The Declaration of Independence asserts a variation of Locke’s political philosophy, noting that all men are created equal and have the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Locke, of course, spoke of a right to property rather than the pursuit of happiness; as one of my political science professors noted, the writers had most of the property and did not want the other folks getting ideas.
If this document is taken seriously as a statement of American political philosophy and values, it commits all Americans to the fundamental equality of people and to these three basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While the notion of equality and the specifics of these rights are subject to debate and disagreement, their interpretation cannot stray too far, or they become meaningless or absurd. For example, when South Carolina seceded from the Union the authors appealed to the principle of liberty as a justification for maintaining slavery. Asserting that the natural right of liberty justifies rebellion to maintain the violation of the natural right of liberty is clearly absurd.
While slavery is currently illegal, with a few exceptions, there are still clear violations of the principle of equality and the natural rights. As might be suspected, minorities are often the targets of such efforts. Those who are sceptical of systematic violations often say they see no evidence of systematic violations in their own experiences, so there is no such thing. If examples are offered, the responses tend to be that these examples are mere anecdotal evidence or that the apparent violations are not real violations, but consequences brought about by the individuals in question.
These replies do have some appeal. After all, an appeal to mere anecdotal evidence to establish a general claim is fallacious. There can also be cases in which apparent violations are instead self-inflicted harms. Responding to the charge of anecdotal evidence requires presenting statistical data in support of the claim that such violations exist. Responding to the assertion that the apparent violations are the fault of the alleged victims requires showing that the harms are inflicted rather than self-inflicted.
The statistical evidence for inequality is overwhelming, with blacks and Hispanics in the United States consistently being worse off than white Americans. The disparity begins at birth with infant mortality for blacks being more than double that of whites. It ends, one assumes, at death. The life expectancy of blacks is 75 years, whites 79. It should be noted that “deaths of despair” are increasing among middle-aged whites as they increasingly face conditions that are routinely endured by blacks and Hispanics (notably a shortage of steady, well-paying jobs). While this might be taken as evidence against racism (that social ills are increasingly killing whites, too) it serves more to highlight the impact of economic disparity that has always been present.
Between birth and death, blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to grow up in poverty, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be enrolled in college, more likely to earn less money, more likely to lack insurance, and far less likely to own rather than rent. This is not to deny that there are whites who are in dire straits nor is it to ignore anecdotes about the misfortunes of whites. However, this is a matter of statistics and in general blacks and Hispanics are worse-off than whites. While this establishes the statistical evidence, there remains the question of causation.
One explanation is that whites are generally superior to blacks and Hispanics and hence do better at life. This view of racial superiority and inferiority is, by definition, racist. However, being morally repugnant does not make something false.
If there were different races with different abilities, this would show up in genetic testing. However, the scientific evidence is that there is no biological foundation to the categories of race. It could be argued that the differences are undetectable by current science or, perhaps, that they are metaphysical in nature. The obvious problem with such claims is that they are based on an appeal to ignorance. The burden of proof rests on those who claim they know there is a difference. As such, the biological superiority argument fails.
Another stock explanation is cultural: white culture is superior to black and Hispanic culture, so whites do better. This avoids the appeal to biological race and instead attributes negative traits (like laziness or criminality) to the cultures. One point of concern with this approach is defining cultures. After all, Americans share a broad culture and those who embrace the allegedly successful culture should tend to succeed at the same rate as whites. After all, anyone can adopt a culture (or appropriate it) and thus succeed. If it were that simple, presumably inequality would have washed away long ago. Even if the cultural hypothesis is accepted, there arises the question as to why such cultures exist and have the alleged traits.
Given the historical facts of slavery and racism, the most plausible explanation is that blacks and Hispanics inherit many of the residual the harms of the past centuries while the white population inherits the benefits. While there are some remarkable rags-to-riches stories, the United States has low economic mobility and even that has been on the decline. As such, it is no wonder that people whose ancestors were slaves in the United States would still be doing worse than those who owned slaves. After all, wealth provides an enduring advantage and poverty provides an enduring disadvantage.
Some make the argument that since slavery ended over a century ago, its effects cannot possibly be felt. While this is an absurd claim (think of the old money families who owe their wealth to things that happened long ago), one need not rely on an appeal to the impact of the past. One can simply run through examples of and data about contemporary racism.
Those that disagree with this claim will, of course, endeavour to claim that the examples are isolated incidents and that the statistics are either in error or lies. The challenge is, of course, to respond to the data with opposing data of equal or greater credibility. The other main alternative, as noted above, is to persist in arguing that while the harms are real, they are self-inflicted. While people are obviously enough, sometimes their own worse enemy, the evidence is quite solid that many of the harms of inequality are inflicted. These, in turn, impact the liberty and life of those affected—which runs against the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
I tried, but as usual didn’t get further than this:
as one of my political science professors noted, the writers had most of the property and did not want the other folks getting ideas.
Your political science (“science”, heh) professor was a dolt. Especially at the time of the founding of this country, there was plenty of property for the taking. It’s one of the main things that drew people here in the first place. This is obvious to anyone willing to do that analysis.
Michael LaBossiere says
You never met him; yet you somehow feel warranted in harshly judging him from a quoted joke.
He was far from a dolt; he taught political science with a balance and cared a great deal about the students.
…”Asserting that the natural right of liberty justifies rebellion to maintain the violation of the natural right of liberty is clearly absurd.”
This is true by a modern analysis, but you are holding South Carolina to a view of the world they simply did not hold. We can look over our shoulders and down our noses (picture that one, if you will) at them for being hypocritical, but they did not ascribe to the same view of “Men” in the context of being “created equal”. They had their own view of the superiority of whites to blacks, disagreed with the view proscribed in the Declaration, and made their own declaration.
I am not saying that they are right, of course, only that they were consistent.
If you can accept that the people and politicians (not that politicians aren’t people … wait, are they?) of South Carolina viewed blacks as inferior, non-citizens, property – then the rest of it all fits into place. Imagine if the government were to suddenly outlaw oil drilling, for example. This would completely destroy the economies of places like Texas and Oklahoma – and they would claim that their freedoms were being curtailed by the government, that they were in gross violation of the Constitution, and they might consider secession for their very survival.
Imagine, if you would, a shift in the thinking in this country – perhaps in a couple of decades – and the definition of “life” is much more in alignment with Conservative thought than Liberal – and that the commonly accepted and legal view of life is that it begins upon conception. Imagine that most of the country believes this, but there are a few states who hold strongly to their beliefs in abortion on demand regardless of term.
So these states decide to secede – claiming that the federal government is infringing on their basic rights, and overstepping their authority by criminalizing or banning abortion.
So here’s the same argument – within the context of the view that all human rights should be accorded to the fetus, as early as the embryonic state –
“Asserting that the natural right of liberty (on the part of the mother) justifies rebellion to maintain the violation of the natural right of liberty(of the unborn) is absurd” The problem is that you’d be using this argument in a debate with someone who ascribes zero natural right of liberty to the unborn. Or the slave.
Also, this new “Pro Life” society might look back on the days of Roe v Wade with horror, and point fingers at people whose ancestors were likely to have committed infanticide. But that, too, would be wrong – because it was a commonly accepted practice back then (now), and the unborn of today are given the same rights as blacks were before the Civil War – i.e., “none”.
(Also – please do not use the above to infer anything about my own personal views on abortion – or slavery, for that matter – I am simply making a point).
More later, perhaps. I have some thoughts on your other points, but I have some things to do right now.
Michael LaBossiere says
I am using Locke’s notions, which predate the civil war by quite some time. I don’t need to look back through the lens of today, I can use the professed values of the time (and earlier) and apply them.
Well, whether you are using Locke’s notions or today’s, my point is simply that the South did not buy them. Oh, maybe they believed that “All Men Are Created Equal”, but they did not believe that African Americans were men, at least not in the same sense. They were consistent within their own belief system – and this was the fault they found with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They believed that they were being unduly set upon by the government, who opposed their notion of slavery. The government may as well have been seeking to outlaw horses.
Mike, Mike, Mike. 59 million immigrants have come to the U.S. since 1965. These people were mostly poor and unskilled. Have you given any thought as to what bringing in 59 million poor, unskilled people will do to the Gino coefficient?
Or to why a horrible, horrible country such as ours has an immigration problem?
Michael LaBossiere says
Is someone planning to suddenly import 59 million poor, unskilled people?
Stupid autocorrect. Gini coefficient.
Sorry, guys. I started a reply, but it would take me a month. It’s not worth it. This is too fuzzy to try to nail individual points down.
A few brief points:
1. I am once again surprised at the insularity of Americans. Slavery, and other closely related systems of legal oppression, was effectively world wide throughout history among all ethnicities and nations from the dawn of agriculture until the 18th century, with just some local and mostly temporary exceptions. Legal slavery officially ended just 10 years ago in Mauritania. As one of my old profs said: everybody living has ancestors who were slaves; everbody living has ancestors who were slavers. Various degrees of servitude and oppression have been the norm, within as well as across ethnicities. America is not a special case.
2. The statistical evidence for inequality is overwhelming, with blacks and Hispanics in the United States consistently being worse off than white Americans. That is an inaccurate, or at least incomplete, characterisation of that infographic. More accurately, Blacks and Hispanics and Whites in the United States are consistently worse off than Asian Americans. Anyone claiming that the negative effects on Blacks and Hispanics are due to racism on this basis must also claim that the negative effects on Whites are due to racism. Any takers for that one?
3. In the kind of overly generalised concepts of this essay, my view is that we can trade off between equality, average quality of life, and freedom from coercion, but any increase in one will result in a decrease in one or both of the others.