racism and eugenics

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What is not discussed about the history of liberalism

Ayn Rand was a person who wanted to live a life without contradictions. If A is A, then contradictions must not exist. If they "exist", then we must check our premises. Despite this, she lived a life full of contradictions. After all, she is responsible for the following quotes[I]:

“If you believe in the rights and institutions of slavery, it is a huge contradiction. It is for the honor of this country, which America haters never mention, that people have given their lives to abolish slavery.”

“[Prejudices] against blacks were dying because of the pressure of the free economy, because racism, in the sense of prejudice, does not pay. So, if someone wants to be racist, he suffers, because the functioning of the system is against him”.

“Regarding the Indians, I don't even mind discussing these kinds of allegations they have against this country. I believe with scientific and serious reason that the worst kind of film you will ever see – from the worst Indian point of view – is what they did to the white man.”

“Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to conquer this continent and it's great that some of them did it and that they found out that they couldn't do it anywhere and that the Indians, if there are racist Indians today, don't even believe today: respect for individual rights”.

These quotations were in the same speech, given to military officers of the west point academy, in 1974. The logic is clear: racism = bad, as it is a violation of individual rights; genocide of people not suited to capitalism = good. And not only that, but victims should consider themselves blessed to be brutalized, as survivors can enjoy the blessings of capitalism and private property.

Free-market liberalism prides itself on being egalitarian and that everyone, regardless of their racial, sexual, and cultural characteristics, can succeed through hard work. This is one of the main messages of Atlas Shrugged.[ii] So, at first glance, it seems odd that Rand would have such ideas. At first glance it's a contradiction that can simply be explained as Rand having no idea what real racism is. However, she experienced racism for being Jewish[iii], but his books treat non-European cultures with disdain – whereas the narrator of Atlas Shrugged laments the socialist oppression of the European peoples, the orient is treated in an obscure and irrelevant way, the Ganges has nothing but slums and the orient soybean is evil. So it's a contradiction with liberal thinking, right?

But what if it's not a contradiction?

Liberal institutes and their members have always sold the narrative that free market liberalism is a fundamental tool in the fight against racism. After all, money has no color. Racism is a rational preference, which can be changed with knowledge of liberal truths (but not with quotas, because they only make the problem worse according to them). Any accusation of racism is rejected by minorities affiliated with liberalism and also with conservatism, emphasizing the role of individual effort and against “victimism”[iv]. Derrick Bell once observed the “principle of racial positioning,” where a liberal or conservative black person who criticizes other black people is suddenly the most qualified authority to speak on the issue, ignoring deep debates in the black community, making everyone who doesn’t agree with they are ideologues of true racism[v].

Ayn Rand's case is unique. Although his novels are highly recommended by liberals, his more “politically incorrect” ideas are often conveniently left aside or even rejected. But Ayn Rand's ideas of Western white supremacy and the need to ignore the rights of "uncivilized" peoples were prevalent in liberal culture for quite some time.

A book that draws attention to this is Liberalism: a counterhistory, by Domenico Losurdo. Published in 2011, the book is the result of years of research by the Italian Marxist philosopher. Using an enormous amount of primary sources, he demonstrates how the founding authors of liberalism saw the liberal system as restricted only to an enlightened elite.

If we take liberalism as “the tradition of thought whose central concern is the freedom of the individual”, Losurdo opens the book by commenting on John C. Calhoun, an American thinker of the XNUMXth century who is still treated today.[vi] as a defender of individual freedom against any form of tyranny and absolutism. However, he defended slavery as a divine right and criticized abolitionists for being deluded. Calhoun is not alone in this apparent contradiction, involving important names in liberalism, such as Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, among many others. Between a despotic government that abolishes slavery and a democratic government that accepts it, classical liberal doctrine has always preferred the second option.

Thus, classical liberals always held that political freedoms are absolute only for an enlightened elite, which was invariably white, of Western European origin. If not even the poorest white workers were entitled to this freedom, what about blacks and non-European peoples? Losurdo, in section 7 of chapter 4, shows that while the English boasted of their liberal system, they imposed a dictatorship with the aim of exploiting the Irish and destroying Gaelic culture across the Irish Sea.

Losurdo is ignored in economic circles. I only found out that there is a Portuguese translation of this book just to write this article[vii]. I have a hobby of mining citations on Google Scholar, and of the more than 650 citations as of July 2021, less than ten are by economists. Losurdo, however, did not write for economics or economic history journals. Even so, few historians and economists who deal with these issues pay attention to it, especially in the history of liberalism, as many liberal economists take a pristine view of their own history.

In my doctoral thesis, I studied the history of the public choice movement, which advocated the use of economic tools to analyze politics. Much emphasis is placed by historians of public choice – who tend to be sympathetic to public choice – on demonstrating that it upholds individual liberty. So when Nancy MacLean published Democracy in Chains[viii], it caused a stir by being an outsider to the history of economics. It was heavily criticized by public choice supporters for portraying one of its founders, James Buchanan, as less than a hero. She touched the nail on the heels by demonstrating how lenient the public choice is with her story. One article portrays Gordon Tullock, one of the founders of the discipline, whose racist tendencies are exposed by MacLean, as the second coming of Christ in a struggle against America's traitors: communists, the Democratic party and the Ford Foundation.[ix]. And this article was published in Public Choice, which is a very reputable magazine.

But anyone who considers this is not yet present in the subtext of economic debates. Quinn Slobodian, in Globalist: The end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism[X], shows how what is understood by neoliberalism today has its origins in the thinking of authors nostalgic for the Habsburg Empire and used their model of “racial democracy” to propose a new world order, where capital reigns and international markets are preserved. Investors gain more rights than citizens of a country, who are often treated as second-class citizens.

The need to maintain a business environment is more important than respecting the human rights of “unenlightened” peoples. A clearer example is the debate on the apartheid South African. Wilhelm Röpke defended apartheid for economic and racist reasons – which is shocking since he left Germany because of Nazism in the 1930s. Other economists, such as William Hutt, Milton Friedman, among others, condemned the racism of apartheid, but not its economy. On the contrary, they criticized the international community for sanctions and were against black movements. anti-apartheid because they would just reverse the logic, where whites would be persecuted. Thus, to maintain order, blacks must continue to be oppressed until the white South African elite deemed it economically feasible to extend rights to blacks. It is ironic that conservative forces rise up against globalism, when the first globalists were liberals.

So why engage in this kind of critical analysis of the history of liberalism? The economy still does not address these problems of its history very much. Thomas Leonard, in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era[xi], demonstrates that racism and eugenics were present at the root of the thinking of several American economists. A review published in the journal economy[xii]comments that little of what Leonard wrote is new to historians; it's just new to economists because these issues are rarely discussed in economics.

Very few authors of the past were free of prejudice and many who were considered progressive (or even traitors to the dominant race) at the time, would not be today. The books cited above demonstrate that racism and eugenics were something that both interventionists and free-market advocates had in common. Liberal and conservative institutes have pages and pages of examples of the “hypocrisy” of the left. Derrick Bell was wrong to deny that the Nation of Islam group was anti-Semitic[xiii], and this is something that is exploited by his critics, as well as Losurdo's alleged sympathies for Stalin.

This must be engaged because it is part of our lives. By denying the structural character of racism, focusing only on individualism, liberalism absolves itself of any problems it has caused. And not only that, liberalism constructs for itself a pristine history narrative against the “filthy” history of its opponents. The role of social movements is erased by portraying social rights as a “gift” of capitalism and the free market. I mentioned that Bell was wrong, but I don't think he was wrong in refusing to condemn them just to please his critics, who didn't care about blacks or Jews.

As an ex-liberal, realizing this was one of several things that turned me away from liberalism. I considered myself affiliated with the Austrian School, but over time I come to realize the subtle but profound elitism of liberalism in general. The only individual who matters in the liberal scheme is the entrepreneur. The rest… is not important. It is just the input “labor” in a production function. If the “rest” wants to challenge the system, it must be repressed. The worker cannot complain, he has to shut up, work and receive his salary to move the economy. He has no real claim to the proclaimed rights of liberalism.

This is a short representation, perhaps too short, but it is also a personal part of the article. Still, Losurdo, Slobodian, among others have written about it, with scientific research, in order to demonstrate that it is not worth trying to create a pristine narrative of the past – a narrative that is constantly pulled to defend a supposed moral superiority of liberalism and the market. free, which basically continues with the same problems. As Jesus responded to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous. And they say: 'If we had lived in the time of our forefathers, we would not have shared with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets” (Matthew 23:29-31).

But I don't want to stop anyone from reading them. On the contrary, reading some conservative and liberal authors such as Russell Kirk or Hayek can give new insights to the left reader. But I also argue that they should be critically analyzed and be more honest about their biases and agendas, not hide behind pristine narratives. These narratives are still in the current discourse – the great recent example is the Bolsonaro government's policy of exploiting the Amazon, in which the rights of the Indians must be crushed in favor of agribusiness and they should be grateful for it. Unless there is a critique and reconstruction of liberal ideas, Ayn Rand's two statements above will not be contradictory and liberalism will remain blind to its own problems.

*Rafael Galvão de Almeida holds a doctorate in economics from UFMG.


[I] See a transcript in “Libertarian superstar Ayn Rand defended Native American genocide: 'Racism didn't exist in this country until the liberals brought it up'”, Ben Norton, Salon, 2015. https://www.salon.com/2015/10/14/libertarian_superstar_ayn_rand_defended_genocide_of_savage_native_americans/.

[ii] See my comments at https://aterraeredonda.com.br/a-revolta-de-atlas/.

[iii] In the biography written by Jennifer Burns (Oxford University Press, 2009), she recounts some events in which Rand experienced anti-Semitism, leading to friction with Rosalie Wilson and Isabel Paterson.

[iv] “How the Bolsonarist logic of putting black people in favor of their speech works”, Maria Carolina Trevisan, UOL. https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/maria-carolina-trevisan/2021/07/16/bolsonarismo-negro.htm.

[v] “The law of racial standing”, Derrick Bell, Yale Journal of Law and Liberation, 1991. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjll/vol2/iss1/12/.

[vi] See, for example, “The public choice theory of John C. Calhoun”, Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 1992. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40751557.

[vii] I have read the English version of this text, published by Verso. The Portuguese version is published by Ideias e Letras. See the review “Liberalism versus social democracy”, Alfredo Bosi, Advanced Studies, 2007. https://www.scielo.br/j/ea/a/XQhy7TQ8mHHQNhbBH8LQZhF/?lang=pt

[viii] Penguin, 2017.

[ix] “The life and times of Gordon Tullock”, Charles Rowley and Daniel Houser, public choice, 2012. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11127-011-9899-3

[X] HarvardUniversityPress, 2018.

[xi] Princeton University Press, 2016.

[xii] “Race in the history of economic thought: the missing narratives?”, Cléo Chassonery-Zaïgouche, economy, 2020. https://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/8158?lang=en.

[xiii] On the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam, see the profile on the Anti-Defamation League website https://www.adl.org/resources/profiles/the-nation-of-islam.

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