Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Good 'Ole Days Weren't Always Good

I wrote this last month at Republicans United during the whole "Confederate History Month" issue. In light of the Rand Paul issue, I thought I'd bring it out again.

Let me start with a story.

My Dad, who turned 80 last November, told me story. He moved to Michigan from his native Louisiana back in the 1950s to work in the auto plants. From time to time, he would go back to the South to visit his mother. When he made the trek his sister in Michigan would make a basket full of fried chicken for Dad to eat on the trip. His mother would do the same thing when he left Louisiana and went back to Michigan.

The reason the women in Dad's life did this was because back in the 1950s, he would not be able to stop at a restaurant to get food. Why? Because Dad was and is a black man, and back in those days, blacks didn't automatically get served in a restaurant.

Dad also had to learn to pull over when he was tired and sleep in his car, or until a cop told him to move on. Why? Same reason. A black man in the 1950s wasn't just going to find a hotel room any old place.

One of the common refrains from conservatives and libertarians these days is that we are "losing are freedoms." The argument is that there was some small government utopia where Americans were truly free. Speakers will talk about how the founding fathers set up a small government society based on freedoms and now we have lost all of that.

David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, argues that there never was a "golden age of liberty" in America. For starters, at the founding of our nation- that time that conservatives and libertarians like to see as the Golden Age- not everyone was enjoying this "freedom." As Boaz reminds his fellow small government travelers, if you were black, you weren't free:
Did "early Americans consider themselves free"? White Americans probably did. But what about black Americans, and especially the 90 percent of black Americans who were slaves? Slaves made up about 19 percent of the American population from 1790 to 1810, dropping to 14 percent by 1860. (In that period the number of slaves grew from 700,000 to about 4 million, but the rest of the population was growing even more rapidly.) Did Mr. Hornberger really forget that 4 million Americans were held in bondage when he waxed eloquent about how free America was until the late 19th century? I know he isn't indifferent to the crime of slavery. But too many of us who extol the Founders and deplore the growth of the American state forget that that state held millions of people in chains. (I note that I'm not concerned here with self-proclaimed libertarians who join neo-Confederate organizations or claim that southerners established a new country and fought a devastating war for some reason other than the slavery on which their social and economic system rested; I just want to address libertarians who hate slavery but seem to overlook its magnitude in their historical analysis.)

Boaz then links to a post from Brink Lindsey that reminds people that we live in a more libertarian age than just a few decades ago:

Nevertheless, the fact is that American society today is considerably more libertarian than it was a generation or two ago. Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.

In the same week that we saw Virginia Governor Bob McDonnel make a colossal mistake in making April Confederate History Month, I think this essay sums up a problem on the American Right. It's not that all conservatives and libertarians are racists who want to see African Americans in chains, but the problem is that many conservatives and libertarians rarely notice the plight of African Americans. It's not active hate, but for the most part it's benign neglect.

For all their faults, liberals at least try to understand and recognize African Americans in our society. I think at times it can start slipping into victimhood, but that's for another blog post.

Maybe part of the problem is that conservatives don't want to go down the "politically correct" road that liberals have sometimes taken, so they end up not doing anything lest they become PC nuts. I think that most black folk just want to be treated as people. We don't want any special treatment, we just want to be seen and heard. That means hearing our stories and our history which is part of American history.

My Dad, who went to segregated schools in the South, and took the crappiest job in the auto plants because he was a black man, was not free. As time marched forward and the Civil Rights movement came to focus, things changed. By the time I came around and started joining him in trips South to see my relatives, we could stay in motels and eat in restaurants.

There are still many problems, but I think that life for African Americans is a lot better now than at the time of the Revolution. We can vote. We can marry. We aren't treated as furniture.

Are we in a libertarian paradise? No, but then as Boaz notes, there never was a paradise and their never will be.

Boaz ends his essay reminding those of us on the Right that the issue here how government uses power:

We often focus on the size of government, as measured in percentage of GDP taxed and spent by the government, which is an important and measurable concept. But our real concern is power. What kind of power does the government wield over the people? Powerful state institutions tend to be large, but that doesn't mean that a larger state is necessarily exercising more power. Imagine a small town that adds two officers to its police force. Now it has more police officers, and that costs more money; the government is "larger." But if the officers now do a better job of arresting violent criminals and protecting the lives and property of the people—and refrain from arresting or hassling non-criminals—then the government has not expanded its power. Indeed, better eight officers protecting lives and property than six officers enforcing drug laws and blue laws. We should focus on what is actually important—the exercise of arbitrary power over others. And in that regard slavery and conscription, among other things that marred parts of our American past, loom very large.

I would argue that in the past, government was used to keep blacks down. Slavery laws and later Jim Crow laws were used to treat us like second class citizens. People worked to free African Americans from a governmental tryanny. If that's not libertarian, I don't know what is.

I'm reminded of a song by Billy Joel that white conservatives and libertarians must remember: the good ol' days weren't always good.

h/t: Burke's Corner

1 comment:

John Kusters said...

It always seems to me that those who are complaining loudest are the descendants (either directly or culturally) of the elite minority of educated, white, landed men. It is true, those few had significant liberties back then. Life for those few was better in some respects than what their descendants now experience. The problem is that because of their "inheritance" they are wearing blinders. The can only "see" how life was for the privileged few, and are completely oblivious to the plights of women, Blacks, Asians, and others who lived around those few.