Why Jemar Tisby is wrong about the economics of systemic racism

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“At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina.” May 1940, Jack Delano. |

All that there is of mechanical talent or intellect, capable of illustrating a nation, in the three million slaves is lost forever for lack of education.….”

—Cassius Clay, 1848

The American race debate is heating up again, this time in Christian circles. Jemar Tisby complained this week about the controversy surrounding his appearance at Grove City College. Tisby is the author The color of compromise, a book that tackles the history of the white church’s reluctance to join the fight for black civil rights, and it has now joined the Ibram X. Kendi Anti-Racism Center. For my part, I believe that the students of Grove City are smart enough to hear a wide range of points of view and evaluate them. Here, however, I prefer to address a particular claim by Tisby to see what it can teach us about economics and natural law. Tisby defends himself against the accusation that he believes all white people are racist and instead insists that “all whites profit” from racist systems. I argue that, taken as a group, whites do not benefit at all from black oppression. The exclusion of any minority group from freedom of movement, education, economic participation or equal protection of the law never benefits the majority group. It only diminishes them.

Let’s start with the institution of slavery. That slavery is immoral is clear, but there has been a long-standing debate in economics about whether slavery is profitable. What is meant by “profitable”? Of course, slaveholders profited from the unpaid and unfree labor of those they enslaved, although they did not realize higher profit margins than northern employers of labor. free work. But noticing the profit of some businessmen is different from wondering if the institution was profitable. When we ask this question, we are asking whether it has expanded the economy, that is, whether it has increased wealth in general. Economists are often ridiculed for being cold-hearted people, but the merit is there: they insist on counting everyone’s preferences as a whole, not just those of white people! Consider the physical and psychological losses suffered by enslaved people – loss of freedom of movement, loss of wages, loss of family members, loss of leisure, loss of learning (and therefore of human capital and ability to future gain), and so many other losses, the costs to the whole economy are immense. And we haven’t even touched on the dysfunctional economic effects of slavery: infrastructure that was never built, wages for poor white workers also went down, labor wasted by slave patrols and overseers and the high rates of violent crime in the south. Compared to the alternative of an economy based on freedom for all and free trade, a slave economy will never be able to compete. Instead of increasing the actual quantity and quality of goods and services through innovation and free trade, a slave economy is mostly just a transfer of wealth, stealing from large numbers of people and transferring that wealth to a small minority of owners through violent extraction.

A similar argument can be made regarding Jim Crow and the Codes Blacks in the North and South. Every time we make it harder for people – especially those who are already marginalized and struggling – to learn, trade, move and build, we become poorer. There is no economic benefit to excluding a group, as it only misses out on their contributions. The choice to disrupt and ghettoize black communities through the FHA’s redlining policies, urban freeway construction, and so-called “urban renewal” (slum clearance, otherwise known as ” elimination of the Negroes”) partly caused the concentrated poverty in the inner cities that we see today. . The costs are astronomical: high unemployment, high crime, high rates of drug abuse and related disability, poor educational outcomes, poor health outcomes and high incarceration rates. Could someone explain to me how all these high costs benefit white people? A few of them could benefit certain middle-class bureaucrats (black and white) who hand out benefits or serve as prison guards. But all of us — including those I just mentioned — would be living in a much healthier economy if the federal government had left enough room for the mixed-income neighborhoods that were growing before their interventions to grow organically. Instead, the feds decided they needed some useful social engineering of how whites and blacks interact, and now we’re faced with social and economic consequences that will take decades to heal.

The same could be said today when it comes to small business licensing requirements, over-regulation of small businesses, uncontrollable and irresponsible prosecutors, union denial of school choice, laws of NIMBY zoning and marijuana bans. Although we no longer have laws that outright discriminate against black people, we are raising barriers to economic participation that affect all marginalized groups. It’s time we let go of the idea that oppressing and excluding anyone benefits the rest of us. The beauty of a free society is that the freer people are, the more they can, and will, benefit from each other.

Rachel Ferguson is director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago, assistant dean of the College of Business, and professor of business ethics. She is a researcher affiliated with the Acton Institute and co-author of Black Liberation through the Marketplace: America’s Hope, Sorrow, and Promise..

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