The UnFree

I’ve been watching a bit of the original TV miniseries on Amazon, The Underground Railroad, because I always enjoy learning something new and interesting from historical narratives. Just today I read this article on The Conversation which is a nice review of the motivations and intentions of the writers and director. It also provoked some thoughts I’ll share here.

The Conversation – The Underground Railroad

I was struck by the following quotes about the director’s intention to present “slaves not as objects who were acted upon, but as individuals who maintained identities and agency – however limited – despite their status as property.”

The reviewer goes on to say,

In the past three decades there has been a movement among academics to find suitable terms to replace “slave” and “slavery.”

In the 1990s, a group of scholars asserted that “slave” was too limited a term – to label someone a “slave,” the argument went, emphasized the “thinghood” of all those held in slavery, rendering personal attributes apart from being owned invisible.

This makes perfect sense and should seem obvious. However, I believe the misuse or overuse of the label “slavery” has happened through associating it solely with the African/American experience, whereas enslavement has been inflicted upon many individuals and peoples across the world and across history. For sure, this docudrama is a narrative of the experience of black slaves on the North American continent, but its universalism should not be lost in that singular application.

I have emphasized the ideas of personal “identities and agency” in bold text above because this is really what applies to all people regardless of race or ethnicity. It also struck me that the appropriate term we are looking for is “The Unfree.” Every individual and oppressed group can relate to the idea of being unfree, if not enslaved. When you are unfree, you are deprived of free choice, free will, free agency, and the outward self-dignity imbued in that truest sense of human freedom. Historically and currently this condition is usually the result of a gross imbalance of power and a certain pathology of those who impose their unequal power over others. The history of the unfree applies to the ancient story of Spartacus, as well as any employee today preyed upon by an unreasonable boss.

This status of the unfree also highlights the fundamental condition of human identity, which is freedom. Freedom is what delineates our identities and personal agency in our lives, and it is sufficient in itself. In recent decades this truth has been twisted a bit to suggest that our chosen identities establish and signal our freedom, when actually it is only our freedom that helps guarantee the free and open expression of our identities. For example, one can assert one’s identity as “non-binary,” and the freedom of self-expression under the law defends the right to whatever that might be, but one cannot force others to use the preferred pronoun, that is not within the power of the state or any other entity without violating the basic tenets of freedom.

This is important because politics can intervene with laws and enforcement to guarantee our freedoms, but it cannot define or defend our personal identities or our self-dignity. As The Underground Railroad narrative demonstrates, slavery could not deprive the unfree slaves of their identities and their self-dignity, unless the individual allowed it. The oppressors can take away physical freedom, humiliate, and even impose a death sentence, but they cannot take away the freedom to think freely and the self-dignity of the oppressed. We witness these truths again and again in the stories of Holocaust and Gulag survivors.

It is also interesting to note that ideologically the primacy of freedom as a value tends to delineate today’s liberals and conservatives, as noted by Jonathan Haidt in his studies of political identity. Liberty is the primary moral value to those who identify on the right, while fairness and human caring are the dominant values asserted by many on the left. Leftists might argue that one cannot be free in an unfair society, but that only means we have to focus on freedom as a precondition to fairness. The issue of slavery the unfree, in universal world history as well as African American history, should enlighten us to the primary ordering of moral values: one cannot have fairness without the precondition of freedom, and without the precondition of freedom, fairness has no meaningful relation to our concepts of justice. (Unfortunately, this only hints at another discussion on the differences between fairness and justice, and the unnecessary qualifiers applied to the universal singular idea of moral justice.)

Lastly, this rich portrayal of the unfree escaping the bonds that defined them by preserving and expressing their self-dignity and personal agency provides the correct lesson on the true legacy of the American experiment – not that one group of our fore-bearers oppressed another, but that they both evolved under a constitutional system of laws to continue to progress toward a society of true liberty and justice for all. We have not arrived, but we are on the right track.

The Real Tragedy of Chauvin-Floyd

With the verdict received in the trial of Derek Chauvin one could hope that a certain sense of justice had been dealt for the death of George Floyd. Mr. Chauvin was certainly guilty of a crime, though it is beyond my purview to decide exactly what that crime was. In any event, the jury made its judgment. But where do we go from here? Apparently, many of our political leaders could not resist voicing their opinions from the safe perch of social media, mostly echoing the overarching assumption of systemic racism, not only in law enforcement, but throughout American society. The most florid Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that “this verdict is not a substitute for policy change.” I think perhaps we might be able to converge on that sentiment, provided it is based on reasoned logic rather than virtue signaling.

Because our media hypes emotional reactions over reasoned analysis, we end up focused on the symptoms rather than the causes of our social troubles. The problem of policing starts at the beginning, not the end, of the story. And at the beginning there are two primary causes, identified by social scientists such as Daniel Moynihan, Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray and affirmed by empirical data: First is the disintegration of urban black families under the direction of welfare state policies instituted back in the 1960s in response to E. Michael Harrington’s (no relation) The Other America. Economist Thomas Sowell has documented the evidence that black families were more intact with two married parents before the Great Society and marks the mid-1960s as the inflection point. The incentives provided by programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which grew enormously during the decade after 1965, occasioned a virtual explosion of births to unmarried mothers. From 10% of all births of all races in 1970 to 41% in 2010. But for black mothers the increase was from 38% in 1970 to 72% in 2010, meaning that almost 3/4s of all births in the black community today are to unmarried mothers.

Beside the effects of welfare dependence, other factors likely include the decline of marriageability of black fathers due to lack of job opportunities, to changing sexual mores and behaviors. But no matter the cause, these trends demand a policy response to the break-up of family institutions that ensure social stability and upward mobility. As a Brookings report as far back as 1996 admits below, that policy response has been lacking, and perhaps can be attributed to the second cause of urban decay.

“If we have learned any policy lesson well over the past 25 years, it is that for children living in single-parent homes, the odds of living in poverty are great. The policy implications of the increase in out-of-wedlock births are staggering.”

Brookings Policy Briefs

This second cause can be traced to the redirected spending priorities of urban political machines under the cover of the liberal welfare state. The urban political machines that characterize politics in cities such as Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other large metro areas are run primarily for the benefit of organized public unions such as teachers, police, fire, waste disposal, and municipal workers. As they say, let’s follow the money.

In 1962, President Kennedy issued an executive order recognizing the right of federal and public sector employees to unionize and bargain collectively over labor contracts. This opened a Pandora’s Box that I suspect JFK would have strongly regretted had he lived to see the result. When public union officials bargain with politicians the only ones with skin-in-the-game are not even at the negotiating table. That would be the taxpaying citizens. Politicians who need votes and campaign funds for re-election readily grant contract conditions that never need to be rationalized financially and push serious liabilities—such as pensions and healthcare—off to the future (when they conveniently will no longer be in office). In return, they receive campaign funds and votes delivered by unions. The result has been serious deficits for municipalities that require a re-orientation of spending priorities – away from the dependent poor and necessary municipal services towards servicing public sector union wages and benefits. For those who have retired after 25 years of service, it has been a bonanza.

The budget squeeze has had the most deleterious effect on public schools that the urban poor depend upon to educate their children and free up parents to support a family. The performance failure of urban public schools is legendary and has now been exposed to all with the recent pandemic lockdown. In Los Angeles, where the United Teachers of Los Angeles holds sway over the public schools, only 35% of a $7+ billion budget goes to teacher salaries, with the bulk going to administrative salaries, pensions, and benefits. This has created a two-tier seniority system that characterizes most public unions today where legacy members receive most of the value while new hires do all the work and receive far less. The strain on resources means the students and their families end up with the short end of the stick.

Now let us connect the dots. The breakdown of urban families and the narrow self-serving policies of urban political machines have left young urban minorities with slim possibilities of becoming productive citizens and leave them mired in poverty and despair. Without a decent education and stability in the home, black youths face dismal opportunities in a society where intellectual skills have become a necessary passport to success. Is it any wonder they turn to a lucrative culture of crime and illicit drug markets with all the propensities for violence?

Faced with this violent crime problem, city officials then task law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system to clean it up, or at least keep it under control. Is it any wonder that confrontations between police and young black men and women dominate our crime incidents? And that a regrettable number of mistakes occur under harrowing conditions that prove fatal to both police and alleged perpetrators? That young black men populate our prisons and become more criminalized? Police and innocent bystanders have to put their lives on the front line in this battle for order, but bureaucrats and politicians who have failed us all along are comfortably ensconced with high paying jobs and sinecures. And the destructive policies continue.

To ignore this reality for an unprovable narrative of “systemic racism” is the true tragedy of the Chauvin-Floyd affair. In essence, they are both victims of an urban society that has failed us. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, perhaps AOC is correct about the need for policy change. She is most certainly correct, but not in the way she intends. With the empirical evidence of the past half century, one can make the case that the only truly racist institutions in America today are the public education system run by teachers’ unions and the welfare state run by public sector unions and their political cronies. The policy changes needed are school choice and constraints on public sector union bargaining. It’s high time those of us with skin-in-the-game took notice and demanded the right kind of policy changes.