by them in legal situations. Blacks are overrepresented among the impoverished. While drug charges alone make up a minority of the convictions that account for those in prison, drug-related underground enforcement may account for a significant portion of violent crimes as well. Furthermore, extended incarceration has a snowball effect in communities with so many missing family members, and later, almost unemployable family members.