History & Economics
The primary purpose of this post is to challenge social justice orthodoxy in history and economics - particularly in regard to the de-emphasis or outright denial of objectively remarkable historical progress in the United States. Rather than continuing the Left's 60-year campaign to destroy liberal democracy and replace it with intersectional socialism, we should be defending the values and institutions most responsible for our country's remarkable progress, freedom, opportunity, and prosperity.
Is Inequality Necessarily the Same Thing as Oppression?
Often missing from contemporary conversations about inequality are substantive considerations of relative vs. absolute poverty and the costs and benefits of economic liberalization to both nations and individuals. Though there are very good reasons to be concerned about economic inequality and its negative effects, economic liberalization (i.e., making markets freer from government planning and regulation, guaranteeing legal protections of individual and private property rights, security, equality under the law, rule of law, etc.) has been mostly positive.
In fact, liberalization has led to remarkable economic growth across the globe that has (albeit, unequally) improved absolute living conditions for both the world’s poorest and wealthiest people. It is a fact that power, wealth, income, status, and access to other social goods are all "unequally distributed" (in Marxist terms). However, Marxist 'zero sum' speculation about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has been thoroughly falsified by empirical evidence.
This is because wealth must first be created before it can be "distributed," and economic liberalization, in absolute terms, produces much greater wealth for everyone over time. That is, in comparison to centrally planned socialist systems, market economies do a far better job of incentivizing investment and encouraging mutually beneficial, voluntary exchanges that leave each person materially better off than they were before.
But markets don't produce equality of outcome, which upsets people on the far-Left who conflate inequality of outcome with oppression. That is, to socialists, no matter how well-off someone is in absolute terms or relative to people in actually existing socialist countries, they are "oppressed" if someone in their own remarkably prosperous country has more status or material wealth than they do.
In absolute terms, economic liberty allows all parties to get richer, but in relative terms it permits the rich to get way richer than the less rich. Thus, all Americans are "rich" and "privileged" by contemporary and historical world standards. But because some are much richer and more privileged than others, the less rich and less privileged often feel poor, oppressed, and exploited. By any reasonable empirical standard, however, even descendants of historically oppressed groups objectively benefit from living in this remarkably prosperous and free country today.
Yet, the far-Left's cynical meta-narrative of ubiquitous oppression, appropriation, and exploitation in the contemporary United States has become increasingly mainstream. Why is this the case? Proponents of this delusional neo-Marxist worldview hyper-focus on subjective factors and cherrypicked anecdotal evidence convenient to their narrative, generally ignoring or suppressing inconvenient facts.
For example, a social justice-oriented approach to scholarship might focus on group-based inequality of wealth and income between "privileged oppressors" and "oppressed victims" while portraying and implicitly promoting a state of willful ignorance of uncontested, readily accessible facts that challenge the idea that all such inequalities of outcome must be caused solely by oppression.
Namely, a zealous commitment to utopian ideals and radical egalitarian assumptions routinely substitutes for a reasonable, realistic empirical comparison of actually existing present and past societies. In fact, even the least well off Americans in the year 2020, of any group, are clearly not oppressed by reasonable criteria - that is, relative to people in most other countries today or those living at any other time in world history, we all have remarkably high standards of living.
Race/Ethnicity & Economic Inequality
To maintain the group-based inequality of outcome = intolerable systemic oppression meta-narrative, such accounts tend to focus on gaps between European, African, and Hispanic Americans, conveniently ignoring Asian Americans, who earn and own more, on average, than European Americans as the highest earning and wealthiest group in "white supremacist" Amerikkka today.
But, you might be thinking, Asian Americans are a diverse group. When you break the socially constructed racial category of "Asian" down into various ethnic ancestry subgroups (e.g., Hmong, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.), they are not all doing economically better than all white people in America are.
True enough, but let's be consistent with apples to apples and oranges to oranges comparisons. Guess what happens when you also break the socially constructed racial category of "white people" (i.e., those of European geographic ancestry) down in the same way? Consider the following facts:
The Median American Household Income Is $63,179
Highest Earning Asian American Subgroups:
Indian Americans: $123,453
Taiwanese Americans: $102,328
Chinese Americans: $80,944
Japanese Americans: $80,036
Singaporean Americans: $79,852
Pakistani Americans: $77,074
Israeli Americans: $76,584
Iranian Americans: $75,905
Lebanese Americans: $75,337
Sri Lankan Americans: $73,856
Highest Earning African American Subgroups:
South African Americans: $90,517
Ghanaian Americans: $66,571
Egyptian Americans: $64,728
Nigerian Americans: $60,732
British West Indian Americans: $60,407
West Indian Americans: $56,998
Barbadian American: $56,187
Now, compare the above information to the following facts:
Lowest Earning European American Subgroups:
British Americans: $59,872
Scots-Irish Americans (i.e., Appalachian folk): $54,187
Cajun Americans (Bayou folk of French Canadian ancestry): $52,886
Scottish Americans: $51,925
Welsh Americans: $50,351
Pennsylvania German Americans: $48,955
English Americans: $47,663
So, it is true that most Asian Americans earn more money than most European Americans who earn more money than most African and Hispanic Americans. But, group-based inequality of outcome is not necessarily evidence of systemic oppression, privilege, or racial supremacy.
If today’s America was so obviously oppressive and white supremacist that an intersectional socialist revolution were, in fact, necessary and just, wouldn’t our institutions be discriminating in favor of rather than against white people (i.e., affirmative action/race-based discrimination)? Wouldn’t you expect the enormously valuable unearned privileges and power of thoroughly white English Americans to actually function as privileges and power rather than burdens and obligations (i.e., that, at a minimum, they would be worth more than any associated costs)?
If the U.S. was, in fact, a thoroughly white supremacist country, why would its evil, powerful, privileged white oppressors have changed our immigration laws in 1965 to eventually reduce people of European ancestry to a demographic minority?
If they have as much power and privilege as neo-Marxist "critical" theorists say they do, why would white supremacists allow all of the "white" ethnic groups listed above to have incomes below the national average? Why on Earth would systematically white supremacist institutions, allegedly designed to arbitrarily discriminate against non-whites solely on the basis of their skin color and built by oppressive white supremacists with the intention to arbitrarily benefit white people at everyone else's expense, allow any white person to fall below any non-white person?
Furthermore, if widespread, “systemic,” arbitrary racial discrimination against black people in fact existed today and was as overwhelmingly powerful as the Left suggests, wouldn't it most likely prevent Ghanian Americans, Nigerian Americans, and West Indian Americans, without regard to considerations of merit, from taking in more income than Scots-Irish Americans, Cajun Americans, and English Americans? Well, the U.S. clearly does not do that. Maybe something else is going on.
Wouldn’t you expect the overwhelming “systemic oppression” in our irredeemably racist country to, at a minimum, permit Scots-Irish Americans to use their "unearned power and privilege" for their own benefit? If they did, wouldn’t you predict that they would (even if they were out-earned by other white people) take in more income than non-white people? Well, the U.S. apparently does not permit them to do so (which is a good, but widely unacknowledged, thing).
Wouldn’t a truly white supremacist country discriminate against Indians, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, Ghanians, Nigerians, West Indians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and others by banning immigration of non-white people or at least build up enough economic obstacles to prevent non-white people from out earning white people? Well, the United States does not systematically discriminate against people on the sole, arbitrary basis of skin color—at least not against black and Hispanic people, as the Left's unquestionable meta-narrative suggests.
Whether you group people by race, geographic ancestry, or ethnicity/nationality, there is little evidence of our economy being plagued by "systemic" white supremacy or overwhelming, arbitrary state-sanctioned discrimination in favor of white people in 2020.
Our economic system discriminates, alright, but it does so in favor of individuals of any race who finish high school, get a full time job, obey the law, and wait until after marriage to have children. It discriminates in favor of individuals of all groups who place a premium on career and economic achievement and who have high IQs, significant levels of educational attainment, inter-subjectively valued knowledge and skills, a strong work ethic, and bourgeoise cultural values.
People of any skin color who share these commitments and have these qualities are doing remarkably well in our system. Yet, even the least well off Americans of any racial or ethnic group, without regard to any of the characteristics noted above, are still far more “privileged” and “rich” than most people in the world, past or present. These facts should be acknowledged by people on the Left.
Furthermore, any harmful economic discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity against African Americans or Hispanic Americans is most likely minimal in comparison to these groups’ disproportional net benefits from affirmative action preferences in college admissions, hiring, and promotion, the widespread influence of social justice orthodoxy’s astounding double standards, and the redistribution of wealth from which these groups clearly benefit.
Shouldn't Other Factors Also Be Taken Into Account?
The intersectional socialist Left's superficial analysis of inequality does not typically acknowledge the remarkable historic progress our country has made toward its founding ideals. Nor does it consider directly relevant factors of average group differences in behavior (e.g., spending and saving behaviors, who pays most of the taxes and who receives most of the public benefits, who pays the cost and who receives the benefits of de jure and de facto affirmative action preferences, or who earns most of the college degrees and in which fields).
Zero-sum theories of exploitation (i.e., far-Left rhetoric of perpetual, ubiquitous oppression in the West) are based less on reason and evidence than on a zealous commitment to radical leftwing aims. They do not explain but ignore or deny the historically unprecedented progress of liberal economies (and all of the other immaterial benefits they make possible). That is, contrary to pseudo-scientific Marxist assertions, the oppression of minorities and liberalism are fundamentally opposed.
Have you seriously considered whether the intersectional socialist diagnosis of privilege and oppression is, in fact, fundamentally flawed? What if alleged "privileges" are more accurately understood as results of broadly shared cultural dividends of an imperfect but overwhelmingly prosperous and altruistic country and civilization?
Might there be "privileges" less associated with one's melanin and genitalia than with one's upbringing? Might, for instance, growing up in a stable, loving, two-parent home that instilled instrumentally effective bourgeiose beliefs, values, and behaviors influence life outcomes in today's America more so than arbitrary physical characteristics?
Might the sum of each person's vastly different collection of personal interests, beliefs, commitments, values, behaviors, and life choices have a significant effect on disparities of outcome? Might a consistent pattern of personal responsibility and a commitment to taking advantage of historically remarkable educational and economic opportunities have something to do with them?
Rather than being systemically oppressive and white supremacist, don't you think that institutions that attract millions of far less privileged immigrants from all over the world might actually be pretty great? Doesn't the flow of migrant traffic suggest that (at least in comparison to most people in the world) we have it made?
Doesn't the prospect that most Americans have squandered the many great
opportunities our country has provided for us seem more reasonable than the idea that our systems routinely discriminate against people on the base of their intersectional identity groups' melanin count, sex chromosomes, or other morally arbitrary factors?
I am convinced that what African American economist Thomas Sowell referred to as cosmic injustice (i.e., that nature doesn't share one's Marxist convictions) best explains present inequalities of outcome in the U.S. I am also persuaded by arguments suggesting that what German philosopher Friedrich Nietszche called ressentiment (i.e., irrational hatred of anyone with more power or higher socioeconomic status than oneself) offers a far more plausible diagnosis of present day group-based conflict in the United States than does the neo-Marxist "oppression always and everywhere" metanarrative.
The Real Legacy of Slavery
Neo-Marxist narratives like the one at the center of the New York Times’ 1619 Project reject inconvenient facts and decades of good scholarship out of hand because they conflict with the editors' and authors' political orthodoxies. The project, despite being criticized by professional historians for its gross inaccuracies and unwarranted, sweeping generalizations, is already being adopted in public schools across the nation. This is because people on the Left tend to value social justice above individual justice and the pursuit of truth, and this curriculum adheres to social justice orthodoxy.
Notably, the 1619 project claims that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery, and modern America was built on the backs of slaves. For those reasons, it implies oppression was the primary, if not the sole cause of present-day wealth and income gaps between European Americans and African Americans. Thus, the country (i.e., its present-day "privileged" but rapidly dwindling European American majority who pay most of the federal income taxes) owes the African American descendants of slaves financial reparations for their ancestors' suffering and prosperity-enabling wealth-production.
It follows that, because their group is wealthier, on average, in comparison to African Americans, European Americans uniquely benefit from the historical enslavement and oppression of black people. Today's African Americans, however, somehow receive no net benefits from living in the U.S. This view is increasingly mainstream in the United States, but it is not reasonable or evidence-based. It is, plain and simple, ressentiment-stoking, neo-Marxist, pseudo-scholarly, grievance-driven, cynical race twaddle.
Consider that slavery existed in almost every civilization in world history. Unlike in the Americas, however, where the institution was thoroughly intertwined with explicit racism and the false and evil notion of white supremacy, elsewhere it was based on a (somehow less) evil version of tribalism, perpetual warfare, conquest, and dehumanization. Slavery is absolutely immoral and evil, whether it occurred in Africa, the Americas, or anywhere else, whether it was chattel slavery or any other kind.
Though it indeed enriches the slaveholder at the cost of great exploitation, unfathomable violence, and irreparable harm to the dehumanized slave, it also comes at an economic expense to everyone else (e.g., low status free people who cannot compete with the much less expensive forced labor of unfree people). Thus, unlike free markets within constitutional, democratic societies, slavery actually is a zero-sum enterprise in which the rich get richer while destroying economic opportunity for the poor.
Human bondage is, in fact, negatively correlated with economic growth and is at odds with the classical liberal ideals on which the United States was founded. That is, our country's founding enlightenment values gradually led to and provided the philosophical justification for the abolition of slavery, the end of state-compelled Jim Crow segregation, and the achievement of group-based equality under the law.
These are the very same liberal values and ethical commitments that guide market-oriented economic systems. The latter is the more reasonable and evidence-based explanation of America's historically remarkable prosperity, which resulted in spite of the institution of slavery rather than because of it.
Also, consider that Haiti, Brazil, and much of Latin America had far more enslaved people than America did, but America is far wealthier today than any of those places. African Americans are far better off in terms of material wealth today than any black people in Haiti, Brazil, anywhere in Africa, or in any other country that isn't a majority white liberal democracy. If slavery and oppression rather than liberal democracy and free markets cause national prosperity, why wouldn't places that had more slavery and oppression be more prosperous today than the ones that had less of it? This question is not asked in polite society.
Furthermore, the United States was effectively bankrupt after the Civil War, which resulted in the total abolition of slavery in the U.S. and the death of over 600,000 (mostly white) Americans. Thus, other than a small group of truly privileged descendants of super rich plantation owners, most European Americans today hardly benefit from much, if any, wealth directly produced by American slaves.
A particularly inconvenient challenge to the "privilege" narrative, is the fact that the ancestors of most white southerners came to America as indentured servants who worked alongside indentured Africans in the fields. That is, it is an uncontested historical fact that between one-half and two-thirds of all European immigrants to the colonial South were indentured servants.
This is a population of whom about the same percentage as their African counterparts did not survive the trans-Atlantic passage, and half of whom did not survive the inhuman conditions of their "temporary" term of bondage. Although it wasn't exactly the same thing as chattel slavery, indentured servitude was no damned picnic, either.
African countries (some of which still have slavery today!) continued the slave trade long after Europeans and Americans abolished it. That is, even After the irredeemably evil U.S. stopped importing enslaved Africans, Africans continued
enslaving millions of black people and millions of white people, too! Bet you didn't know that! But why didn't you know it? Because it is inconvenient to the oppression of non-white people explains all of our present problems meta-narrative.
In other words, if slavery and conquest (rather than the consistent protection of individual rights and the existence of liberal economies) made countries rich, every country on Earth would be extremely well off, especially those in Africa. But that is the opposite of reality.
My point is that Americans of every race are all a whole hell of a lot better off today in the U.S. than white or black people were here or anywhere else back then. Our allegedly oppressive values and institutions made that undeniable progress possible. We should all be more grateful. Ours is a mostly good country.
The Real Legacy of Colonialism
Like slavery, racial discrimination, and other forms of oppression, colonialism is clearly immoral. Yet, the wealthiest African countries today are the ones most developed by European colonizers who, rather than inventing slavery, are the people primarily responsible for outlawing it. Consider further that Africa is the poorest (populated) continent on Earth today, despite its freedom from the colonial oppressor, its abundance of natural resources, and the fact that countries from more developed continents send over 50 billion dollars in international aid there every year.
It is an uncontested fact that Africa was less developed than Europe in the 15th century. Likewise, the continent most certainly had slavery for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans. Tribal warfare and conquest were also commonplace in African pre-history, as they were everywhere. For instance, linguistic analysis and archaeological evidence suggest the Bantus of West Africa (i.e., ancestors of most African Americans), almost certainly fought, conquered, raped, and pillaged the people and lands of weaker, less advanced hunter-gatherer and nomadic tribes throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Thus, despite the incredible exploitation, unfathomable violence, and oppression that took place during much of the colonial era, the legacy of colonialism has, in fact, yielded mixed social, economic, and political consequences, with places that were more extensively colonized by Europeans and those that gradually liberalized their economies (guided by European-originated liberal ideals) being, as a general rule, far wealthier today than those that did not.
In fact, although Europeans most certainly appropriated African natural resources and exploited and committed many atrocities against African people, they left the continent with far more infrastructure, economic and technological development, and far fewer enslaved people than would most likely have been the case had they never colonized most of the continent in the first place.
In other words, human history was far more complicated than social justice orthodoxy and ethno-chauvinist mythology suggests (i.e., That uniquely evil, selfish, greedy, ignorant, rapacious Europeans invented violence, theft, conquest, colonialism, slavery, racism, war, and oppression, whereas every other group consisted of noble, innocent, morally superior victims.).
American Institutions Are Not "Systemically" Oppressive
As poorer nations have more recently liberalized their economies, global economic inequality among nations has actually decreased. But global economic liberalization permits vast economic inequalities among individuals, which simultaneously allows the rich to get way richer than everyone else and extends opportunities to individuals beyond national boundaries. Neoliberalism therefore leads to decreases in absolute poverty for poor people in developing countries and contributes to stagnant wages for (relatively) poor people in developed countries.
Thus, neoliberalism is disliked not only by the far-Left, who prioritize equality over liberty, want to check the power of corporations/banks/the 1%, and campaign to protect marginalized groups from growing assimilationist pressures and cultural loss, and also by the far-Right (e.g., nationalist-populists/core Brexit and Trump supporters) who prioritize perceived national interests and the preservation of their nations’ traditional culture over universal principles of individual liberty and equality.
While social democracy (i.e., not socialism, which requires an authoritarian government and centrally-planned economy like the systems in Cuba and Venezuela, but democratic nations with market economies and robust social support systems and safety nets like Scandinavian countries) has worked fairly well (i.e., less economic liberty and growth but greater socio-economic opportunity, security, and equality than ‘neoliberal’ countries like the U.S.) in culturally homogeneous nations (e.g., Scandinavian countries, Japan, etc.). As cultural diversity increases, however, social solidarity and trust decrease, and social democracy becomes less sustainable and functional.
Likewise, illiberal efforts to promote economic equality can have profoundly negative effects. Far-Left (e.g., socialist or communist) central planning and efforts to equalize outcomes has a dismal record of miserable economic and social failure and illiberal repression of individual rights. So, it’s difficult to say whether empowering the State/public employees or shrinking the size of government is best (judged by outcomes rather than intentions or feelings of moral superiority) or whether investing capital in a way that gives an extremely poor person a job that moves them out of absolute poverty is a form of exploitation or a mutually-beneficial, if non-ideal, exchange.).
The neo-Marxist narrative almost universally endorsed by today’s Left ignores the data demonstrating that the poorest people in countries with liberalized economies are far better off in absolute terms than the majority of people in the rest of the world or why the flow of immigrants is overwhelmingly toward rather than away from majority white liberal, democratic (i.e., “oppressive,” "fascist," "systemically racist") countries with market economies.
Different Economic Systems
Despite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric to the contrary, social democracy (like what you might see in Scandinavian countries) is distinguishable from socialism (i.e., an authoritarian or totalitarian, centrally-planned, political-economic system that is established either through democratic or violent, revolutionary means).
Social democracies like Denmark have more regulated, but still mostly market-based economies with an even more generous social safety net than in a neoliberal system like ours. Legitimately socialist countries like Venezuela or Cuba, however, have much lower standards of living than either other system.
The United States' system of economic neoliberalism (i.e., a mixed economy, “corporatism,” “crony capitalism,” a minimally regulated, mostly market-based system with a social safety net of public provisions for the least well-off citizens) is distinguishable from socialism and social democracy, on the one hand, and ‘pure’ capitalism or radical libertarianism, on the other.
We Haven't Had Real Capitalism in the U.S. for 100 Years
Though presented by some on the far-Left as if it were synonymous with ‘pure’ capitalism or libertarianism (e.g., the extremist positions of Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, etc.), unlike capitalism or libertarianism, neoliberalism (e.g., F.A. Hayek) is characterized by a mixed economy—i.e., a mostly market-driven/i.e., minimally regulated/not centrally-planned economy with progressive income tax (e.g., in the U.S., “37% of the total sum of income-tax revenues come from the top 1%, while less than 3% comes from the bottom 50%”.) and a state-funded public welfare system/safety net—sort of a ‘middle way’ between capitalism/libertarianism and socialism.
That is, neoliberalism is a globalist, cosmopolitan centrist coalition of both left-leaning (Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg) and right-leaning (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, G. & G.W. Bush) politicians and a majority of citizens in liberal democratic societies who value individual liberties but want the government to guarantee basic educational and economic opportunities for all (not necessarily perfectly equal opportunity but educational opportunity for all above some basic threshold) and provide some environmental protections, economic restraints, public services, and safety nets.
In pure capitalism or radical libertarianism, however, there would be:
- no centrally planned or state-regulated spheres of the economy,
- no confusion between "rights" (which are universal and do not put unreciprocated burdens on others) and "needs" (which everybody has but not everyone is able or willing to provide for themselves),
- no confusion between "oppression" and "inequality of opportunity," let alone "inequality of outcome"
- no free or subsidized lunch/EBT/food stamps,
- no WIC/state incentives for getting impregnated by broke, unemployable moochers and having children outside of marriage without being able to afford taking care of their basic needs,
- no free or state-subsidized healthcare,
- no guaranteed public provision of retirement, disability, or unemployment income,
- no state provisions of free or heavily subsidized pre-school/Head Start programs,
- no $12,201 average per pupil public spending on k-12 education (On the high end, NY spends over $20,000 per pupil, and, on the low end, Utah spends about a third of that at just over $6,500) paid in full or at least heavily subsidized by other taxpayers and free of charge for the poor,
- no publicly funded or federally-subsidized college loans, grants, or scholarships,
- no free or heavily subsidized Section 8 housing, and
- no other social benefits, safety net, or any other free stuff at others' expense.
Material wealth isn't everything, but it is important. It enables access to lots of other important goods, services, and inter-subjectively valuable experiences and opportunities. America is far from oppressive by any reasonable standard, but it is considerably unequal, and lower status individuals often subjectively experience such inequality as if it were oppression.
If people on the Left want to persuade others to take social inequality more seriously they need to abandon the delusional rhetoric of systemic oppression and ubiquitous, all powerful structural -isms, and -phobias. We've all got it really good in America today. Some people simply have it better than others.
Culture is important, too. Globalist neoliberalism contributes to cultural loss. People who want the material wealth promised by this system are free to assimilate, but it isn't reasonable for them to complain about cultural loss when they do so. Likewise, people who refuse to assimilate into this system should be free to do so, but it is not reasonable for them to complain about not having as much material wealth and income as those who do.
In other words, in a free society, people can act to conserve their groups' traditional culture or they can assimilate into the mainstream. Either choice will have predictable consequences. What isn't reasonable is for groups to demand that all others uncritically affirm or assimilate into their cultures. Neither is it reasonable for those who refuse to assimilate into the mainstream culture to demand equality of outcome with people from other groups whose values, beliefs, and behaviors produce the things that those prioritizing other values, beliefs, and behaviors would also like to have.