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“Seek ye first the political kingdom”

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, was known to have said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom.” Nkrumah sought and found it, and within a few years his formerly prospering country was bankrupt, obliged to spend several decades trying to recover from his short reign.

Within quite a range of circumstances, purely political action, however necessary it might sometimes be, does not produce the happy economic results expected of it. Prosperity for whole nations or large groups of people cannot simply be conjured by political fiat from a total economic product that already exists. The people themselves must have the attributes necessary to prosper; and no amount of political posturing by their leaders, whether they be self-appointed or democratically elected, will give them those attributes.

It is the thesis of Jason L. Riley’s short, bracing and eloquent polemic False Black Power? that America’s black political leaders, and their white liberal allies, have hindered rather than advanced the progress of America’s black population. Initially well-meaning policies have actually undermined the self-help ethos that was a striking characteristic of black culture in the century between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the so-called Great Society.

What these well-meaning policies caused is a culture of dependence, entitlement, and irresponsibility that certainly did not exist before, and is inimical to progress, to put it mildly. Yet black political leadership and their white political allies persist in believing, or at least in pretending they believe, that this disastrous culture is the direct and inevitable consequence of an apostolic succession, so to speak, of slavery, Jim Crow policies, and contemporary racial prejudice. Their prescription has therefore been political action to destroy not only the practical effects of prejudice (for example, through positive discrimination in employment and the establishment of quotas) but prejudice itself, through a reform of both language and thought. A New Man, long the dream of utopian totalitarians, will have to be created.

Against this, Riley, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, succinctly marshals historical evidence. Riley counters the marked tendency to suppose that if event B occurred after event A, the former occurred because of the latter. Thus it is supposed that, if the proportion of blacks living in poverty, however defined, declined after the installation of the Great Society, and the numbers of middle class blacks increased, these had to be benefits accruing from the Great Society.

This argument reminds me of the almost universal assumption that if the homicide rate rose during Prohibition, it did so because  of Prohibition. I have never seen any reference to the fact that the homicide rate rose as fast in the years preceding Prohibition as during it, which suggests a less simple explanation of the rise. In other words, if Prohibition is to be condemned, it must be on other grounds.

Riley cites evidence to demonstrate that black progress was swifter before the mid-1960s than after it. This does not by itself show that the slowdown was caused by the politically inspired policies after the mid-1960s, but there is at least a plausible causative connection to account for it, and therefore in Riley’s case the argument is not just post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Though the black population was advancing in the years before the beginning of the Great Society, it was still poorer and less well-educated than the white population, and there was a considerable section to whom a life on welfare must have been a temptation and even an opportunity. At the same time, ideological attitudes to family life were changing in the wider society, even if, in practice, they were taken more seriously in the lower than the higher echelons of society in which they originated. Thus, the scene was set for a self-reinforcing culture (if that is the word for it) of economic dependency and family disintegration.

In a sense, however, Riley’s argument does not depend crucially on the historical evidence that he adduces. While I believe his evidence to be in essence correct, it will always be open to dispute, for no historical interpretation is ever final or so conclusive that it can never be challenged. It is always possible that new statistics will show that the reduction in the gap between black and white that Riley says occurred in the century between the end of the Civil War and 1965 did not actually occur.

But one is always where one is, not where one ought to have been if things in the past had been better. What remains indisputable is that the culture that has emerged, grown up, and been encouraged (or at least not discouraged) in the black neighborhoods of cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, is inimical to progress of any kind. It follows from this that efforts to conjure progress or improvement by purely bureaucratic, administrative, or redistributionist fiat are doomed to time-wasting and expensive failure. In raising expectations that cannot be met, these efforts actually stoke the fires of conflict.

What is needed is something more akin to a religious revival than a government program, and this is only likely to happen if black leadership changes tack. The problem is, as a U.S. senator once said, that you can’t get a hog to slaughter itself.

Unfortunately, the liberal political establishment is like a stuck record (in the days of vinyl records). It cannot change without having to admit that its originally well-intentioned prescriptions were mistaken, for to do so would destroy its raison d’être and its whole outlook on the world. What started as a desire to do good has ended as a desire to feel good—a much stronger and more durable motive. In the process, liberals have duped millions into waiting for Godot.

The author is fair to President Obama, whose term in office was a great disappointment from the point of view of race relations. Being a politician, he had to please more than one constituency at a time, and therefore veered between cultural and structural explanations of the black malaise. Probably he was himself unsure. If he had gone all out for one or the other of the explanations, he risked losing votes. Unfortunately, truth does not lie halfway between itself and error.

Jason Riley has compressed a complex argument into a book of commendable brevity. One can only hope that it will be widely read.

Reader Discussion

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on September 12, 2017 at 10:46:25 am

Sometimes it is as simple as viewing photos of Harlem from one decade to another.
As a young boy, I recall the Harlem "aristocracy" promenading on 125th and Lexington each Sunday.
As a teenager, it was quite a different picture.

Look to the history of Harlem for the truth of what the good doctor has to say.

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gabe
on September 12, 2017 at 10:49:48 am

"The people themselves must have the attributes necessary to prosper; and no amount of political posturing by their leaders, whether they be self-appointed or democratically elected, will give them those attributes."

This echoes the work of Edward Banfield and his wife, to be found in his "The Moral Basis of a Backward Society."

Much turns upon how members of social groupings "look upon," regard and judge one another and the factors that give rise to the reasons they do so.

"What is needed is something more akin to a religious revival than a government program . . . "

That revival aim, of course, is set forth in the dogma derived from the second part of the Christian "Great Commandment."

The force of that dogma in our social interactions has been displaced, or certainly diminished, by quests, which continue, for other objectives in our relationships.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 12, 2017 at 11:40:40 am

Richard:

"The force of that dogma in our social interactions has been displaced, or certainly diminished, by quests, which continue, for other objectives in our relationships."

Some now claim that those "quests" are *compelled* by, and are contained within our founding - see Deneen.

Also, good essay in current Claremont Review by Hadley (?) on the alteration of these quests.

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gabe
on September 12, 2017 at 21:46:45 pm

Perhaps it is important to consider another perspective. No country can industrialize without either going into debt (to be repaid by the long-term production of the new factories) or exploiting its people (the Soviet method) or exploiting colonies (the English and Dutch method).

Ghana, by going to debt, put itself at the mercy of the international bankers and fell victim to financial warfare in the 1960s, which led to a ruinous "structural adjustment program."

For a Ghanan perspective on what happened in the 1960s, see https://www.modernghana.com/news/557602/why-the-imfworld-bank-are-to-blame-for-ghanas-economic-cri.html

The Rape of Ghana served as a prototype for the horrors that the International Monetary Fund inflicted throughout the so-called "Third World" in the 1980s and 1990s. To quote from the 1988 100-page resignation letter of senior IMF official Davison Budhoo (it was a worldwide sensation, but it was blacked out of the U.S. news media):

"Today I resigned from the staff of the International Monetary Fund after over twelve years, and after 1000 days of official Fund work in the field, hawking your medicine and your bag of tricks to governments and to people in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa. To me resignation is a priceless liberation, for with it I have taken the first big step to that place where I may hope to wash my hands of what in my mind’s eye is the blood of millions of poor and starving peoples. Mr. Camdessus, the blood is so much, you know, it runs in rivers. It dries up, too; it cakes all over me; sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me from the things that I did do in your name, and in the names of your predecessors, and under your official seal....

"The charges that I make strike at the very soul of man and at his conscience. You know, when all the evidence is in, there are two types of questions that you and me and others like me will have to answer. The first is this: - will the world be content merely to brand our institution as among the most insidious enemies of mankind? Will our fellowmen condemn us thus and let the matter rest? Or will the heirs of those whom we have dismembered in our own peculiar Holocaust clamor for another Nuremburg?

"I don't mind telling you that this matter has haunted me... because I know that if I am tried I will be found guilty, very guilty, without extenuating circumstance...."

And perhaps some people on this forum have read "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man"?

Regarding the deplorable "entitlement mentality" that took root with President Johnson's "Great Society" programs in the 1960s, context is critical here. In the USA, the economic dislocations of the 1970s were followed by the wholesale outsourcing of American factory production, first to Mexico and then China, etc. This led to chronic unemployment among former factory workers, and of course this hit blacks particularly hard, because they were clustered on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. And now Donald Trump wants to "make America great again," which presumably means rebuilding the manufacturing base (and as a consequence, the tax base). If Trump ever moves decisively in that direction, it will be interesting to see how the alignments among liberals and conservatives are tested by argumentation over such an effort.

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John Schmeeckle
on September 12, 2017 at 21:48:33 pm

The first 20 pages or so of Davison Budhoo's tell-all resignation letter from the International Monetary Fund are online here: http://www.naomiklein.org/files/resources/pdfs/budhoo.pdf

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John Schmeeckle

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