Having an Agenda: the Black Libertarian's Biggest Fear? Considering the Friction between Collectivism and Individualism

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Anybody depending on somebody else’s gods is depending on a fox not to eat chickens.

~ Zora Neale Hurston

Almost every black person, conservative or liberal, is familiar with the phrase, "It takes a village…" Almost every libertarian, radical or otherwise, is familiar with the terminology, "methodological individualism." Occasionally, as I've struggled with the pre-liberal genesis of my belief in libertarian law, playing it off against the learnings of my childhood and the raw, unfiltered truths of adulthood, a recurring question remains: Are those points of view — the individual versus the collective — at odds with each other?

According to an essay I came across a while ago, written by Dr. Anthony Asudullah Samad, black people are caught in a quandary. Do black folks have "No Black Agenda or Too Many Blacks With An Agenda?" This question — despite the collectivist paradigm within which it resides — likely generates intense interest in any black libertarian, no matter his political pedigree.

Ironically, when my wife proof-read my piece on the Don Imus situation, she said, "this piece makes it seem like you have an agenda." This caught me a little off guard, since, having read all my pieces one would have thought my wife would know by now.

I, Wilton D. Alston, have an agenda.

That agenda is: personal liberty. I want to make my own decisions, be judged upon my own performance, and reap the rewards (or penalties) of that performance. I want to keep the money I make — all of it — unless I decide to give it away. (And even then I want to decide who gets it.) I'm comfortable with the proposition of handling any disputes that may arise between me and those from whom I purchase products or services. If I need to seek professional help, I'm okay with finding it. I am not worried about being foreigner-invaded, globally-warmed, food-and-drug-unadministrated or environmentally-unprotected. If I get duped into buying a "lemon" from a car dealership, I realize that caveat emptor was in full effect from the get-go. Simply put, Wilton D. Alston's agenda with respect to the government is: Leave me the heck alone.

As Cedric the Entertainer says, "I'm a grown-ass man." I don't particularly need a nanny, a straw boss, or a bevy of ostensible black leaders to help me along that journey. My parents are available should I need advice and I'm certainly not opposed to obtaining supplemental advice, ideas, and mentoring from others as the need arises. I realize that seldom does anyone make it alone, and that the image of someone "pulling himself up by his own bootstraps" is just that, an image. Everyone receives help along their journey through life. However, the State has proven generally unable to provide that help in a way that does not result in long-term dependence and/or short-term graft.

Simply put, I will take my chances. If anyone wishes to judge me based upon the ostensible data and race-based predictions dredged up by some washed-up pseudo-thinker — such as those mentioned in my "Tell Me Again Why You're a Libertarian" essay, that's a risk I am quite happy for them to take.

This is the kind of individualism that my maternal grandfather, and my father and mother drove into me as a child. My grandfather would likely have spit in your face if you implied that he needed "help" from some over-arching body. My father, the son of a share-cropper who never owned the roof over his head, felt (and feels) pretty much the same way. So I've no compunction with taking the risks, be there any, or with living with the consequences of my performance. I believe I'm ready, willing, and able.

All that said — and I'd be the first to admit that "a rant will do you good" — there sometimes appears to be a friction present in the larger black community, if I may be collectivist for a moment, with regard to such a paradigm. It was that friction that scratched at my psyche as I read Dr. Samad's piece. Such is the friction between being black in Amerika — "we're all in this struggle together" — and embracing the libertarian ethic of methodological individualism. Says Dr. Samad:

…we need a Black agenda more than ever. Some people say we have one. There is no shortage of organizations and activities in which we may involve ourselves. But do they lead us to progress? We're all busy doing something, but our involvements gain little for the masses. All motion isn't progress. If it were, then why aren't we going forward? Maybe, it’s because there is no Black agenda pointing directly to collective progress.

Dr. Samad goes on:

In nearly every major city in America, Black communities are suffering from a combination of poverty, economic subjugation and police oppression. The Black community is in a constant state of struggle and a constant debate over its progress and what we're doing (what we gon' do, y'all) to bring about that progress. Over the past few months several significant issues, from police shootings across the nation (New York to Inglewood), to campus violence (elementary schools to college campuses), to the "Black Image" of other people calling African Americans everything from Ni**ers to Hoes, and everything in between.

With all due respect, why should I care if someone else does or does not think I've "made any progress"? Why would I continue to let my self-image be not only affected but also defined and defamed by someone else? Why must progress necessarily be judged collectively? Thinkers such as Hurston provided an answer to these types of question some time ago but more recent folks have put a new twist to it.

Shawn Carter, better known to some as Jay-Z has a song entitled "99 Problems." Given the popularity of hip-hop, it would seem that the words of this song and the defiant, supremely confident tone it sets could have seeped into the collective psyche of any supposedly struggling people. Here is a particularly relevant set of verses, where our hero gets into a bit of a debate with an officer of the law during an all-too-typical DWB traffic stop:

The year is ’94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the [bleeper-bleeping] law
I got two choices y'all pull over the car or
bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor.
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with u2018Jake'
Plus, I got a few dollars I can fight the case.

So I…pull over to the side of the road
And I heard, “Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
u2018Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat's real low?
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know.
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?

“Well, you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four.”
“License and registration and step out of the car.”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know alot of you are.”
I ain’t stepping out of [bleep] all my papers legit.
“Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”

Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back.
And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack, are some type of lawyer or something?”
“Or somebody important or something?”
Nah, I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit,
Enough that you won’t illegally search my [bleep].

Now that brother has an agenda. His agenda is, "leave me the heck alone." I am doing my thing, and I know exactly what that is, so just leave me to do it and take your lying, thieving rear-end out of my face. Yes, that about sums it up for me too. (Hey, I wonder if Jay-Z is a libertarian.)

One should not think, however, that the items lamented by Dr. Samad and scholars like him are illegitimate. Far from it. (And certainly, rap music might not be the well from which springs the map for the future of the black race.) When Dr. Samad says, "In nearly every major city in America, Black communities are suffering from a combination of poverty, economic subjugation and police oppression," he is absolutely correct.

Where he and I differ is not in the identification of the problems. We disagree, if at all, on what to do about it. Some have opined that covert white racism still holds the black man down. That racism remains virulent and expressive in the U.S. is a relatively obvious conclusion, but unless one wants things to be worse versus better, he simply cannot look to the State to fix it. Besides, Lew Rockwell voiced my opinion, and found a legitimate (and in my mind primary) culprit, with, "The Enemy Is Always the State."

S. B. Fuller, a man who should be a hero to many, black and white alike, rose to robust entrepreneurial success at a time when Jim Crow racism was much worse than it has ever been in my lifetime. I'd like to believe that if Fuller can become a "Master of Enterprise," the racism of today's America isn't quite the problem some would claim. However, the history of black people in the U.S. is difficult, long, and complex; I would not presume to simplify it via that one example.

Even if covert racism, hell-bent on maintaining the position of the white race, is still virulent, there is but one way to meet it: head-on and, for goodness sake, not with the "help" of the Nanny State. History has proven time and again — from Montgomery, Alabama, where the police and mayor used their state-provided authority to facilitate the ability of the bus company to hang on despite the boycott, up to the present day, when the Prison Industrial Complex, financed with stolen (tax) revenue, is based almost totally upon free labor extracted from predominantly black men convicted of non-violent drug offenses — that the State is exactly the wrong place to look for help. (If one is still unconvinced, he need only examine stories like this one where a "suspect" died in police custody after being tased multiple times. Yeah, they'll protect you alright.)

During one of our somewhat typical discussions, my fellow LRC columnist Rob Wicks addressed some of these issues:

The impending lower standard of living can really be chalked up to increasing amounts of regulation, which makes it very difficult for poor people to go into business. A poor but industrious black person cannot start a business unless they either: 1) have enough money for whatever licensing (from business licenses to cosmetology licenses) they will need; or, 2) conduct an illegal business. Not all illegal businesses are drugs and guns. Some are home hair and nail salons. Some are bakeries without a commercial kitchen.

A black person who wishes to conduct business has to register with the State to have permission to do so. This was not the case with Madam C.J. Walker.

Indeed. A black person who is full of drive and determination is all too often thwarted by that which supposedly has his best interest at heart. He is forced into black (or grey) market activity which provides some of the financial outlet he seeks, but brings with it the increased risk of retribution from that very organization — the coercive state — that precludes many of his initial options. All the while, he is bombarded with questions and banal debate about the collectivist positioning of his race vis-à-vis some other race.

As our discussion concluded, Rob ended with:

The problem is not "no black agenda," nor too many black agendas. It’s too many people waiting around for someone else’s agenda. We need far more black agendas. Each person needs to have their own agenda. The problem is that far too many people want some “great man” to come along with one which they can follow.

(I probably couldn't have said it better, although I did add the emphasis.)

If you want freedom for you, but not for others, you're a hypocrite. If your idea of liberty is when the free government handouts go the people you think deserve them, you're still supporting naked theft. If you're concerned that [place racial designation here] people just can't make it without help, your concern is duly noted, but your condescension is insulting. (If you want to support worthy causes or needy people, I commend you. Feel free to use your money, not someone else's.) I'll take my chances either way.

Conclusion

Allow me to end this essay the same way I started it, with the great Zora Neale Hurston.

It would be against all nature for all the Negroes to be either at the bottom, top, or in between. We will go where the internal drive carries us like everybody else. It is up to the individual.

That's an agenda I can embrace. Handle your business and let the chips fall where they may. Just in case Hurston isn't your cup of tea, here's a little something from the great Frederick Douglass.

Everybody has asked the question: ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!

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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