Reflections on the Revolution in Baltimore
The last couple of nights have seen protests and violence rock Baltimore, in the wake of the funeral of Freddie Gray. Thousands have peacefully marched in protest of Gray’s death at the hands of policemen, while unverified numbers have taken to looting, smashing, and burning large portions of inner-city Baltimore. Police officers have arrived from around the Mid-Atlantic region to contain- but thus far not to quell- the unrest, and at the time of writing the Maryland National Guard has been mustered. Teams of citizens and emergency workers rummage through the debris, restoring the streets to relative cleanliness, while pastors, community leaders, and angry mothers beseech the rioters to calm down in return to civility, in their own ways.
The response from the mainstream Left has varied from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s smug “I-Told-You-So” to complaints about the national media’s lack of coverage of the peaceful protests just out of view of the news cameras. In few cases, though, have mainstream Left commentators forcefully condemned the violence.
Meanwhile, the social justice warriors of the far Left have gone so far as to vindicate and even romanticize the rioters, likening them to revolutionaries striving to overthrow an unjust system. Chillingly thought-provoking comparisons to the Boston Tea Party have been made, while other commentators just take glee from the poetic justice of the impoverished systematically destroying property.
Liberal politicians, however, have tended to be forceful in condemning the violence. President Obama, in particular, forcefully condemned the “criminals and thugs” whom America watched destroy their own city over the internet. “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday.” It was refreshing to hear this from the President, who largely continued his practice of calling for order and staying moderate on the various racial incidents that have bubbled up at a quicker pace under his term.
Interestingly, most conservative American commentators have shared the President’s sentiments exactly. From the right there have arisen plenty of statements condemning the breakdown of law and order in Baltimore, and almost none acknowledging the peaceful protests happening alongside them or admitting the existence of systemic problems that led to the riots’ happening. The conservative response has been more callous than that of the Left, more unfeeling, more knee-jerk, and far more ignorant of the very real issues facing poor inner-city blacks in America today.
There are problems and virtues associated with both positions.
Conservatives have a fundamental bit of wisdom right- law and order are the first blessings of society, and any citizen who forfeits these and takes to law-breaking has lost what quite a bit of what it means to be civilized. No injustice can justify the individual choice to join the crowds, take to the streets, and tear down the institution of property. Those who applaud this lawless orgy of violence and unrest are as guilty of barbarism as are those participating; those who naively trust Rousseau’s “General Will” invite the Terror upon themselves. Moreover, those who would assign responsibility for rioting solely to invisible social forces, and thereby absolve the rioters of any guilt, thereby deprive the rioters of their humanity and do a disservice to human dignity. As the innumerable inner-city-dwellers who choose not to join the throngs in the streets demonstrate, human beings are not merely blades of grass swaying in the wind. We are complicated, partly rational and partly passionate creatures capable of making moral and immoral decisions, weaving in and out of that complex interplay of agency and fate otherwise known as the human condition. At a certain point, the riots are a moral failure on the part of the individuals involved.
Yet individual virtue and wickedness does not fully explain the happenstance of the riots, or of the protests, for that matter. Broader social forces and trends are at work, and the conservatives who disregard these are guilty of both heartlessness and ignorance.
There is a bit of wisdom that the liberals see, too- namely, that a just society is necessary if law and order are to have any utility whatsoever. And those disciples of law and order who benefit from injustice and refuse to remedy the injustice done to others are simply inviting Rousseau’s “General Will” to come at them with a vengeance. Injustice breeds resentment and instability. A society can only go on for so long with heaving inequities gone unremedied before the plebeians rise to punish the patricians. And therefore, not only for the sake of human dignity and natural law, but also for its own survival, a society that is to endure must at some point institute a program of progressive and continuing reform, lest that reform be forced upon it by natural social revolutions. This is difficult to master, for institutions are inherently conservative, opposed to significant reform; but ultimately those societies following the law of nature, of reformist social evolution, have more longevity than those which cling to a golden past that never was. “The state without some means of change is without the means of its conservation,” said Edmund Burke. And thus, true conservatives must both recognize the systemic injustices that provided the backdrop and impetus for the protests and riots in Baltimore, and be willing to institute reforms necessary to ameliorate these conditions over time.
The social and economic conditions afflicting the black lower class in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in New York City, in South Central Los Angeles, and in a thousand other American locales, are un-American by any standard. Many liberals and progressives tend to place the locus of attention on injustices committed at the hands of police officers. These warrant more attention than many American conservatives have given them. But ultimately, the policing problem is superficial compared to the far deeper problems besetting the black lower class.
First off, the American municipal police system has been horrifically unaccountable to the public. Granted, most police officers are trustworthy, law-abiding enforcers of the law; but even a few bad apples ruin the bunch. It would be one thing if these bad apples were picked out and dealt with when they trespassed the limits of their authority. But far more often than not, officers committing questionable actions have tended to escape punishment or even trial. This is due not so much to institutionalized racism as it is to the entrenched power of public sector unions- police unions, to be exact, which, like all other unions, have a deep interest in protecting their own. This results in situations where even clearly-documented cases of police abuse and police brutality fail to result in officers facing trial, and it is a miscarriage of justice that primarily adversely affects the inner-city black lower class. Moreover, as police unions have immense power to protect themselves, they routinely shield departments from investigation, further impeding police reform. If we are to have effective policing and true justice in our inner city communities, reforms along the lines of community policing and expanded police accountability are in order.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
A horrific deficiency in financial investment afflicts the inner cities, spurred by their volatility and the high amounts of risk associated with investing in such unstable and impoverished areas. That deficiency in investment hurts the small businesses that are already there, and largely precludes the development of new small businesses. Meanwhile larger firms are less incentivized to enter such areas. As such, there is no abundance of job opportunities available for the working black poor; opportunities for both striving entrepreneurs and middle class families to increase their social standing or achieve stability are hard to come by, and thus social stasis reigns while those few lucky enough to reach a certain economic height tend to flee as soon as they can- particularly those who go to college. In the inner city, there simply aren’t enough low-skill/high-wage jobs to support a broad middle class, or enough buyers with money to spare to support an entrepreneurial culture. The cost of living is driven up by housing scarcity, high utility costs, and increased healthcare costs due to cramped urban conditions. It is not a good place to be, and many are trapped here.
The high cost of living and relative dearth of opportunities contributes to a climate of poverty, and in that climate of poverty, crime thrives. Unemployed young men are significantly more likely than their employed peers to join gangs or participate in criminal activity, and the ensuing culture of violence perpetuates the insecurity that contributes to the poverty that led to the insecurity. It’s a vicious cycle that costs many lives and many more opportunities every year. Experts have documented the skyrocketing rates of black-on-black crime and its effects on the social trust of neighborhoods and cities; and the results are bleak. Granted, things used to be much worse during the Crime Wave of the 1980s, but in the present they are not by any measure good. This culture of insecurity and violence significantly diminishes the social capital of the poor, black communities of inner cities.
It’s fairly easy to reason how poverty and violence are detrimental to social capital, but there is another factor that is not often talked about as a matter of public policy- and that is family formation. The black family is in a state of disarray, with record numbers of single mothers and fatherless children. This, in turn, is perpetuated by two areas of public policy with perverse side effects that were clearly not foreseen when the policies were instituted.
The Great Society’s welfare programs and supports for single mothers, incredibly well-intentioned at heart, unintentionally created a system where young women with children would receive more money from the state if they were unmarried than they would receive from a husband making minimum wage. And young black women tended to respond to this “incentive” as one might expect anyone in dire fiscal straits would- they chose to delay marriage so they would be better able to support their children, by earning a higher income from the welfare system than they would with a minimum-wage husband. Unfortunately, this has resulted in several generations of black youths growing up in households without fathers, which has had predictable social effects- fatherless children have grown up less rooted and driven, less likely to attend college, and more likely to end up in jail, than their peers with fathers.
To make matters worse, the draconian drug laws passed under the War on Drugs disproportionately effect young black males, who proportionally grow up in greater poverty than their white counterparts and thus turn to illegal substances more readily, it would seem. With marijuana possession punishable by imprisonment, it is small wonder that so many young black men end up doing jail time for comparatively minor crimes. And that jail time is time when they could be making a living, getting an education, supporting a family, or rearing children. Their absence is a drain on the economy and society of the inner cities.
Thus we have a social crisis on our hands characterized by perverse disincentives to family formation and drastic legal landmines for young black men. The lower frequency of stable black families, those building blocks of society and training-grounds of citizens, provides the foundation of that social crisis- a lack of strong families and the resulting dearth of social capital and civic institutions within the black community.
High costs of living and few economic opportunities, a culture of violence and instability, a sheer lack of social capital brought about by obstacles to family formation- these are the three main challenges facing poor and black America, and they are the social conditions that gave rise to the frustrations that convinced thousands of protestors to take to the streets of Baltimore these last few nights, and animated at least a small minority into a frenzy of violent rage. These same conditions laid the backdrop of the recent riots in Ferguson. It is these horrendous social conditions, this tremendous inequality, that fuels the fires of racial animosity in this country. Episodes of police brutality and racial profiling merely set off the spark, though police brutality being a far more visible issue, it tends to garner more emotional reactions than social immobility, social insecurity, or dearth of social capital.
These four issues- social immobility, social insecurity, dearth of social capital, and police brutality- form a veritable triumvirate-plus-one, an anchor weighing the black lower class down. A counter triumvirate-plus-one of positive pro-growth, pro-social-capital policies is in order. In order to bring the black lower class to something resembling parity with the comfort of Middle America, it’s imperative that city, state, and national leaders formulate policies to promote broad-based economic growth, better human security and reduced violence, incentives toward family formation and social capital, and police accountability. The black community’s poorest members need these opportunities, and public policy towards inner cities should revolve around promoting these social goods.
All should take note of the fact that both contemporary parties have done work that has placed black America at a disadvantage. The Democrats have been doing so since at least the Great Society- regulatory regimes, taxation, and urban planning policies that discourage broad-based economic growth and raise the price of living, soft-on-crime criminal justice, and perverse welfare incentives that reward mothers for going unmarried instead of building stable families. The Republicans, for their part, have supported financial growth rather than broad-based industrial and manufacturing growth, have imposed draconian drug laws through the War on Drugs, and have stood staunchly against police reform.
Ideally, both parties would make some crucial policy and intellectual reforms, if they are to help resolve the urban crisis. But I cannot ask the Democrats to change, for they are not my party; nor do I think they have any incentive to change, as they are doing just fine winning the urban vote while promoting policies that keep the inner-city-dwellers poor.
No, I must ask the Republicans to change, for I am one of them, and in any case I stand a better chance of convincing them- as they currently do very poorly in inner cities, Republicans would only be helped in their electoral prospects if they could design urban policies conducive to the rise of the lower classes.
Therefore, I would beseech the Republicans to remember their progressive roots, and reform themselves again into a Progressive Republican Party, or at least a Republican Party that allowed in itself a significant faction of Progressive Republicans. Such a reformed party would embrace a conservative-progressive reformist Tory Republicanism, exemplified by the Anglo-American tradition containing Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Social reform would be wed with economic liberty, national unity with individual empowerment. And not only would this Burkean-Hamiltonian synthesis be an affirmative conservative answer to the gaping problems of poverty and racial inequality our nation faces, but it would actually reinforce the more modern “conservative” ideas of national unity, national power, fair play, and bounded capitalism. Such a conservatism would value order and justice in tandem with each other, knowing that neither would long survive without the other.
But this Tory Republicanism was not a phenomenon of the 19th Century alone, replaced entirely by obscenely reactionary pseudoconservatism in the 20th Century. There actually has been a tradition like this up until a few decades ago in American politics- the Rockefeller Republicans. These centrist Republicans tended to look upon social issues far more liberally than did their conservative traditionalist counterparts, and one story illustrates the point quite nicely. In 1968, when race riots were engulfing many of America’s cities, Michigan Governor George Romney organized a tour of inner cities around the country to speak with the leaders of protest movements and discern the concerns of various afflicted communities. Romney the Elder built bridges and held dialogues, rather than sweeping such important issues under the rug and appealing to his party’s base.
Where are these Republicans now? Is Rand Paul really their only face, as the Presidential candidate visited Ferguson, Missouri, last year during the race riots that erupted there? Cannot George Romney’s own son Mitt bring himself to face the downtrodden of this continent, and speak to them with full and open humanity?
Conservatives today are in disarray. Not only are they far too infatuated with the libertarian fantasies of the likes of Ayn Rand, they tend to have very little clue as to what our Western heritage is- that same Western heritage the Intercollegiate Review so brashly claims to defend from marauders on the Left. Our civilizational identity is waning and could use a good renaissance; but moreover, such a civic revolution would inevitably bring about a resurrection within our party of a realization of that fundamental ideal of Americanism- that all Americans are in this experiment together. The Left has a penchant for dividing people into neat ethnic, gender, and class subgroups, while the Right tends to appeal to those “privileged” groups that tend to vote for it more. Under such a constituency-based division, it is no wonder that animosities flare up between members of any two opposing groups.
A truly national and conservative party would be unitary. A truly Republican Republican Party would fight for the interests and betterment of ALL Americans, not in the abstract but in the most real possible sense. It would cease to abandon the masses of city-dwellers to the trepidations of Democratic party machines, and fight for them as vigorously as it fights for the middle-class homeowner or the rural corn farmer. It would take the problems of urban America, and treat them as the problems of ALL America- with a sense of urgency, rectitude, and purpose.
A truly Burkean Republicanism would stand for social order, while simultaneously standing for social progress. It would stand for these goals at all levels and domains of society; but the realization of such goals could be made possible only by a progressive commitment to remedying that greatest injustice in America today. Therefore such a Republicanism would work to tear down the institutional barriers and remedy the institutional injustices that divide American communities against each other and prevent the evolution of American society as an organic whole. It would treat our inner-city countrymen as our fellow citizens, not as beings from another world.
As it stands now, our Grand Old Party is not truly conservative.
Let’s work on fixing that.