Thursday, February 22, 2018

America: A History of Racism or the History of Individualism? - - 2

[RE: Black history is U.S. history — but some of my students don’t want to hear it by Donald Earl Collins. Continued from my last post of 2/20/18. All Collins quotes in this article are posted there.]

American history is the history of individualism, not collectivism. True, a heavy strain of collectivism remained to undercut American individualism (It still does). That’s why slavery survived until the capitalist North destroyed the racist, slave Confederate South (albeit at the price of a bloody Civil War).

Why did Europe end slavery just as it flourished under “modern capitalism”—free commerce and industry? Because commerce and industry did not rely on the slave trade. It relied on Enlightenment principles of individual freedom—the opposite of slavery. As historian Arthur Herman documents:

[T]he overwhelming bulk of Europe's affluence sprang from inter-European trade, not its slaveholding colonies; indeed, those countries most dependent on those slaveholding colonies, Spain and Portugal, showed the slowest rates of growth. Some of the important beneficiaries of that affluence, like Austria and Germany, had no colonies at all. And money from the slave trade played almost no part in the economic development of countries like France and Britain, compared to other sources of capital.

It’s true that some of the profits of slave plantations may have provided some of the capital that fueled industry. But much more of the capital came from other sources, including capital generated by free commerce.

Why did industry flourish in the American North, but not in the slave plantation South? Why did America’s (and the world's) greatest economic explosion of progress happen during the period of the most capitalist economic freedom ever—the years between the Civil War and World War I, after slavery was abolished?

Slavery and capital have existed throughout human history. Why did industry flourish during the Enlightenment period of capitalism, but not before? Why then? What ignited it? Certainly, not because of the unthinking brute labor of slaves; nor of the mere availability of capital. It flourished because the source of progress is ideas, which require free minds, free markets, and individual rights—i.e., capitalism, which the Enlightenment unleashed. Once again Herman:

Slave labor [did not] play any part in what were the real drivers of Enlightenment Europe’s economic takeoff, commerce and manufacturing. The reason wasn’t moral but (as we might guess) practical: to a man counting his costs, unwilling labor was expensive compared to the willing kind. As Adam Smith pointed out in his Wealth of Nations, “the experience of all agents and nations . . . [is] that the work done by freeman comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.” The reason is “the slave consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible,” while the free worker has a self-interested stake in making it more productive, or any other trade he is engaged in, even at the most menial level—and production was at the heart and soul of the new capitalist order. 
Far from depending on slave labor and the slave trade, the age of commerce signaled their doom, just as the factory foretold the demise of the plantation. 
Aristotle had been right all along. Freedom and slavery were indeed mutually exclusive states. . .

Is it any wonder that it was the Capitalist West, before anyone else, that abolished slavery?

Capitalism is a knowledge system. It is a thinking system. It depends on the free flow of ideas voluntary exchange, including between businessman and worker. As such, the central economic product of capitalism, the industrial enterprise, relies on knowledge and ideas, and thus on motivated thinking employees who are there because they want to be. Slaves are forbidden to act on their own judgement, so their minds go to waste along with their potential for achievement as they perform only the task they are ordered to perform, with only enough effort to avoid the whip. A primitive cotton plantation can scrape along on slave labor (though not flourish to its full potential). An industrial enterprise, including modern industrial agriculture, cannot. Everyone from the entrepreneur/businessman/CEO that guides the productive mission of the enterprise to every employee on every level, free thinking and action are vital. Slavery forbids free minds. It holds progress back. It doesn’t and logically cannot foster progress. It can not form the basis of any industrial enterprise. Slavery is inimical to genuine capitalism—and must eventually, of moral and practical necessity, “die on the vine”.

That’s why “slavery was codified into state laws” in the South.* Collins horrifically implies that slavery is good for prosperity. He could not be more wrong. Slavery could not coexist with the dynamic commerce and principles of capitalism, for good reason. As Andrew Bernstein explains:

Because racists recognize that the ethnic minorities they oppose will flourish under the political and economic freedom of capitalism, they conduct a relentless war against the free-market system. The antebellum South not only created and supported a legal system that sanctioned the enslavement of blacks, but also mandated that blacks be kept illiterate. Indeed, [Thomas] Sowell wrote, “many Southern states not only refused to educate free Negroes but made it a crime for them even to attend private schools at their own expense.” In the postbellum South, Jim Crow legislation made it illegal for blacks to attend the better schools, be hired for the best jobs, or live in white neighborhoods, no matter how qualified the individual.11 Bigots know that without the coercive power of the state to enforce their prejudices, they are powerless to prevent the advancement of the ethnic minorities they fear. Capitalism is the bigot’s worst enemy.

My emphasis. Slavery wasn’t codified into state law in order to “create modern capitalism.” It was codified into law to prevent capitalism for blacks. Collins ignores the fact that slavery holds back industrial progress, by ignoring the nature of capitalism. Otherwise, why did black entrepreneurs and innovators only flourish under capitalist freedom, rather than while chained into slavery? **

Did some businessmen, including some of the Founding Fathers, owned slaves? Are some college professors rapists or sexual harassers of women? Yes and yes. But just as sexual abuse is not inherent in the requirements of college professorship, so slavery is not inherent in the capitalist principles of America’s Founding—and the Founders embedded America with the principles that would end slavery.

It is not necessary nor desirable nor moral to ignore the racism that has permeated American society from its start. But one must also recognize that racism—collectivism, or tribalism—was inherited by America, and that the individualism embodied in the Declaration of Independence is and always has been the antidote to racism. The idea that All Men are Created Equal—equal not in character or natural attributes or luck or goals or individual success and the like—but equal in their basic humanity as rational beings capable of reasoned action, is what Americanism is. And that all men—regardless of race, national origin, cultural heritage, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else—possess the same unalienable individual rights to life, liberty, to earn and keep property, and to pursue person happiness. Capitalism is not a system “imposed by powerful white men”. The white men, the Founding Fathers, in fact personally risked it all to create America. Capitalism—the system of voluntary cooperation and trade—is the natural outgrowth of the political principles outlined in the Declaration. Capitalism wasn’t imposed. It is what happens when every individual on every level of ability is freed from tribalism by individualism, and left free and unimpeded to pursue his own life independently and in voluntary cooperation with others.

Frederick Douglass the Abolitionist once said during his fight against slavery:

Everybody has asked the question … “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! . . . If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!

That, in a nutshell, is what capitalism offers to all oppressed people—laissez-faire, which means “Let us be”.

By all means, let’s talk about race and America; the whole story about race and America. The litany of racist horrors listed by Collins are largely true. But they are not America. They are not capitalism. They are what America was founded to combat. Americanism didn’t win unconditional victory against the tribal, racist tide of history right away. But Americanism did provide the philosophical firepower to fight it back. The real failure is the failure of people to live up to Americanism. The battle continues to this day. “Modern capitalism” is capitalism infiltrated by massive rights-violating doses of government intervention. It is corrupted by cronyism; hobbled by regulation; restrained by welfare state disincentives. But it is not a result of racism and slavery. Capitalism—which, to be more precise, should be called Americanism—is exactly what must be saved and rediscovered; or, as Ayn rand would say, the unknown ideal that must be discovered. It is the only social system that can eliminate the remnants of racism and tribalism, and save us from its resurgence.

The idea that “The profits and products of slavery made industrialization possible, and supplied the United States and Europe with the cotton that would create modern capitalism” is mental garbage, plain and simple. It makes no sense, logically. The source of wealth is the free mind, not involuntary servitude. A little introspection will prove that: Can you do your job well without thinking; with someone with a whip dictating your every move? Would you even want to try? By the basic nature of man as a being whose survival depends on the individual mind, Collins’s claim is not, was not, and cannot be true. Can Collins, a university professor, in the 21st Century, be that ignorant of the history of the last 300 years, or of human nature, or of the role of the individual free mind in human existence and flourishing? Can he really not understand the difference between the cause of racism (collectivism) and the antidote to racism (individualism)? Is he just badly mistaken? Perhaps. After the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War, the rise of capitalism and its consequences, the rise of socialism and its consequences, I find that hard to swallow.

Whatever his reasons, Collins does history, America, and his students a terrible disservice. Race is not, as Collins asserts, “central to almost every aspect of American life.” Individual freedom is central. America was not built, as he claims, by “the millions who arrived in America in chains.” If that were true, progress would have stopped in 1865. Instead, it took off. America was built in spite of those chained peoples—that is, by people to the extent they were free.

Collins claims that “modern capitalism [is] so contradictory to American ideals.” Really? When in the late 1830s Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in the South, and traveled North to Massachusetts where he became “my own master,” earning his first free dollar, what he escaped to was capitalism. It is racism and slavery that is contradictory to American ideals. That statement about “modern capitalism” strongly indicates that this professor’s goal is anti-capitalism, not education about race in America. His goal is to undermine and taint and discredit and smear any advocate of individual rights and free markets with the broad brush of racism. To what end? To destroy capitalism once and for all? To advance socialism? Some other goal?

“There’s nothing anti-patriotic in examining America’s great flaws and failings,” Collins says. I agree. Have horrible injustices been perpetrated upon minority groups within America’s political borders? Yes, of course. But America, unlike other nations, is not about borders. Contrary to Collins’s description of America as “a story mostly about rich and powerful white men,” America is a story about ideas. Has he never read what Martin Luther King described as “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence?” Has he never studied the great debates over the drafting of the U.S. Constitution? It’s about protecting the individual by limiting government power. Ideas don’t come in colors or economic classes. “This country,” observed Ayn Rand through a character in Atlas Shrugged, “was the only country in history born, not of chance and blind tribal warfare, but as a rational product of man’s mind. This country was built on the supremacy of reason.” Reason is the faculty of the individual, and the heart and soul of individualism. The battle between individualism and collectivism was raging before America was born. The battle continued after, within its borders.

Collins laments the accusation “anti-patriotic” hurled at him by a student. I don’t know the students’ reasons. But there is something anti-patriotic in ignoring America’s great virtue. Given its uniquely philosophical origins, America must be judged on an entirely different standard from other nations: It must be judged on its philosophy—a philosophy that transcends its borders and is applicable to all human beings everywhere. Its people may properly be judged according to how well they lived up to that philosophy—and plenty of “Americans” have not. But America is individualism. American history is not, as Collins asserts, “the history of modern racism.” It is the history of anti-racism—a history of throwing off the chains of tribalism, from which slavery and Jim Crow is born, and liberating the individual to become his own master.

Rather than condemn America, condemn people who deny or disparage Americanism. The best way to extract racism from America is to recommit to upholding American ideals.


* But not, contrary to Collins, in the U.S. Constitution, about which escaped slave and Abolitionist intellectual Frederick Douglass observed as "Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." True, the Constitution included compromises that allowed the continuation of slavery in the South. As Constitutional scholar Randy E. Barnett explains, “Though one of the most glaring defects of the Constitution was its failure to prohibit slavery in the states, the framers carefully avoided mentioning slavery by name or empowering Congress to enslave any person.” In short, anti-slave forces got about as much as they could at the Founding, and still craft a nation. But they did not, as Collins asserts, codify “the connection between African skin and slavery” in the Constitution.

** Consider, for example, “Elijah McCoy, the son of fugitive slaves, [who] invented what ended up saving the locomotive industry countless hours of time and all the associated money.” Or agricultural giant George Washington Carver.


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