Some people argue that eliminating racism requires getting rid of capitalism. But racism existed before capitalism developed. Since racism exists in non-capitalist societies, capitalism can't be blamed for it.
True, in some ways capitalism is friendly to racism.
Capitalism combines mostly free markets with predominantly private ownership of the means of production, except for land and other natural resources. (Privately owned natural resources aren't essential characteristics and must probably be abandoned if capitalism is to survive. The alternative isn't governmental ownership of natural resources, but ownership by the public, with government acting as a trustee for it.)
In a market economy people are free to enter into voluntary associations, created by mutual consent, to exchange or transfer inducements. People can hire and be hired, buy and sell, mostly at mutually agreed-upon prices.
Mutual consent being required, racists can refuse to enter voluntary associations with members of the target race. They can refuse to hire them, sell to them or buy from them.
Racism is rooted in stereotyping, assuming that "when you have seen one (person of a certain race), you have seen them all." Since all individuals are unique, stereotyping is stupid, but freedom includes freedom to act stupidly.
To this extent capitalism is racism's ally. But there is another side to this story.
Although capitalism's freedom allows people to indulge their prejudices, it makes them pay for doing so. Their economic interest would be to hire the best available people without considering their race and to sell to all willing customers. Not doing this reduces their income.
Since buyers and sellers want to make the best deals possible, capitalism pushes society away from racist behavior even though it won't immediately eliminate racist thinking. A notable example was a well-known bigot who owned a sports team and hired black athletes because she wanted her team to win.
Racist thinking, though, should be undermined by capitalism's encouragement of voluntary associations between people of different races. Personal relations can undermine people's tendency to think in terms of stereotypes.
The American South was not capitalistic before the Civil War. Slaves did not give their consent to be associated with their owners. Their association was involuntary, not voluntary. They were kept in bondage by sanctions —government's power of the sword.
Capitalism didn't come to the South even after the Civil War. Once the attempted "reconstruction" reforms ended, state governments prevented the normal anti-racist capitalistic tendencies from working. Segregation made it illegal for white people and black people to enter into many kinds of voluntary associations with one another, to work together, to go to school together, even to marry. The fact that governments enacted such legislation indicates their fear that people otherwise would associate with those of different races.
These restrictions clearly violated the basic essence of capitalism: freedom of voluntary association by mutual consent of the parties. Racist societies are not expressions of capitalism, but its contradiction.
And they violated a fundamental requirement of good government: the rule of law. Genuine laws must be general rules of action and cannot impose sanctions on people on the basis of their race.
Some more recent legislation attempting to force bigots to stop discriminating on the basis of race also contradicts the basic capitalistic principle. How can people be forced to enter voluntary associations without their consent when such associations, by definition, require mutual consent?
It is no wonder that today's very well-intended antidiscrimination law is such a conceptual mess. (Open accommodation — first come, first served — laws, however, seem to work well.)
Although capitalism enables bigots to discriminate, it makes them pay an economic price in the form of lost business and lost opportunities to employ the best people. Economic interest tends to pull people together.
Capitalism and racism are basically deadly enemies.
Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. His most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. This column originally appeared in NewsMax.
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