An open letter to Professor Boudreaux: why fear progressives and BLM protesters?

In a recent post, the blogger/economist Donald Boudreaux expressed deep fear of the people protesting for police reform and of progressive politics generally.  Below is an open letter responding to his post.  It is long (mostly below the fold) but it highlights some of the key issues separating libertarians and classical liberals from progressives and liberal egalitarians.  I hope you’ll take the time to click through!  Comments welcome as always.

Professor Boudreaux:

In a recent post at Cafe Hayek, you state that these are scary times, that you have seldom been as distraught as you are now.  The cause of your unease is what you see as “virtue signaling” and “rabid mobthink” by progressive protesters of police brutality and their supporters.  A puzzling feature of your post is that although you (I believe) agree with the protesters that reform is needed to curb police violence, you do not emphasize this point of agreement.  Instead, you claim that progressives are close-minded and charge anyone who disagrees with them with being a racist, which you believe is drowning out dissent and preventing reasonable discussion of the issues.  You seem to believe that this threatens the liberal values you hold dear.

Although I have no doubt that your emotional distress is real, your fears seem overblown, and your failure to emphasize your support for police reform has the paradoxical effect of giving the protesters good reason to doubt your motivations – the very outcome that you find so objectionable.  Of course, it is possible to find examples of protesters doing and saying unreasonable things, but on the whole the protesters have a righteous cause, they are pursuing reform in a remarkably thoughtful, peaceful way, and there is every reason to believe that their efforts will make our country a morally more decent place.  You should support them, applaud them, and encourage others to do the same.

How will protesters interpret your critical reaction to their calls for reform?  What will they think motivates your fearful reaction and (apparent) resistance to change?  I can think of a few possible interpretations:

  1. You agree that police violence against black people is often excessive and wrong, and that some kind of reform is justified, but you fear that the protests will lead to severe disorder, or to misguided reforms that are ineffective or do more harm than good (for example, by “defunding” the police, whatever exactly that means).  Of course, if your fears are justified, you have good reasons to be critical of the protesters.  On the other hand, if your fears are not justified, then you are a reactionary:  you oppose efforts to achieve goals that you support out of unjustified fear.
  2. Another possibility is that you fear that the movement for criminal justice reform will lead to demands for progressive economic policies to improve the position of blacks and other disadvantaged groups, and you oppose these efforts because you think they are unjust (perhaps you think that the market distribution of income is just, and that no effort needs to be made to correct for past mistreatment of black people) or are likely to make things worse rather than better. In this case it is your narrow view of economic justice, combined with your (unsubstantiated) fear that police reform will somehow lead to progressive economic policies that leads you to oppose calls for reform.
  3. Finally, perhaps you are a racist who actively supports violent overpolicing of black people, who believes that blacks generally get what they deserve from the police.  (You might also be an authoritarian who supports violent policing of all lower-income people.  I put this aside and focus on race.)

Now, you of course deny being a racist, but these days most people do, including many people who hold racist views or who oppose efforts to reform the police out of racial resentment.  Furthermore, racial biases could easily lead someone to be overly fearful of police reforms or to fear that reform efforts would go “too far” and spill over into dangerous or unwarranted demands for economic justice.  Thus it seems that if your statement is reasonably interpreted as fostering opposition to reform, people who read it would naturally be inclined to at least suspect you might be racist, or that your views are colored by racial resentment.  Note that this is consistent with fully rational Bayesian inference.  If racism varies across people from 0 (no racism) to 10 (white supremacism), and the population average level of racism is, say, 5, if we learn that a person opposes police reforms we would revise our prior up, at least to an extent, since all else equal people who are racists or racially resentful are more likely to oppose reform.

Of course, it could be that there are good reasons to oppose police reforms, or to fear the protesters, and that you articulated them clearly.  In this case, we should not suspect that you are racist; instead we should join you and oppose reforms.  But you do not give us good reasons (or even any reasons) to oppose reform or to fear the protesters.  (To be clear, I think you actually support reform, though your post can easily create the opposite impression.)

Here is a key argument from your post:

Failure to blame all problems suffered by minorities on racism – failure to denounce loudly and angrily American bourgeois society’s allegedly inherent bigotry, greed, and rapaciousness – failure to acknowledge that America today is a brutal and cruel place for all but the elite, and hellish especially for blacks, women, and gay, bi, and transgender people – is frequently interpreted as sympathy for dark-ages-like superstition and prejudices.

I have no doubt that some progressives at times overstate the role of race in generating disparities between blacks and whites.  (I also have no doubt that some progressives at times understate the role of race.  Social science is hard.)  But it is difficult to see how this is relevant to the demands of the people protesting the murder of George Floyd, unless you can show that their demands are unwise or unjust.

Of course, if progressives tend to exaggerate the influence of racist motives and underestimate the role of incentives and institutional factors in generating police violence, it is possible that they will endorse policy changes that do not address the root causes of the problem, and that may even be harmful.  In the article you link to, you criticize protesters for attributing police violence to racism and ignoring the incentives that encourage or at least allow police violence.  This is simply inaccurate.  Protesters and progressive intellectuals are obviously concerned about both racism and incentives.  You urge them to focus on the qualified immunity doctrine as if they were unaware that this is a problem, but of course immunity is recognized by the protesters as an important area for reform and is included in the reform bill drafted by House Democrats.  Many progressives are also critical of the role played by police unions in blocking accountability.  Your charge that progressives attribute all police misconduct to the racism of individual officers is especially puzzling because many progressives blame institutional or systemic racism for perpetuating racial inequities.  We can debate what this means and how it works, but it is obviously compatible with incentives being an important part of the problem.

You continue as follows:

Equally bad, in the eyes of the Virtuous, are attempts at offering historical perspective. Even if accompanied by a sincere and express acknowledgement that serious problems remain, the mere suggestion that at least some of these problems were more widespread and worse in the past – the slightest hint that over time there’s been some real improvement for anyone but white, heterosexual, high-income Christian males – is treated as evidence of blindness or malignant bias.

This argument is, frankly, bizarre.  For one thing, oppression of blacks by the criminal justice system may well have gotten worse over the past few decades.  The effects of mass incarceration on blacks who came of age over the past 30 or so years have been so severe that the gap in life prospects between blacks and whites may have grown, despite progress in some areas.  This makes your confident suggestion that things have gotten better for blacks over time difficult to understand.   But the real problem with your argument is the notion that historical progress in securing some degree of liberty and equality for black Americans is relevant to the demands of the protesters for police reform.  I think everyone agrees that blacks are better off not being slaves, but why on earth do protesters need to stop and ponder this instead of continuing to focus on current, serious problems with the criminal justice system?  Protests cannot be turned on and off at will; opportunities for political change need to be seized when they arise.  It is not hard to understand how protesters would be suspicious of someone who, it appears, wants to sap the momentum of the protests by bringing up a completely irrelevant “objection” to the case for reform.

I have no doubt from reading your blog that you genuinely regard progressivism as a threat.  I disagree with that assessment, but given that you agree (I think) that police reform is needed, your refusal to simply support the protesters makes no sense unless you can show that their protest movement is likely to lead to some kind of unforeseen progressive policy disaster.  You do not even attempt to do this, and it is hard to take seriously, given how broken the current system is.  What is it that you fear?  Do you believe that police will be defunded all over the country, leading to a tsunami of crime?  How likely is that?  Is your fear really sufficient to justify anything less than full support for the protesters?  What is your response to this passage from Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail?

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

One reason you fear progressives is that

. . . irrationality centered in the political left spawns irrationality on the right. I’ve heard it said that George Floyd wasn’t killed by Derek Chauvin, or that Floyd deserved his fate. I hear it said that any success at reforming government police departments would undermine law and order. Nonsense, of course. Pure nonsense.

But what today most scares me – a true liberal to my marrow – is the rabid mobthink on the political and ideological left. My fear is neither my forgiving nor tolerating the many prejudices and idiocies rampant on the right. I despise these unconditionally. But today – June 12th, 2020 – I fear more the prejudices and idiocies rampant on the left, if only because these seem to me to be today more widespread and socially encouraged.

Blaming “irrationality” on the right on “irrationality” from the left seems willfully arbitrary.  One could just as easily blame the growing political energy on the left on Donald Trump and the racists who supported him and who he encourages.  Your willingness to cast blame in this one-sided manner could also make people suspect that your true sympathies lie with the right.  Why should the craziest right-wing voices be given a hecklers’ veto?

Similarly, you say you fear progressives because you believe they are gaining the upper hand over right-wing racists.  But why does this make you so fearful?  Surely progressives, for all their faults, are less of a danger to human decency and to the survival of democracy in America than the right-wing haters who helped to elect Donald Trump and remain committed to his re-election, despite his constant assaults on democratic institutions and norms.  And this is the choice we face, a choice between a Republican party in thrall to an authoritarian racist and a Democratic party that believes in criminal justice reform and efforts to promote economic justice.

As I mentioned above, it is possible that your real fear is not calls for police reform, but that ascendant progressives will also demand economic justice for blacks and other disadvantaged groups.  In other words, you agree with progressives on racial issues, but disagree with them on economic issues, and overall you attach more importance to blocking progressive economic policies than you do to preventing racial injustice (and nonracial injustice) at the hands of the police.

If this is what you believe, you need to explain how supporting criminal justice reform will make misguided progressive economic reforms more likely.  Unless you can explain why supporting criminal justice reform will lead to economic reform that you oppose, your failure to support police reform makes no sense even if we accept your opposition to progressive economic policies, and this will make people suspect your motives.

Of course, if fear of progressive economic policies is what motivates your opposition to progressive protesters, you should also explain why black people should accept further generations of inequality, when the inequality they have endured and continue to endure is clearly based on gross historical injustices, some dating back to slavery, others much more recent.  Are “true liberals” (as you call yourself) opposed to any effort to rectify historical wrongs or promote equality of opportunity?

It is plausible to argue that some progressives are too quick to accuse people who disagree with them of being racists.  If your post stated your support for the protesters but urged them to be more charitable in their assessment of the motives of their opponents, I would have no quarrel with you.  But you do not this.  You do not give the protesters your support, and your attack on progressives goes far beyond urging them to be more cautious in attributing racial animus to their opponents (some of whom, you acknowledge, really do have terrible motivations).  As a result, essays like yours undoubtedly encourage progressives to suspect that their opponents are reactionaries, or motivated by racism or racial resentment.

I hope that you will reconsider your views and make clear that you unequivocally support the protesters and progressives on questions of civil rights and police reform.  I also hope that you will make it clear to your readers that you support Joe Biden over Donald Trump, even if you have qualms about Biden’s economic proposals.  (Many of your posts seem to suggest an equivalence between Trump and Democrats.)  Your failure to do so will confirm what many critics of libertarians and classical liberals have long suspected, that when push comes to shove you would choose free-market authoritarianism rather than accept the legitimacy of democratic demands for economic justice.


Eric Kramer

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