Does It Matter Where You Start? Further Contemplations on Race, Equality, and Freedom

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"There are two types of people: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. People who walk the walk sometimes talk the talk but most times they don’t talk at all, ’cause they walkin’. Now, people who talk the talk, when it comes time for them to walk the walk, you know what they do? They talk people like me into walkin’ for them."

~ "Key" (Anthony Anderson), Hustle & Flow

A respondent in South Africa made some fascinating comments after reading my “Where Have All the Black Libertarians Gone?” article, the first modest musing I submitted to LewRockwell.com back in 2006.   His questions and comments, from which I quote below, are among those that I've often asked myself or considered. In fact, they reflect concerns that plagued me for years as I struggled to reconcile how the (what I thought was) unassailable logic of libertarianism fit in with my own experience as a black person. Frankly, he raised outstanding points.

Given all the debate, gnashing of teeth, and outright idiocy surrounding the political process currently, it seems to me that looking at these questions regarding race, class, equality, and interaction of the State with each, is germane once again. My respondent's most basic question all those days ago (and mine) was specifically about reparations, but that is simply a starting point for such discussions. It resonates throughout the logic of liberty and applies to those from whom a portion of wealth has been stolen. Allow me to quote him directly.

The part [of what you say] that I am struggling to reconcile is this: We know the state has caused many distortions in the economy through misallocation of resources. We know the state mechanism is very poor at deciding how best to use scarce resources. The free market is best able to make such decisions because of the feedback that is inherent, [i.e.,] good businesses make money and bad ones go bust.

This is classic free market economic theory. He went on:

What I am asking relates to getting us to a free society. Let’s take the question of “property rights” and “the rule of law” to start. Historically, how was the ownership obtained? Usually there was great use of force backed by the state machinery. How could [we] not redress that issue, before we say, "OK, from now on what’s yours is yours and the state leaves everyone alone." This is especially important for black people with the history of suppression. State intervention benefited one class and disadvantaged the other, mostly along racial lines.

This is a scenario that, I dare say, most black people who embrace libertarian law have examined. In fact, Walter Block and I discuss this issue in our joint paper1 on reparations. My respondent actually mentions reparations directly in his next paragraph, when he says:

I guess I am struggling a bit with the issue of reparations which you brought up in your article. I understand that there cannot be a wholesale redistribution of resources, but there has to be some kind of starting point where opportunities are equalised. Land ownership is the key issue here in South Africa. Most of the land is owned by the white population. If you look at how black people were forcefully removed from the land which was then given to whites, is it right to say, the son does not have to repay what his father stole if the son still has in his possession?”

Answers, Suppositions, and Contemplations

Without stealing too much of the thunder from my paper with Doc Block, we've already addressed the basic question directly.  Yes, if the "son" — the descendent of the person from whom the land or the labor on that land was ostensibly stolen — can prove that the current owner of the land is illegitimate then he can simply take ownership, or be otherwise compensated, via civil (and private) means.  The land should return to its rightful owner, payment should be made for services rendered, and we do not need the state to help us with that per se. This is the Blockian notion of reparations presented in several papers. The point is, the State cannot "equalize" anything. It can only make things more unequal. This is true whether one is talking about reparations, health care, education, or access to low-interest loans.

Of course, there is a deeper insight in his specific question, which might be stated as: “How can we just say, ‘let’s start the race now’ when we know that the race would begin with some participants having an advantage based upon what their ancestors stole from others? We can say "let's just start now," because the old saw is correct. It doesn't matter where you start, it matters where you finish.

A hypothetical can be constructed around this question thusly. Consider life as if it were a distance race being run on a track or on the roads.  One competitor is at the starting line for the race, ready to go. Another competitor is at an entirely different starting line, some distance, maybe even over half the full race distance, behind that first runner.  Looking at this scenario, there are several valid questions one could ask, which might include, although not be limited to:

  1. Could this be considered a fair race?
  2. How can the competitor with the deficit be expected to compete?
  3. Does not the fact of the initial race set-up virtually guarantee the outcome?

I admit to having no idea what "fairness" means in this case. (Again, it appears that one's view of sports would affect how one views fairness!) As I've said before, people seem to think that fairness — as provided by the central planning of sports — can be applied to the "game" of life. This is, in my view, a naïve and somewhat dangerous over-simplification of the situation. To pose the question more directly, would it not make sense to assure that the participants in this race are equally positioned along the track, given our understanding of fairness and what we can predict about the outcome?  I say no. We can't make any predictions! But why is this true?

Problems with the Road Race Analogy Abound

The problems with our assessment of the situation in our hypothetical are numerous. Most certainly, we have not accurately judged all the factors involved.  Further, each of the facts we have assumed carries with it certain underlying assumptions, which may or may not be true.  For example:

  • The race — of life, particularly success in life — is very long.  (The longer the race, the less important a few meters ostensible head-start becomes.)
  • We are basing our assessment of the competitors, and the likelihood of them winning, on faulty and aggregated information.  (In my own case, one could argue that I was either person.  My father is the son of a sharecropper who is descended directly from a slave. My mother is the daughter of a landowner who has no slaves in his ancestry. Where would that place me, relative to the other competitors?  In fact, there are not only two, but many, positions spaced between our two hypothetical starting points.  Even more interestingly, some competitors who have supposedly been denied a head start might actually have other advantages that would mitigate any such positioning. Of course all of this assumes that we know exactly what is required for success, but we don't!)
  • Because of the complexity of the competition, we cannot legitimately predict the outcome based upon the starting position.  (Even in the simplest case of just a running competition on a track, if I was given a two-mile lead on a marathoner from Kenya or any other world-class runner, I would still lose by a large margin!)
  • The race of life, unlike a race on a track, does not include only, nor end simply, with just two people. (People drop out unexpectedly, enter at random points, help other "racers," learn from the mistakes of others, and ignore the lessons of others, etc., all the time. The linear paradigm of racing, and the fairness of starting at the same point, does not fit.)
  • It is impossible to look at a person individually, or by extension a group in aggregate and accurately determine, with any certainty, how he (or they) will perform in something as complex as life.  (It is, in fact, the height of hubris and insulting to presume otherwise.  Can you look at Allen Iverson and determine how well he should perform in the NBA?  How about Manu Ginobili?  Can you look at Floyd Landis and determine his chances for winning the Tour de France?  (Insert obligatory steroid reference here.) What about Lance Armstrong or Greg LeMond?  Basically we often have an overdependence on groups and what membership in them might mean, but I've mentioned that before.)

Almost any way one looks at it, the hypothetical fails.

Conclusion

This hypothetical — modeling success in life as winning a road race — reflects the misuse of the argument from effect, and the flawed application of the argument from morality, both in an attempt to assure a fair race. To attempt this, the hypothetical focuses not only upon the beginning of the contest, but also upon some overarching authority's ability to set up a fair contest. As the simplest examination of this hypothetical illustrates, outside the obviously appropriate recovery of stolen property via civil means, no one is adequately equipped to do that. Imagine the difficulty we would encounter were we to attempt to assure a fair ending to the race as well!

I'll close with a quote from the final note I got from my respondent, slightly paraphrased:

So, yes, let each of us bite the bullet, we were robbed, but we are not asking for [any] favours. From now each of us can set the record straight and reclaim our place under the sun through our own hard work.

I couldn't have said it better myself. Certainly, compensation for theft can be sought from the individuals who have committed crimes, but looking to an overarching body like the State to "right the past wrongs" can only result in more wrongs and few, if any corrections of the previous errors, at a price too high with no guarantee to boot.

Note

  1. Alston, Wilton D. and Walter Block. 2007. "Reparations, Once Again." Human Rights Review December 4

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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