Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Founding Fathers, Slavery & the Enlightenment

Lately, there has been an immense amount of discussion about the Civil Rights Act. Mostly, this is a complete waste of time... No one - not even villain du jour Rand Paul - wants to repeal the CRA.  If anything, the only thing anyone wants repealed would be Title II, which according to Wiki:
"Outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; exempted private clubs without defining the term "private."
 Now... This provision probably seems totally reasonable to most people, but allow me to explain why not - and then to offer some history & commentary on what the alternatives might have been.

But first... I need to go on a tangent about natural rights:

We - by which I mean classical liberals, libertarians, and virtually all influential Enlightenment Era philosophers who contributed to the founding of the United States - start with the basic premise that all people are self-owners.  This is a sort of metaphorical way of stating that every individual is responsible for their own lives, and has the right to decide for themselves what they want to do with their minds, bodies and time. As axiomatic as this should be, it can also be argued on the basis of evidence. There are no (real) psychics. People cannot read other people's minds, and as such cannot know better than individual people what their hopes, dreams, goals, values are... Nor can they know what skills, talents, interests and other abilities different people have.

As Voltaire put it, in Candide;
"...we must cultivate our garden."
No one can know better than you how to do that for yourself, so the basis of liberty - the very core of it - is an understanding of self-ownership.  Understanding this is crucially important, and is unfortunately something we seem to have lost in recent decades.

But anyway... From the premise of self-ownership, a number of conclusions can be drawn.

First and foremost - murder and slavery are morally reprehensible, as they violate the very essence of an individual as primary controller of his own person. If you own yourself, then only you may decide what to do with your life, and a key part of that right is being alive. Thus it is that we recognize the "natural" rights to life & liberty. Also, just to be clear, liberty here is defined as the freedom from coercion or force imposed by a third party. There are other conceptions of liberty, but they are extremely problematic and irrelevant at the moment.

As an aside - you may have noticed that I just provided a moral reason to oppose both slavery & murder without invoking any type of mysticism of God. Logic for the win, yeah? So I thought...

Now, the right to decide for oneself what to do with one's own mind & body leads us to the right of property ownership... In the desert-island version of the world that economists often like to toy with, this actually a very important concept. Imagine a primitive world where all of us are living out in the open or in trees and caves... It's a rough world, and we're constantly exposed to the elements and other threats.

It's not a pleasant world at all!

So now, let's say that you use your mind and come up with an idea no one else has had... And you put that idea into action with your body; both things which you - and only you - control. The result of all this thought and effort is that you've constructed a shelter for yourself that was impervious to weather and keeps out the animals. Since it was your work mixed with your local - otherwise unclaimed - resources (which in this case we will consider "yours" via a homesteading process), we also consider the product of your mind & work to be yours.

Now, in the earliest stages of childhood development, children learn the concept of ownership. It isn't even until later stages of development that they begin to recognize and differentiate between things they own and things other people own - this is why so often, small children will claim everything as "mine!"

Point being - we all recognize the concept of ownership from a young age, and I think it's safe to say that everyone would understand that if you build a house - that house is yours.

This is the basis for property rights. John Locke summed all this up:
"every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his."
It gets more complicated when we make things and trade them to other people... But not that much more complicated. If I make something that you want, and you make something I want, we can trade those things with each other voluntarily - and now ownership has transfered. These transfers are facilitated by money and all the modern abstracts of investments, loans, banks and everything else, but at root they are the same as any one-to-one barter.

What's important about this is that the right to ownership is fundamental. It, along with the rights to speech & association flow from the right to liberty and from the very concept of self-ownership.

As long as there is no violence or coercion in play - those rights are absolute.

This means that the right to decide what happens with property is left to the owner of that property. Like wise, an individual has the right to decide for himself who he does or does not wish to associate with - and here's the key part... for any reason.

Rights which are not absolute aren't rights at all - they are privileges granted by some imposed authority.

This is actually extremely important of a concept.  And it's precisely why Title II of the CRA goes one step too far. The vast majority of the Civil Rights Act repealed or overruled laws which violated the very rights I just discussed.  Those aspects of the law were crucial and necessary.

And the United States certainly should have started out with equal protections of each of those liberties for all people, but unfortunately... It didn't.

The reason it didn't wasn't actually because many of the founders weren't aware of the hypocrisy in writing...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
...and then explicitly denying those self-evident truths to millions of slaves and women. As a matter of fact, the founding fathers were very aware of this contradiction. Many of the founders were explicitly opposed to slavery.

Ben Franklin wrote:
"Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils."
John Adams, always a staunch abolitionist:
"Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.... I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in... abhorrence."
Even George Washington - himself a slave owner - understood the contradiction:
"I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery."
And as historian David Brion Davis noted, had Thomas Jefferson died young in the 1780s, he would have been remembered as "one of the first statesmen anywhere to advocate concrete measures for eradicating slavery." That may be true.

In 1814, Jefferson himself said:
"There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity."
Now... There is absolutely no question that Jefferson wasn't a remarkably racist individual - especially by today's standards. As such, Jefferson also said:
"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks ... are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."
Now, of course that's a pretty horrible view of an entire group of people... But the fact is, looking back on it 250 years later we have a remarkably different perspective on things than people in the 1700s did.

Jefferson's views on race are much better understood as being a product of his time & culture. Most people - all over the world - agreed with him. That doesn't make them right, but it does - or should - help provide some context under which ignorant statements are viewed. And that's just it, isn't it?

The word is: "Ignorance"
Function: noun
Date: 13th century
: the state or fact of being ignorant : lack of knowledge, education, or awareness
This is acutely different from evil - and I think it's probably worth noting that. It doesn't exonerate Jefferson's views - and it absolutely doesn't exonerate the fact that in spite of the written philosophy, the founding fathers of the United States still accepted a Constitution that included disparate treatment of human beings. However, under the circumstances - and given that most of the world held the same ignorant views (and much worse) than Jefferson - it is quite likely that the Constitution would never have been ratified at all without the 3/5ths Compromise.

Jefferson was a hypocrite, and he didn't do what he said he'd do... But all this really shows is that he was a product of his time and radical shifts in ideas produce cultural changes, not necessarily the other way around. Had he grown up 50 years later, and read Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man" as a young boy? Who knows.

It's extremely easy for people now, looking back on centuries of historical events & cultural changes to judge people like Thomas Jefferson as explicitly evil men, but our knowledge of anthropology today is substantial, and our conception of different cultures is not nearly so antagonistic as it used to be. A strange culture isn't something to be hated, or necessarily looked down upon now or to be considered "inferior". That wasn't always the case... However, we owe a huge debt to the words men like Jefferson wrote 250 years ago to the way we treat all people today, even if the men themselves were perhaps less than we'd hoped they'd be.

Of course... The problem with all this is that hypocrisy sometimes causes people to invoke flawed arguments when dealing with the views of people involved in that hypocrisy.

So recently, in discussing many of these issues with friends and passers-by, one common argument against natural rights and the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights is that many of the authors of the founding documents of the United States were slave-holders and racists. While true, this isn't a valid counter argument against the ideas - it is an ad hominem against the speaker.

Moreover, it was the ideas of liberty - the ideas that people had "inalienable" rights to life, liberty and property, that provided the intellectual backing that completely undermined slavery around the world.

The problem originally, was that there were cultural discrepancies on who was considered "human". As despicable as this is, if you were to make the argument that black people, or anyone from another race or tribe are "sub-human" - as many people throughout history have done - then you can easily rationalize that members of those groups don't deserve the rights which are "inalienable" and "natural" to everyone else. The solution to this problem is to recognize all people as human beings who are, in fact, human beings!

Black, white, red, blue, yellow... American, European, Australian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Antarctican...Doesn't matter.

A human is a human. A is A.

For the most part, this is precisely what the Civil Rights Act attempted to do. Throughout the United States following the Civil War, many states & local municipalities had enacted laws which continued to deny the full "human" status of black people (and other immigrants, and women!) and thus denied them the protection of life & liberty government was supposed to provide.

Black people were denied the right to own property in many cases, and then when they did own property they were often denied protections from theft & vandalism that would have been provided to white property owners. Licenses started being issued for business & marriage - often times purely to deny blacks the right to engage in voluntary trading association with other people or to prevent them from marrying and having kids (especially marrying white people). Lynch mobs would be given a slap-on-the-wrist, if that in response to violating the most primary right of all by murdering innocent people who's "crime" was having the wrong skin color.

Not only that - laws mandating segregation violated the rights of property owners to decide for themselves who they would allow onto their property. The vast majority of these types of laws were direct violations of the natural rights of the people in those communities...

It doesn't matter if the laws were enacted via democratic majority or not. All of this goes against the very core philosophy of the United States as understood in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the totality of the collected writings of philosophers & statesmen during that time.

And that in and of itself is another, extremely crucial, point. Democracy can easily result in tyranny... It takes careful protections and constant vigilance and assertion by individuals of all races, genders & creeds to maintain freedom.

But............ Two wrongs don't make a right.

And violating liberty in the name of protecting it isn't acceptable. The same reason Title II is no good is why the Patriot Act is unacceptable. Freedom is a double-edged sword. The right to free speech and association means that the government cannot prevent people from making heroic speeches against the evils of racism. But it also means that it can't stop people from making evil speeches promoting racism. As long as those people are relegated to speaking, and making only decisions that effect their own property (including their businesses), then they are violating no one else's liberty and should not be interfered with - no matter how repulsive we find their ideas to be.

It doesn't work both ways. Freedom is meaningless if the people in power can decide what speech and what activities are unacceptable.

In the 1700-1960s, the people in power were deciding that freedom of speech and association didn't extend to the unrecognized classes of people in the wrong race & gender. But since the 1960s, the people in power have decided that the rights to speech & association don't apply to people who hold unpopular & un-PC viewpoints. It's still a wrong, even though this time, the people who's liberty we're violating are

I think the Federal Government acted correctly in abolishing and overriding the illiberal laws of the State governments. And it's probably true that the culture had been so ingrained by 1965 that without proactive action, things might have just gone back to how they were... But, as I said... Two wrongs don't make a right.

So... What do I think could have been done instead of Title II?

My alternative would have been to use the various agencies of the Federal government - such as the National Guard or the FBI - to "police the police". The main problems were:
  1. Restrictive Laws Based on Race
  2. Public Segregation 
  3. Selective Enforcement of the Law
  4. Private Discrimination 
The first two were violations of rights which the CRA repealed and fixed purely through legislation.

But the only thing you could do about selective enforcement & corrupt judges is to swoop in from above and either replace those law enforcement officers or very carefully police their activities. In 2010, you could do this easily with YouTube and an impartial judiciary... In 1965... Not so much... So I think it would have been appropriate to set up a (largely temporary) system of weeding out & replacing bad cops. I also think it would have been appropriate to create additional levels of review for every level of law enforcement to be sure that everyone's rights were being protected regardless of race.

ALL of that would have been appropriate, defensive, and pro-actively protected the rights of formerly unprotected groups... Without violating other people's property rights in the process.

Once you've done that, then the private discrimination becomes a matter of property rights and the key would be making sure that "keep off my lawn" doesn't turn into lynch mobs. As long as "Whites Only" signs don't actually translate into an aggressive genocide, then it's not the place for the government in a free country to dictate who people must interact with... Assuming there are actually protections for blacks to own their own property and do what ever they want with it, and everyone is allowed to trade with whomever they wish, then it's not even that big of a deal since the market itself punishes those who arbitrarily limit their customer base.

I hope I've shown here that it is, in fact, possible to be pro-active and to not do so in completely illiberal ways.

This is a lesson I really hope more people eventually learn. To protect the U.S. against despotic regimes, we don't need to become a despotic regime, and to protect individuals against abuses of their liberties, we should not violate others' liberty in the process. And yes, I know the people who's liberty we're violating are the absolute dregs of society who hold abominable views. That doesn't make them not human, it doesn't make them not legitimate property owners and it doesn't mean their rights are any less inalienable.

It sucks to have to defend the rights of intolerable people, but that's the price of admission for freedom.

[Oh... And by the way... Why the hell am I talking about legislation that was passed 21 years before I was even born?  It's never going to change and it's completely irrelevant at this point. The important thing is the discussion of liberty, let's not devolve into whining about awkward politicians' TV appearances, ok?]

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