Great Antidote Extras: Rachel Ferguson on Black Liberation Through the Marketplace

free market classical liberalism racism abolitionism economic freedom discrimination

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks
Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson shares her discovery of the long and rich tradition of pro-black classical liberalism in the United States with host Juliette Sellgren. It's a tradition that made and can continue to make a big difference but isn't always understood or recognized.
Have classical liberals ignored the problems of Black Americans? Rachel Ferguson says No, it’s we who have ignored the classical liberals who thought, wrote, and cared deeply about these problems. Host Juliette Sellgren talks with Ferguson about her new book, co-authored with Marcus Witcher,  Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.

Rachel Ferguson is an economic philosopher at Concordia University Chicago and the director of the Free Enterprise Center, as well as an affiliate scholar with the Acton Institute. If you want to learn more about the Acton Institute, you can also listen to this episode with Samuel Gregg on Christianity and Liberalism. Gregg was the research director of the Acton Institute at the time of the interview and is still an affiliate scholar there. 

Some of the big questions Sellgren and Ferguson discuss are: 

  • What are the historical events that have most contributed to the current state of Black Americans? 
  • How do markets contribute to Black liberation? 
  • Who are key classical liberal thinkers who worked or work on these issues? 
  • What are the differences between individual racism and state racism?
  • How can civil society fill the inevitable gap between what individuals in government can do and the needs of our fellow citizens and neighbors? 
  • What’s the difference between libertarianism and classical liberalism? 

Sellgren begins asking about what young people should know? 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
I think a lot of people your age are actually unaware of how great it is today. There's a lot of pessimism. It's almost like we're so luxurious, we don't realize how luxurious we are. One thing I always try to tell my students is we're living in the richest, safest time in the history of the world in an age of medical miracles. Our ancestors just three or four generations ago just couldn't have even dreamed of being able to fly across the world and do amazing things and live till we are 95…I think it just helps to get some perspective to realize just how well off we really are comparatively to the rest of history. And we have our struggles, but we need to stay in reality about that. 

Sellgren and Ferguson then talk about websites like GapMinder and HumanProgress where people can visually see the changes but then jump into talking about why Ferguson wrote this book and why she’s writing it at this time. 
Ferguson talks about growing up with black foster brothers and seeing their personal struggles but also witnessing the more recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri which was close to where she lived and worked. Her hope is that this book breaks open the conversation about these issues that have become so polarized. There is a pro-black classical liberal legacy but people aren’t aware of it. 
Jason Riley on Black America and William B. Allen on The State of Black America Great Antidote episodes were at the top of mind here as well. 

Sellgren and Ferguson also talk about the differences between libertarianism and classical liberalism. Ferguson put it like this: 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
First of all, the classical liberal tradition has a minimal state. And since it has a minimal state, it has a theory of the state, it has a theory of government, it has ideas about good statesmanship that you get from little “r” Republicanism. You see this in our founders. You see this in Adam Smith. You see this in David Hume. The tradition is not totally anti-state, it's just that you have a minimal government, and so you want to be on your guard for government growth. 

And the other issue is that there's a huge emphasis in the classical liberal tradition on virtue. And that really, not only statesmen, but people need to be virtuous to be free. If you are not a virtuous society, you probably won't maintain your freedoms. And that's made very clear by all the founders. It's something they all agreed on. So now what you see sometimes is a libertarianism that's more like a libertinism. As long as I am not violently harming you, you cannot even comment on what I'm doing. That is ridiculous. I mean, the whole idea of having a culture is that we debate and discuss what is appropriate about the way that we live our lives. And particularly if we want government to be minimal, then we need to be policing ourselves through moral shame and praise.

I think it's really important to have that. That's where I talk about thick civil society institutions in the book, because that's where we really live our lives, is in a very deeply morally rich kind of environment, and not one that has such a simple, you know, there's one rule, the non-aggression principle that's supposed to answer every question. It doesn't answer every question. It answers a very basic set of questions. And then you need a lot more to draw on. 
Sellgren also asks about ways to understand what social justice is and how people are using that term. Ferguson talks about what’s good about social justice and how to frame the debate about how do we best serve the marginalized (not whether they should be served). Sellgren also asks about how classical liberals specifically have gone about thinking about justice for marginalized people and their critiques about the treatment of African Americans in America? 

Key Quote about  (lightly edited) 
This was actually a really wonderful thing to discover in my research, because I think, maybe passively, without having given it too much thought, I had the impression that we [classical liberals] haven't been that great on race… but it turns out that there's actually quite a tradition of pro-black classical liberalism in the United States, and actually a tradition that made a big difference, which is really encouraging.

So, number one, the first point I wanna make is that the founders were quite split on slavery… it was probably the biggest debate at the Constitutional convention and our founders were heads of abolitionist societies. I mean it was really, really controversial. Lots of anti-federalists also were saying the reason they didn't wanna sign up for the Constitution is because it was a compromise with slaves. And so there was a lot of serious moral debate over this that I think was coming from a very classical liberal place. You know, the notion that we are all created equal and we do have an alienable rights given to us by our creator.

But the second point is that actually a big chunk of the abolitionist movement were classical liberals. And I didn't even know this! We've all heard of William Lloyd Garrison and his famous newspaper The Liberator. It was so important. There was a whole gaggle of these guys, and they were all followers of Richard Cobden in England, who was a big free trader. And for him being anti-slavery and being free trade, all flowed from the same commitment to a kind of Christian pacifism. The idea was that when you, whenever you can avoid coercion, you should. So that means I'm against the corn laws and I'm against slavery because they're both coercing. And William Lloyd Garrison actually said he wanted to close down every tariff house in the world. I mean, he was a very extreme free trader. And so it was really interesting to see how that passion for free trade went right along with his passion for abolitionism. 

Of course, a person who became a student, Frederick Douglass, initially agreed with Garrison's condemnation of the Constitution because of its compromise with slaves. But it was actually another libertarian thinker, Lysander Spooner, who changed Douglas's mind. And Lysander Spooner said, You know what? You should just read the Constitution like a contract and hold people to their word. What are the words in the Constitution? And so Douglas said, You know what? He's right. The Constitution is a great Liberty document. And the issue is that the Constitution, it's that it's whether or not Americans have honor enough and courage enough to live up to their Constitution. So you have this incredible abolitionist movement that's classical liberal in nature. 
Here, recent episodes with Timothy Sandefur on Frederick Douglass and Darren Staloff on the American Founding come to mind. Ferguson also goes on to talk about Moorfield Storey and Oswald Garrison Villard both involved with the founding of the NAACP and Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Ferguson also talks about why the invention of the cotton gin changed the possibilities for a more natural move away from slavery in the United States. Sellgren then shifts the conversation to asking about the differences between individual racism and structural racism. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
This is really important because it's absolutely a given that in the periods we are speaking about racism gets worse, in the 19th century, much worse. But everybody's racist. The abolitionists are racist. They're all racist in a sense that they think that white people are superior to black people. This is totally a given. And yet, when you have a system of government that protects people's rights, people can make progress. And you see this where I talk about black people and their desire to own property. You see this with simply their ability to move, just the ability to move is so powerful because they can now move from one farm to the other and bid their wages up. They can move from the lower South to the upper South where they are going to be treated better. 

Just the ability to move is a huge amount of freedom. And so the point is that that individual racism costs you something. This is the great insight of Gary Becker. Individual racism costs you something in the market. Because if you don't want to hire a black worker, then you've got to pay somebody else more. If you don't want to sell to black people, then you lose those customers, right? It's always gonna cost you something. Maybe you're willing to pay. Many people were, but it is gonna cost you something. 

Whereas if the state participates in the racism, if you can get the municipal and state and federal laws to help you by forbidding any white business from selling to those black customers or by forbidding anyone, like the unions did, from hiring black workers, then you don't have to pay the cost alone, right? Everybody else is paying it too. And so you have now subsidized your own racism by getting the state to enforce it. And that's a completely different situation because individual racism you can chip away at through economic cooperation. I don't mean economic cooperation solves everything, but it can take you pretty far. But if you have the state subsidizing your individual racism, then it actually allows it to deepen in ways that are very, very evil and have terrible longstanding consequences for the United States. 
Sellgren brings up an example from Thomas Sowell talking about South Africa during a apartheid where whites would go behind the back of the government just to hire blacks because economically it wasn't sustainable, even though it was subsidized. 

Ferguson also talks about how streetcar owners pushing back on discriminatory laws and how the political process solidified these injustices and how unions used the power of the state to harm blacks as well. Ferguson also goes on to talk about the Lochner Court, laws against Chinese laundries, Jim Crow laws, and other attempts and failures at economically focused or contract law corrections. Ferguson goes even further back that the US founding to draw on the English Common Law tradition that public facing stores had to served anybody who wasn't being a disturbance and the (relatively) more modern anti-discrimination Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ferguson then goes on to talk about the same things that should be addressed for Black Americans should be addressed for other people who are economically stuck for the same reasons: education reform, criminal justice reform (including mass incarceration and the drug policies), expanding economic freedoms, discriminatory zoning, housing, and transit policies. But then Ferguson zeros in on education. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
What you know is that some of our inner cities were literally designed, socially engineered, in such a way that we left poor black people behind in the inner city surrounded by huge concrete walls. Those are the highways, separating them from others and economically isolating them in a way that was bound to create the kind of high crime, high poverty destabilized neighborhoods that we have today. So the idea that we are now gonna tie or we're gonna continue tying their access to education, to their zip code only adds insult to injury, right? It just perpetuates the injustice of the kind of progressive, massive federal social engineering that went on in the mid 20th century. And so what we wanna do is attach that funding to the student, not to the system, allow competition to come into the system so that we can have a lot of creative things to do when we're dealing with a population that's deeply traumatized. We need to be very, very creative when it comes to serving kids who have a chaotic neighborhood that they're coming from. And we need to come up with really great ways to help them break out of that through new kinds of education. And so we just think truly that educational freedom is the rights issue, the justice issue of our day. 
Sellgren is also concerned that civil society has been minimized or displaced and she and Ferguson talk about some of the past civil society institutions that served Black American and some ways to revitalize it. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
The concept of civil society should be front and center for every classical liberal, because if the government's not going to do it, and it's not the kind of thing that the market does (the market doesn't do everything, it only does some things) then it’s going to be done by civil society. It's like Tocqueville said, in England and France, it'll be some lord or some government project. But in America, they start a club. It's in our bones, it's in our blood to solve problems through civil society. 
We also get to learn about a friend of Ferguson’s, Lucas Rouggly, and his project to bring and grow love in St. Louis at LOVEtheLOU. Then Ferguson closes with some ideas for ways to respond to the new historians of capitalism by thinking about the expansion of the middle class all over the world and the distribution of wealth (not just inequality). But she also caution us to guard against what she sees as the parts of commercial societies that can lead to vices. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
I think when you look at the results you can really see that capitalism is incredibly productive and then it helps out those who are less well off. It's not just for the rich, but I wanna temper that by saying this. There's nothing wrong with being on our guard against greed and consumerism, uh, everybody's greedy no matter what economic system you're in. But in capitalism it's true that it's easy to get a little focused on money or stuff and so I think it's great when you have things like the rise of minimalism or the fact that millennials are more interested in experiences than in stuff, or the idea that churches during Lent are actually fasting from their technology… That's what civil society is there for. It's to pull back whatever vices we're gonna be prone to in the system that we're in. And every system has its own vices. And so could capitalism make you too consumerist? Yeah, it probably could, right? And so we should be our own best critics when it comes to keeping our eye on goodness, truth and beauty, and not just on shallow stuff. 
Sellgren ends with asking what Ferguson has changed her mind about and Ferguson talks about her move from being an anarcho-capitalist/Lockeanism in her college days to being more of a Classical Liberal/Humean. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
What I love is freedom and liberty. And liberty is something that flourishes when it's ordered, when it has the correct kinds of boundaries around it. And that simply does require the messy process of politics no matter how much it can frustrate us that it does. 

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