(Guest post by Greg Forster)
OCPA carries Part 2 of my two-parter on the moral and pragmatic case for the free, open, growing, entrepreneurial economy. In this part, I address the delicate question of whether the American founders’ complicity in white supremacy, including the outright theft of massive amounts of economic value from black Americans, discredits the open economy:
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?
The answer to the first question is an unambiguous yes….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.
But the fact that America is guilty of having stolen massive wealth from African-Americans does not mean that the growth and success of the American economy was caused by that theft:
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.
At a more fundamental level, to understand the actual history of America as it has really happened, in fact and not in the ideological fancies of racialists on the left and right, you have to grasp that our ideals of freedom and equality under the rule of law are in perennial conflict with the ongoing legacy of our historic racial injustices. The former is not a cover story for the latter that needs to be debunked and stripped away. The idea of freedom at the heart of the American experiment is the vital force that has always provided inspiration and focus to all who would destroy racial injustice:
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.
Let me know what you think!