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Trying to Get Into the Heads of Today’s Progressive Racists

My most-recent column for AIER is the result of my thinking aloud (well, thinking by writing explicitly) about what might be the intellectual priors of today’s many progressives who oppose colorblind – that is, who support racist – government policies. A slice:

While I uncompromisingly condemn thievery, I easily understand thieves. Thieves seek to acquire goods they desire at costs they believe are lower than they’d have to pay were they to purchase or produce these items honestly. Pretty simple. While I also uncompromisingly condemn many of today’s pet political beliefs, both progressive and populist, in contrast to my understanding of thievery I do not easily understand those persons who hold such political beliefs sincerely. I’m baffled, especially, by today’s obsession with race.

Of course, I understand and loudly applaud hostility toward racist attitudes and actions. No one should be treated as an inferior person, or as a superior person, simply because of his skin color, religion, or ethnic background. And like my attitude toward thieves, I also understand, but strongly condemn, persons who wish, on the basis of their race, to gain an artificial advantage over others. Blacks seeking special privileges in 2022 simply because they are black are just as detestable, in my opinion, as were whites in 1822 and 1922 who sought special privileges simply because they were white. Both the race-based-privilege-seeking blacks of today and the race-based-privilege-seeking whites of yesterday are motivated by greed that differs little from the greed of thieves. It’s as unmysterious as it is ugly.

What I don’t understand is the worldview that leads many well-meaning people – of whom there are many – to support the likes of affirmative action and other race-based policies. What, I ask myself, are the priors of well-meaning people who obsess today over race? What are such people thinking when they demand that government grant special privileges to members of minority groups merely because many of these minority-group members are descendants of individuals who, in the past, were victims of unjust discrimination – including of that horror of horrors, chattel slavery?

Why don’t today’s well-meaning proponents of race-based policies understand that special privileges given today to blacks come at the expense both of many non-racist white people and – in a terrible irony documented by scholars such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams – also at the expense of many blacks? Why do so many well-meaning people today embrace state-based racism as they reject market liberalism and its proven track record of eating away at non-state-enforced unjust barriers to opportunity?

I have a hypothesis: the motivation of most of today’s well-meaning proponents of race-based policies is rooted in a simple, if profound, misconception of economic reality. This misconception is that material wealth is produced automatically, independently of human institutions and effort. If material wealth were, in fact, produced independently of human institutions and effort, then the only economic impact government policies could possibly have is to determine who gets how much of the automatically dispensed wealth. The total amount of wealth produced would remain unaffected.

I suspect that Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and most other well-meaning opponents of color-blind policies and attitudes – or, stated differently, most well-meaning proponents of racist policies and attitudes – believe that material wealth is merely grabbed as it oozes out mechanically and ineluctably from factories, warehouses, retail stores, and banks. Because, on a per-capita basis, whites in America are, now as in the past, wealthier than blacks, and because a majority of Americans today are white, white Americans (so apparently goes the thinking) use the disproportionate power that comes from their raw population size to grab for themselves a disproportionately large share of wealth. This result is unjust, based as it is on nothing more than brute power grounded chiefly in population size.

An obvious solution for this injustice is to make enough whites feel guilty for their unearned advantage, or at least to make them “aware” of their unmerited white privilege, in order to enlist a sufficient number of them in the effort to enable blacks to grab more of what whites have been grabbing. Key policies here are redistributive taxation and affirmative action. The happy consequence of such redistribution of income, of wealth, and of opportunities is that blacks will have more of these good things. Unfortunately, because wealth and opportunity exist independently of human institutions and actions, arranging for blacks to grab more wealth and opportunity necessarily entails whites grabbing less. But so be it, goes the thinking. Whiteness does not justify whites having disproportionate shares of wealth and opportunity that they’ve so long enjoyed at the expense of blacks simply because whites outnumber blacks.

If wealth really did emerge independently of human institutions and actions, then unjust indeed would be any individual’s – and, hence, any group’s – disproportionately large possession of wealth. And in such a world “opportunity” would be nothing more than being well-positioned to grab wealth as it emerges from the mysterious wealth-producing engine.

The world that I hypothesize is believed by today’s well-meaning proponents of racist policies is wholly fictional. Wealth does not ooze automatically and ineluctably from some mysterious wealth-producing engine. Wealth must be incessantly produced – a result that requires ongoing creativity, attention, risk-taking, and effort. And the amount of wealth produced per period of time depends overwhelmingly on institutions, formal and informal, as well as on attitudes.