I recently wrote about the increasing levels of political pressure from both socialists and economic nationalists to abandon our historic aspiration to a free and growing entrepreneurial economy. One issue I held aside to deal with separately is the more radical line of attack coming from advocates of a certain kind of racialism. An economy built on equal rights and freedoms for all people under the rule of law—securing your right to control your own work as well as rights to property, contract, and exchange—is now seen by many people as a form of white supremacy.
Race always has been, and continues to be, America’s big stumbling block. Our history of injustice based on race, and our continuing inability to heal or resolve the wounds arising from it, put a perennial question mark at the end of every sentence about who we are. Almost no issue in our public life, from health care to national defense, is free of the seemingly endless complications arising from this difficulty.
The moral traditions that constitute our economic order are no exception. “America’s successful economy was built on slavery” and similar statements are common. In its more highly developed form, the argument is that our system of equal rights and freedoms under the rule of law—the moral order at the heart of the free and growing entrepreneurial economy—were always just an empty ideology covering up racial domination. White supremacy was the real rock-bottom reality behind all the 18th century rhetoric about property and contract rights.
This is an educational as well as a political question. Scholars like Calvin Schermerhorn and Edward Baptist have been reshaping U.S. history scholarship along these lines. And the big push to get high schools to use an adapted version of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” in classrooms takes this into the K-12 sector, since parts of the “1619 Project” echo the themes of this line of attack.
For the sake of clarity, we need to differentiate three questions that are often lumped together as if they were the same question: Did America steal massive amounts of wealth from African-Americans in the form of forced labor? Was slavery a cause of America’s economic growth and success? And was the idea of equal rights and freedoms under the rule of law really an ideology of white supremacy?
Massive Theft of Economic Value
The answer to the first question is an unambiguous yes. The injustice of slavery is obviously much larger than just the stealing of economic value. But it does find its formidable origin in that colossal and shameless larceny; if not for the theft of economic value, there would have been no slavery in the first place. To steal people’s labor was the whole point.
An economy built on equal rights and freedoms for all people under the rule of law is now seen by many people as a form of white supremacy.
And the sheer quantity of economic value stolen is sufficient to stagger even the most powerful imagination. Lincoln wasn’t kidding around when he said that God would have been perfectly just to let the war rage on until every drop of blood spilled by slavers’ whips had been taken right back out of America’s hide with bullets and bayonets. Contemplating the horror of, say, Shiloh—in which almost 100,000 men spent two full days in what is essentially a big, flat, empty space doing nothing but slaughtering each other nonstop—we might well conclude that God really must be merciful if he let us off the hook that easily.
I believe one major reason people take this line of attack on the modern economy is simply because they want the historical fact of this massive theft of economic value recognized. In that, they are right. As the descendent of immigrants who came through Ellis Island from Italy, I know my people are quick to point out how much of America was built by Italian-Americans. The difference is that America isn’t ashamed to recognize the fact of our contribution; if anything, it’s ashamed of its efforts to prevent us from contributing. The economic contribution of African-Americans is not in the same position, and recognizing it is psychologically difficult for all of us. But justice demands it. And I think if we were more ready to offer that recognition, much of the impetus to this attack on our traditional economic order would be removed.
A Cause of America’s Economic Growth?
However, the question of whether America stole massive amounts of economic value from African-Americans is not the same as the question of whether slavery drove economic growth. Quite the reverse is true. Slavery was an economically backward institution. It kept large portions of the United States literally shackled to no-growth primitive agrarianism for generations after our neighbors were industrializing.
That slavery impeded rather than contributed to America’s economic growth and success has been established by the diligent labor of scholars like Phillip Magness, Nathan Nunn, and Stanley Engerman. But really, you only have to know the barest outline of the real history to see this. That the North was rich and the South poor because the former had rights and laws while the latter had whips and chains was always known (though not always frankly acknowledged) by everybody on both sides. The Union won the war precisely because its industrialized manufacturing economy could grind the Confederacy’s atavistic agrarianism—enslaved by slavery—into the ground. Enormous academic obfuscation has been necessary to produce a generation of Americans ignorant of these basic facts.
The key thing to grasp is the difference between moving wealth around and creating new wealth. Stealing wealth is just moving it around. Getting rich that way is fragile, and completely unsustainable. The way nations really get rich, reliably and continually, is by giving their people the conditions necessary to create new wealth. Those conditions are recognition of human rights—to control your own work, and to property, contract, and exchange.
Our economic success was not built on slavery. It was built in spite of a huge economic drag from slavery. And it was built by repudiating the principles of slavery.
An Ideology of White Supremacy?
That brings us to our third question. It is true that America professed the principle of equal rights while practicing the perfidy of white supremacy. It does not follow that the former was simply a cover for the latter. On the contrary, the founders’ liberal principles were actually the deadliest enemy of their licentious practice. It has been precisely a dedication to our nation’s founding principles that has inspired good people in every generation of Americans to rise up against white supremacy in all the forms it has taken in this country.
We have always known that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were inconsistent with white supremacy, from the southern delegations who walked out of the Continental Congress in 1776 to prevent a clause condemning slavery from being included in the Declaration to the marchers who heard Martin Luther King in 1963 call the Declaration a “promissory note” that Americans of all colors were entitled to cash. As King himself said, America has always been “a schizophrenic nation,” torn between its liberal moral principles and its atavistic racial impulses. We are torn because they pull in opposite directions.
You can’t demand a radical revolution against the legacy of injustices that trampled on people’s rights while also denying that people have rights.
A commitment to equal rights and freedoms under the rule of law does mean that the long-term legacy effects of past injustices cannot be swept away by immediate, radical government action. But the alternative is to jettison the very moral principles that make slavery and segregation wrong in the first place. You can’t eat your cake and also have it; you can’t demand a radical revolution against the legacy of injustices that trampled on people’s rights while also denying that people have rights. That’s why radical government plans to reinvent society from the ground up overnight have never actually accomplished their goals, and usually end in tyranny and mass murder.
It’s worth pausing to ask: Who else, besides these radical racial critics of the liberal order on the far left, has advanced all these claims? The answer is: radical racial critics of the liberal order on the far right—the white supremacists themselves. From the Dred Scot decision to the Internet sewers of the alt-right, American white supremacists have never had room for more than one idea in their tiny brains, and that idea is this: That America’s successful economy was built on slavery, and the Declaration’s promises of equal rights and freedoms always had “For Whites Only” written between the lines in invisible ink.
In fact, almost all of the radical postmodern ideas that have taken over the American left since the 1960s were first developed by the intellectuals (if we can call them that) who in earlier generations defended slavery and segregation. Rights and freedoms and the rule of law is all just bourgeois ideology, designed to produce an atomistic individualism so industrialists can manipulate and exploit factory workers as “wage slaves.” Community is supreme over the individual; the lives of individuals only have meaning insofar as they know their proper place within a stable community that tells them who they are. The crass majoritarianism of democracy must yield to complex systems that create group rights by giving a veto to self-appointed group representatives (today we call it “stakeholder democracy” or “multicultural democracy,” but when John C. Calhoun invented this system in order to preserve slavery, he called it rule by “concurrent majority”). Above all, it is an act of war to pass moral judgment on someone else’s culture. And, conveniently, any individual within the culture who dissents too loudly can be relabeled as an outsider and dealt with accordingly.
I said at the beginning that the attack on the liberal, entrepreneurial economy comes from “advocates of a certain kind of racialism.” They exist on both political sides, and they push the same idea—that equal rights and freedoms under the rule of law is a system of white power. If we want an economy of all people, by all people and for all people, we should borrow a line from Mercutio and reply to the racialists of left and right alike: “A plague ’o both your houses!”
(Image: Nikole Hannah-Jones)