Author: Kelly Barber

22 years old University of Florida 2014 Washington, D.C. BA in History Copywriter and Web Development Associate for Students For Liberty

What we can learn from the anti-lynching movement about curbing police brutality

In the decades immediately preceding and following the turn of the twentieth century, gleeful crowds of white Southerners numbering in the hundreds frequently gathered to watch the lynchings of black Americans, oftentimes for the petty crime of stealing a hog, or none at all. By the 1960s, public lynchings had largely become a thing of the past and today, people react to photographs of this dark time in our nation’s history with shock and disgust. What brought an end to this era of mob violence?

Arguably, it was the actions of one former slave, Ida B. Wells, who collected and reported comprehensive data on lynchings in the South to prove that African Americans were more often victims than criminals when it came to lynchings, thus transforming public opinion and creating the possibility for political reform.

Tragically, disproportionate violence against African Americans continues today, albeit in a more subtle form. In a recent article for The Guardian, Isabel Wilkerson wrote that according to available data, the rate of police killings of African Americans today is roughly equal to the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then, every four days a black person was publicly murdered, often simply for stealing 75 cents or for talking back to a white person. While the rate of police killings of African Americans has fallen 70 percent over the last 40 to 50 years, it is still estimated that in today’s day and age an African American is murdered by a white police officer an astounding twice a week for offenses as egregious as walking up a stairwell.

While there are five times more white Americans, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed when they encounter the police in the U.S., and black teenagers are far likelier to be killed by police than white teenagers. Additionally, the number of innocent people killed and assaulted by the cops is likely even higher than the data suggests considering that local police departments are not required to report police crime.

While white Southern lynchers in the early 1900s claimed that they were filling in where the legal system failed by serving as arbiters of vigilante justice whereas today murderers are more likely to hide behind police badges, in both cases racism was and is shrouded in promises to serve and protect. Then and now, stereotypes of black inferiority obscure systematic oppression and allow murderers to get away without so much as an inquiry. As Wilkerson wrote, “Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug.”

Given the chilling parallels between the lynchings of the post-Reconstruction South and modern-day state-perpetrated violence against the black community, it is worth taking a closer look at the success of the anti-lynching movement for insights on how we might repair today’s political institutions and race relations.

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You’re bad and you should feel bad: Against the self-esteem movement

Americans have been complaining about the narcissistic culture among our nation’s youth for decades. We’ve been inundated with opinion pieces griping about how by coddling our precious cherubs from the moment they exit the womb to the day they graduate college, parents are raising the next generation to be overconfident, hypersensitive, and self-absorbed. Moored in a crisis of expectations, Millennials today are paralyzed in a state of indignant indecision, or worse, hedonistic indifference once they enter the real world, directionless and crippled by hubris and student debt.

Depending on your political ideology, you might dismiss such critiques as misguided liberal hysteria over the “dangers” of selfishness or conservative nostalgia for an imaginary era of boundless freedom in which everyone responded to challenges by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, maybe you just think it’s a basic human tendency for people to believe that the next generation is doomed to rot in its own degeneracy.

While it’s true that many social commentaries on narcissism are superficial and overwrought, there are reasons to be legitimately concerned about the weight our present society places on the importance of self-esteem. Systematically stuffing heads both big and small full of their own wondrousness, to borrow Will Stor’s phrasing from this excellent Medium piece, has led to troubling implications for our individual well-being and our relationship to the state.

As the analogy goes, fish often don’t perceive the water they are swimming in. Today, the belief that high self-esteem is an unparalleled good is so ingrained in the bedrock of American culture that few people realize that for most of human history, self-regard was not considered an integral factor in motivating people to work hard and succeed. Instead, with religion serving as society’s primary source of authority, the emphasis was on personal restraint and self-sacrifice. In their book Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney illustrate how religion offered us a predictable system of rules and responsibilities as well as a community to monitor and enforce self-discipline.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this system fell out of vogue as modernization stripped traditional sources of morality of their power. In need of a new prism from which to make sense of the world, we adopted a new moral framework, what James L. Nolan calls “therapeutic emotivism” in which the self became the touchstone of cultural judgment. As Charles Rogers described, “No longer is society something the self must adjust to; it is now something the self must be liberated from…Where once the self was to be surrendered, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now the self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed, and unfettered.” (Nolan 19)

With the rise of the humanistic approach to psychology in the 1970s, psychiatrists and psychologists replaced priests and pastors by the dozens and the human potential movement was born. Nathaniel Branden, a Canadian psychotherapist and Ayn Rand’s closest associate for many years, ushered in the mainstream self-esteem movement in 1969 with his international bestseller, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. In it, he wrote that self-regard “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.”

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No panaceas: Libertarian challenges to open borders

Traditionally, libertarianism has welcomed a plurality of views on the immigration question. While nearly all free market proponents agree that current government policies restricting freedom of movement around the world are riddled with problems, we lack a consensus on what exactly these problems are and what should be done to solve them. However, it seems that a growing segment of (mostly young) libertarians are becoming more vocal in their view that unequivocal support for open borders should be *the* libertarian position on immigration. These libertarians tend to emphasize the moral case for open borders, though folks like Bryan Caplan have done a good job of presenting the economic benefits as well.

Unfortunately, advocates of open borders almost always fail to acknowledge important and fundamental tradeoffs when it comes to immigration. As Gene Callahan has written recently, it is strange that libertarian economists, who are usually eager to point out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, “treat immigration as if it were immune to this principle, and argue as if unlimited immigration is simply an unalloyed bundle of benefits with no associated costs.” Advocates of open borders should recognize that not all opposing arguments are veiled conservative prejudices rooted in xenophobic hysteria and that there are practical downsides worthy of consideration. Here, I will discuss some of these legitimate challenges to open immigration. But first, a few disclaimers on what I will not be arguing.

I will not be arguing that the potential costs of open borders necessarily outweigh the potential benefits. I suspect there isn’t enough evidence to make a compelling case either way and I’m certainly not informed enough to adopt a strong position on the subject. Ultimately, I think that some level of immigration fosters innovation and the exchange of ideas and I have no doubts that the majority of immigrants are hard-working, honorable people who just want the opportunity to create a better life for their families. Nor will I be arguing that the practical challenges of open borders should necessarily drown out the moral arguments, which I generally find compelling. In fact, my path to becoming a libertarian began when I was exposed to the corrupt and unfeeling actions of several bureaucrats towards Haitian immigrants in a congressional office where I interned during high school.

However, I am very skeptical of what appears to me to be an emerging tendency to institute a libertarian litmus test around open borders and a reluctance to engage in a conversation about the many tradeoffs of such a policy stance. I would like to push back against the tendency of open borders advocates to frame the conversation as if immigration is a zero sum game. A writer at SpawkTalk has criticized Bryan Caplan for such framing:

He [Caplan] analyzes whether immigrants on the whole depress native wages, or whether immigrants as a whole use a lot of welfare, etc. It seems to not occur to him that there may be a good case for restricting immigration even if immigrants as a whole do no net harm. After all, some subset of immigrants might do harm in these various areas even if immigrants on the whole do not. And so it would make sense to ban this subset of immigrants from immigrating to your country. Just about no one actually advocated banning all immigration. And yet this is the position that Caplan’s analysis directly argues against. In so doing it fails to address the vast majority of proposals for immigration restriction actually in existence.

It’s especially worth lingering on the point that virtually no one is calling for a ban on immigration across the board. In fact, there is probably no other policy position more implicitly excluded from mainstream debate than immigration restriction. Nearly everyone is against it, from Brookings to Karl Rove to the ideological left to libertarians — and most have self-interested reasons for doing so; the business right wants cheap wages, the left wants more voters, and so on. Advocating for open borders isn’t as radical of a position as many libertarians make it out to be.

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Adaptationism: A better architectural analogy for Jeffrey Tucker’s brutalists

The conversation surrounding Jeffrey Tucker’s Freeman article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” resurfaced once again recently, this time from Wendy McElroy in a piece entitled “Relationship of Politics to Morality.

In Tucker’s article, published back in March, he divides libertarians into two main groups: humanitarians and brutalists — good people and bad people. Humanitarians “seek the well-being of the human person and the flourishing of society in all its complexity” whereas brutalists are “rooted in the pure theory of the rights of individuals to live their values whatever they may be.” If we were to go off of these descriptions alone, Tucker’s dichotomy would be merely laughable since benevolent and rights-based justifications for liberty are hardly mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, he takes the distinction a step further by attaching opposing moral and aesthetic visions to the two invented camps, with far more troubling implications.

Tucker pinpoints the supposed tension between the two groups by explaining that humanitarians stress the “beauty, complexity, service to others, community, the gradual emergence of cultural norms, and the spontaneous development of extended orders of commercial and private relationships” that develops in a free society while brutalists advocate for liberty because it “allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on ‘politically incorrect’ standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used…to be openly racist and sexist.”

He uses the label “brutalist” to identify this nefarious cabal of (unnamed!) libertarians because of the parallels he draws between their supposedly uncivilized ideological underpinnings and the brutalist architectural style of the 1950s through the 1970s which, according to Tucker, emphasized “large concrete structures unrefined by concerns over style and grace.” Brutalists, says Tucker, “valued inelegance, a lack of pretense, and the raw practicality of the building’s use” because they “reject beauty on principle.”

If it seems odd to you that he characterizes those with reactionary views with a modern architectural style, you’re already overthinking it. This taxonomy is more about making a break with views Tucker was formerly associated with and would now like to distance himself from. It’s entirely a matter of marketing. Those who acknowledge the question of scale are brutalists; to say a libertarian order necessarily permits a certain amount of evil to exist rather than tolerate the power required to eradicate it is now a suspect idea — the cardinal sin of a humanitarian libertarian is suggesting things may not work out in the end. In contrast, Tucker’s brave new humanitarian world is a cornucopia of blog posts about structural oppression and hosannas to the conveniences of consumer culture. Surely you can’t be against that!

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