Liberty Matters



Liberty lovers of all sorts -- classical liberals, libertarians, and fusionist conservatives -- all share one challenge. If they love freedom so much, why aren’t they better known as freedom fighters for Black rights? After all, Black Americans’ rights to own themselves, their labor, their property, and their freedom to exchange with others were all egregiously abrogated by every level of government. I argued in my essay on what liberty has to say to Black America that these groups ought to be better known for the parts they played in abolitionism, the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement, and for work being done today on the drug war and mass incarceration. I also argued that liberty lovers everywhere ought to be able to speak with intelligence and grace on the history of rights violations against Black Americans and how our racial pain persists today, while maintaining the hope that extending freedom to all will lead to greater flourishing. It’s clear that each of my fellow authors felt the pressure to answer the same charge.
Brandon Davis offers an excellent overview of the relevant laws and cases that account for the de jure exclusion of Black Americans for 100 years after emancipation from slavery. The separate water fountains of popular imagination can hardly do justice to the overt unwillingness of the United States courts to properly defend the individual rights of Black people in the face of a barrage of crimes against them, including what can only be called domestic terrorism. I’m unsure, however, that his shift to a discussion of the current debate over voting rights is as perfectly parallel as he presents in the essay. Given our history of employing a thousand sneaky ways to exclude Black people from voting, it’s understandable that some perceive the current push to tighten election law to be racially motivated as well. But there are important differences that belie this resonance. While I agree with Davis that the campaign to overturn the 2020 election was ridiculous, concerns about the need for voter identification and the use of mail-in ballots long pre-dated it. After all, out of 47 countries surveyed in Europe, 46 require voter ID already, and have for many years. We also live in a time with different technological benefits and challenges. IDs are very easy to attain, but digital votes can be deleted and hacked. While there certainly was not enough voter fraud to make a difference in the 2020 election, voter fraud is not exactly a “myth,” as Davis claims. A friend of mine from the Freedom Center of Missouri discovered serious fraud that had been going in St. Louis for years, successfully sued, and the electoral victory was granted to a different Democratic candidate. While it’s always hard to disentangle things, the eye-rolling behavior of the Republicans in the 2020 election shouldn’t cause us to write off all concerns about election security as racist.
Erec Smith is concerned about contemporary theorists who won’t let Black Americans escape their painful past. He’s addressing here a balance Black Americans must strike between acknowledging the oppression in American history while honoring the efforts of their forebears by embracing their hard-won liberty and moving forward with hope. As a white American I felt this tension deeply while writing Black Liberation Through the Marketplace. Little did I know when undertaking the project that we desperately need to popularize the distinction between “Black” as a race and “Black” as a subset of American culture. Black people in America really do have a unique set of experiences and a history of shared institutions – a culture. We – all of us.
Americans – must honor these things while letting go of the concept of race. Perhaps the subtlety of the distinction is too tall an order, but I hope not.
Susan Love Brown opens her essay with the now common claim that race is not a real biological category and that claims to human equality are based on our shared membership in the species. My only concern while reading Brown’s essay was whether or not, in our love for freedom of inquiry, liberty-oriented thinkers have undermined our own credibility by associating ourselves with thinkers who insist that race is a biologically significant category and that racial differences, especially with regard to intelligence, might be endemic. While scientists ought always have free rein to explore, these claims strike me as absurd. IQ is shooting up all over the world because of improved nutrition, and it’s nigh impossible to disentangle environmental causes from the claim that current differences could be genetic. There are even epigenetic claims arising that could affirm the reality of inherited trauma (and therefore the possibility of inherited healing). While no one should be punished for investigating such questions, the liberty movement does well to affirm that while individuals vary quite widely, actual genetic differences in intelligence do not hold at the group level. The history of these ideas has been destructive, and only promises to be more so if they continue.
Brown goes on to suggest that part of acknowledging human equality goes beyond the mere equality before the law upon which liberty-oriented thinkers insist. She adds that Black achievement in the face of adversity, Black creativity and inventiveness, and Black cultural contributions to America ought to be celebrated as well. Among libertarian types, the more strictly rationalist among us can easily miss the deep cultural backdrop required for a free society, including the spiritual and philosophical affirmation of the value of every individual and the contributions of each cultural group. Citizenship is not merely about one’s rights, but also about one’s sense of belonging. Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves that Black history is American history, that Black religion, Black business, and Black art have shaped America powerfully, and that they even account for much of America’s cultural influence around the world. Know it, appreciate it, celebrate it. Amen to that!