Liberty Matters

Classical Liberalism and the Real Anti-Racists

The rise of global markets has resulted in one of the most stunning shifts in all of human history: the reduction of abject poverty to 8% across the globe. There are almost no words that can capture the significance of such a thing; it’s a bit like the discovery of fire. I often remind my students that this is not about the few people who own yachts. It’s about the billions of people whose children can go to school instead of work, or have access to the antibiotics that will allow them to survive past five years old. It’s about women being educated and delaying marriage and child-bearing past their young teen years. Those of us who spend our time in the liberty movement are well aware of these things and their deep connection to individual freedom. The human flourishing that we see around us arises from systems that respect the dignity of the individual, property rights, and freedom of contract, and set up enforcement mechanisms that reliably grant the equal protection of the rule of just laws.

How then, is the opposite notion so prevalent? We must ask ourselves why intellectual movements that associate economic growth with injustice and oppression have become not just prominent, but wildly popular. There is no shortage of diatribes against the left’s “long march through the institutions,” and I do not discount this explanation at all. However, I am sensitive to the critique that conservative movements are inherently reticent to address deep-seated injustice because of their fear of the disruption of stabilizing institutions. The conservative temperament is not naturally activist, either. If we are honest with ourselves, must we admit that we need a few leftist radicals around who will force us to address genuine cases of oppression? If so, this would certainly explain their persistent popularity in spite of the sorts of academic malfeasance that Phil Magness describes in his critique of writers like Ed Baptist, as well as the chaos and violence often associated with their movements. If the academic left has a monopoly on standing up for those who have been genuinely oppressed, their bad ideas about economics will never lose traction. Who else has defended the enslaved; those whose lands and homes have been confiscated by the state; those whom the police failed to protect from the terrorism of their neighbors (or against whom the police even joined in on the destruction); or who have been unjustly imprisoned in a system that barely cares about innocence or guilt?

One of the most profound discoveries that Marcus Witcher and I made in our research for Black Liberation Through the Marketplace is that the classical liberal movement has an amazing track record of active and effective defense of the rights of the oppressed while defending free markets. In fact, rather than thinking of these two causes as somehow being in tension with one another, the classical liberal tradition has always treated them as the very same thing. How else do governments oppress their citizens than by ignoring their property rights and contract rights, and utterly failing to protect them when their neighbors also ignore their rights? Furthermore, America’s heartbreaking history of racial slavery and Jim Crow served up plenty of virulent racists in both progressive and conservative circles. In contrast, and with very few exceptions, the classical liberal concern with individual freedom based on the concept of human dignity protected the tradition from the ideologically collectivist concept of racism. Nevertheless, the liberty movement today has not emphasized this legacy enough, leading to the natural association in the minds of many between the concept of political or economic liberation and the left’s deafening claims of righteousness and justice.

The anti-slavery commitment of the early classical liberals is undeniable. John Locke famously argued against it in his Second Treatise on Government, declaring slavery to be a “vile” institution that flies in the face of the natural freedom of every person. He expressed shock that great thinkers from a civilized nation like England could think to defend it. Adam Smith lamented the existence of slavery and the difficulty of abolishing it, but hoped that the rise of a more Enlightened Age would end it. More importantly for a figure often touted as the father of economics, Smith argued explicitly against any economic justification for slavery. Workers must be at “perfect liberty” to labor wherever and for whomever they please. To this day, the engraving on Smith’s tombstone in Edinburgh reads: “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” Our right to our own labor and to the fruits of our labor has the salutary effect of creating the most efficient economic system in the history of the world – one in which labor and goods flow to where they are most useful because people can decide based on their own local knowledge. To the extent that such rights are denied the efficiency of that system will be distorted, making the vast majority poorer, not richer.

This insight means that there’s a strange nonsense at the source of all the talk about “benefitting from past oppression.” Of course, there may have been direct economic benefits to the particular people doing the exploiting, but oppression and exploitation of others limits their free movement, their innovation, their incentives, and their growth in human capital. That means that everybody else in the economy misses out on most of what they had to contribute. Very few of us have benefitted from past oppression, because oppression isn’t particularly beneficial in general. This is all backed up by county-by-county data, showing that greater participation in slavery and the slave trade in the past still translates to economic stagnation today.

That Richard Cobden is not a household name in the liberty movement represents a major marketing failure on our part. Cobden’s commitment to peace and free trade super-charged the Anti-Corn Law League and resulted in the incredibly successful mid-19th century English experiment in free markets. Especially significant to America, Cobden and the Manchester School were the major influence on the abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, Joshua Leavitt, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both of these groups sprang, after all, from a kind of principled Christian commitment to non-coercion.

Garrison’s greatest student, Frederick Douglass, toured Ireland with Cobden and his compatriot John Bright. He was called “Black O’Connell of the United States” because he joined Cobden and Bright in arguing that repeal of the Corn Laws would make food cheap and affordable to the desperately poor of Ireland. Frederick Douglass had a knack for explaining why socialism makes no sense. The socialist unions of his day were guilty more of “honest stupidity” rather than “villainy” since they foolishly believed that “every piece of bread that goes into the mouth of one man, is so much bread taken out of the mouth of another.” This zero sum approach to economics made them believe in a perpetual war between owners and workers and to miss the concept of mutually advantageous exchange. Douglass was also more nuanced than his former mentor, Garrison, arguing that the Constitution was a “great liberty document” in spite of its compromise with slavery, and that the real question was whether Americans would have honor enough and courage enough to make their practices accord with their Constitution. Of course, it goes without saying that Frederick Douglass was the greatest abolitionist in the history of the United States, not to mention his work on women’s rights as well.

Moorefield Storey and Oswald Garrison Villard were central players in the founding of the NAACP and both dedicated classical liberals. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and one of the “mothers of libertarianism” argued in the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier for the civil and economic rights of Black Americans against the evils of lynching and zoning. Lane’s editor and fellow anti-communist George Schuyler not only fought for the members of his own race, but defended the Japanese against Roosevelt’s internment camps. The profound novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was blackballed by Langston Hughes for her contrarian individualism and anti-New Deal positions. In South Africa, William Hutt, whom James Buchanan brought to West Virginia for a visiting professorship, laid out a detailed plan to end apartheid by recognizing that white unions were using race to limit the supply of labor.In recent years, libertarians have carried the torch by fighting the persecution of gays, arguing against the drug war and mass incarceration, policing the police, and loosening regulations on small business operations. Sadly, the 19th century notion that the liberation of the oppressed is inextricably tied to the fight for individual liberty has gotten lost as the political categorization of “left” and “right” has made the classical liberal philosophy increasingly mysterious to the majority of Americans. In our increasingly tribal and polarized age, there has never been a better time to blow up these useless categories and reclaim the classical liberal legacy of liberation for the common man.