Thoughts on economics and liberty

Author: Sanjeev Sabhlok

Frederick Douglass and Gandhi both wanted the poor to be left free

Gandhi wrote: ‘All the help that the poor need is that the world gets off their backs’.

And Frederick Douglass wrote: “if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall”.

The common theme is to STOP the “do-gooders” particularly government from destroying the poor with their misguided charity.

The article below has particular relevance in India with its strong affirmative action policies.


Who was it who said, “if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall”?

Ronald Reagan? Newt Gingrich? Charles Murray?

Not even close. It was Frederick Douglass!

This was part of a speech in which Douglass also said: “Everybody has asked the question… ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!”

Frederick Douglass had achieved a deeper understanding in the 19th century than any of the black “leaders” of today. Those whites who feel a need to do something with blacks and for blacks have been some of the most dangerous “friends” of blacks.

Academia is the home of many such “friends,” which is why there are not only double standards of admissions to colleges but also in some places double standards in grading. The late David Riesman called it “affirmative grading.”

A professor at one of California’s state universities where black students are allowed to graduate on the basis of easier standards put it bluntly: “We are just lying to these black students when we give them degrees.” That lie is particularly deadly when the degree is a medical degree, authorizing someone to treat sick people or perform surgery on children.

For years, Dr. Patrick Chavis was held up as a shining example of the success of affirmative action, for he was admitted to medical school as a result of minority preferences and went back to the black community to practice medicine. In fact, he was publicly praised by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights—just two weeks before his license was suspended, after his patients died under conditions that brought the matter to the attention of the Medical Board of California.

An administrative law judge referred to Chavis’ “inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.” A year later, after a fuller investigation, his license was revoked.

Those who had for years been using Chavis as a shining example of the success of affirmative action suddenly changed tactics and claimed that an isolated example of failure proved nothing. Sadly, Chavis was not an isolated example.

When a professor at the Harvard Medical School declared publicly, back in the 1970s, that black students were being allowed to graduate from that institution without meeting the same standards as others, he was denounced as a “racist” for saying that it was cruel to “allow trusting patients to pay for our irresponsibility”—trusting black patients, in many cases.

Why do supposedly responsible people create such dangerous double standards? Some imagine that they are being friends to blacks by lowering the standards for them. Some don’t think that blacks have what it takes to meet real standards, and that colleges and universities will lose their “diversity”—and perhaps federal money with it—if they don’t lower the standards, in order to get an acceptable racial body count.

My own experience as a teacher was that black students would meet higher standards if you refused to lower the standards for them. This was not the royal road to popularity, either with the students themselves or with the “friends” of blacks on the faculty and in the administration. But, when the dust finally settled, the students met the standards.

We have gotten so used to abysmal performances from black students, beginning in failing ghetto schools, that it is hard for some to believe that black students once did a lot better than they do today, at least in places and times with good schools. As far back as the First World War, black soldiers from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio scored higher on mental tests than white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

During the 1940s, black students in Harlem schools had test scores very similar to those of white working class students on the lower east side of New York. Sometimes the Harlem scores were a little higher or a little lower, but they were never miles behind, the way they are today in many ghetto schools. If blacks could do better back when their opportunities were worse, why can’t today’s ghetto students do better? Perhaps blacks have too many “friends” today.

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JS Mill’s “On Liberty” is about elitism, not freedom. Thanks to Thomas Sowell for pointing this out.

I’m currently studying JS Mill’s serious errors in the formulation of the concept of natural monopoly, on which I’ll put out a blog post in due course. Mill was wrong on a number of other issues as well, and veered towards socialism towards the end of his life.

But this article by Sowell is crucial as it distils the core argument of On Liberty, which is about elitism, not freedom.


Among the many writings of John Stuart Mill, the one most likely to have been read by people living today is On Liberty, and the ideas expressed in it taken as most characteristic of Mill’s philosophy. Yet this small and plainly written work is often profoundly misunderstood.

Although On Liberty has become a symbol invoked against the intrusions of government into people’s personal lives or its stifling of ideas, Mill was unmistakably clear that intrusive government was not the object of his concern in this particular essay. He asserted, “the era of pains and penalties for political discussion has, in our own country, passed away.”1 Even a government press prosecution the year before On Liberty was published “has not” in Mill’s words, “induced me to alter a single word of the text.”2 Various other government restrictions Mill dismissed as “but rags and remnants of persecution.”3 The government was not what Mill feared nor what On Liberty was meant to warn against. It was the social “tyranny of the majority”4 and “the despotism of Custom”5 that he opposed in On Liberty. He said:

In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct; not so much from any just regard for the independence of the individual as from the still subsisting habit of looking on the government as representing an opposite interest to the public.6

What then is the subject of On Liberty? Mill says in the first paragraph of that essay that its subject is “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”7society, not government. Mill declared:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society itself is the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it? Its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandate: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.8

While society’s disapproval is “not usually upheld by such extreme penalties” as government may have at its disposal, there are “fewer means of escape,” with social disapproval “penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”9 Mill says in On Liberty: “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.”10 Admitting that some rules of conduct must be imposed, both by law and by public opinion, Mill nevertheless thought that “the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection.”11 On Liberty argued that individuals should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others.12 This was, however, an asymmetrical principle, as Mill applied it. To say that people should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others is to say that others have no right to express their own opinions or even to quietly shun those whose conduct they disapprove.

This central principle elaborated in On Liberty is asymmetrical in yet another way. It becomes clear, especially in the later parts of On Liberty, that Mill’s special concern is with the effects of public opinion and customs on the intellectual elite. “Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters,”13 he says. Exceptional people should be exempt from the influence of mass public opinion—but mass public opinion should not be exempt from the influence of the intellectual elite. On the contrary, one of the arguments for the exemption of the elite from the social influence of the masses is that this will enable the elite to develop in ways that can then enable them to exert social influence over the masses:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but to commence new practices, and set the examples of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.14

Thus On Liberty, which seems at first to be an argument for being non-judgmental towards individuals in general, turns out to be an argument for a one-way non-judgmental attitude toward special individuals who are to apply social influence on others that others are to refrain from applying to them.

Throughout Mill’s writings over his lifetime, special intellectual elites were depicted as the salvation of society in general and of the masses in particular. Great things could be achieved, Mill said in one of his early writings, “if the superior spirits would but join with each other” for social betterment.15 He called upon the universities to “send forth into society a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”16

According to On Liberty, democracy can rise above mediocrity, only where “the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.17 On Liberty is an argument for the differential treatment of an intellectual elite, cast in the language of greater freedom for all. In this and in Mill’s other writings, it is these elites—“the best and wisest,”18 the “thinking minds,”19 “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”20 “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling”21—that he looked to for the progress of society. What Mill called “the general progress of the human mind” was in reality the special progress of special minds who were to lead others. Even when they lacked the power or influence to carry out this role, the intellectual elite had the duty of “keeping alive the sacred fire in a few minds when we are unable to do more,” as Mill wrote to a friend.22

In short, the excogitated conclusions of the intellectual elite were more or less automatically assumed to be superior to the life experiences of millions, as distilled into social values and customs. The role of the masses was to be taught by their betters and the role of their betters was to be taught by the best. Mill wrote to Harriet Taylor that they must write in order to provide material from which “thinkers, when there are any after us, may nourish themselves & then dilute for other people.”23 As for the masses, Harriet Taylor wrote to Mill that “for the great mass of peoples I think wisdom would be to make the utmost of sensation while they are young enough & then die.”24

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Slavery in the USA was NOT a racist institution. Worth repeating and understanding.

This is an absolutely crucial article by Thomas Sowell, particularly given the talk about “reparations” in the USA. (I’ve make similar comments regarding slavery in the manuscript: The Discovery of Freedom)


One of the many sad signs of our times is that people are not only playing the race card, they are playing the slavery card, which is supposedly the biggest trump of all. At the so-called “million man march” in Washington, poet Maya Angelou rang all the changes on slavery, at a rally billed as forwardlooking and as being about black independence rather than white guilt. Meanwhile, best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza was being denounced in the media for having said that slavery was not a racist institution.

First of all, anyone familiar with the history of slavery around the world knows that its origins go back thousands of years and that slaves and slaveowners were very often of the same race. Those who are ignorant of all this, or who think of slavery in the United States as if it were the only slavery, go ballistic when anyone tells them that this institution was not based on race.

Blacks were not enslaved because they were black, but because they were available at the time. Whites enslaved other whites in Europe for centuries before the first black slave was brought to the Western Hemisphere.

Only late in history were human beings even capable of crossing an ocean to get millions of other human beings of a different race. In the thousands of years before that, not only did Europeans enslave other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans, and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

D’Souza was right. Slavery was not about race. The fact that his critics are ignorant of history is their problem.

What was peculiar about the American situation was not just that slaves and slaveowners were of different races, but that slavery contradicted the whole philosophy of freedom on which the society was founded. If all men were created equal, as the Declaration of Independence said, then blacks had to be depicted as less than men.

While the antebellum South produced a huge volume of apologetic literature trying to justify slavery on racist grounds, no such justification was considered necessary in vast reaches of the world and over vast expanses of time. In most parts of the world, people saw nothing wrong with slavery.

Strange as that seems to us today, a hundred years ago only Western civilization saw anything wrong with slavery. And two hundred years ago, only a minority in the West thought it was wrong.

Africans, Arabs, Asians and others not only maintained slavery long after it was abolished throughout the Western Hemisphere, they resisted all attempts of the West to stamp out slavery in their lands during the age of imperialism. Only the fact that the West had greater firepower and more economic and political clout enabled them to impose the abolition of slavery, as they imposed other Western ideas, on the non-Western world.

Those who talk about slavery as if it were just the enslavement of blacks by whites ignore not only how widespread this institution was and how far back in history it went, they also ignore how recently slavery continued to exist outside of Western civilization.

While slavery was destroyed in the West during the nineteenth century, the struggle to end slavery elsewhere continued well into the twentieth century—and pockets of slavery still exist to this moment in Africa. But there is scarcely a peep about it from black “leaders” in America who thunder about slavery in the past.

If slavery were the real issue, then slavery among flesh-and-blood human beings alive today would arouse far more outcry than past slavery among people who are long dead. The difference is that past slavery can be cashed in for political benefits today, while slavery in North Africa only distracts from these political goals. Worse yet, talking about slavery in Africa would undermine the whole picture of unique white guilt requiring unending reparations.

While the Western world was just as guilty as other civilizations when it came to enslaving people for thousands of years, it was unique only in finally deciding that the whole institution was immoral and should be ended. But this conclusion was by no means universal even in the Western world, however obvious it may seem to us today.

Thousands of free blacks owned slaves in the antebellum South. And, years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, whites as well as blacks were still being bought and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Middle East.

Anyone who wants reparations based on history will have to gerrymander history very carefully. Otherwise, practically everybody would owe reparations to practically everybody else.

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Blacks were almost WIPED OUT from the job market after the minimum wage laws in USA

Thomas Sowell is one of the world’s best economists alive today. His analyses are brilliant – without exception.

I’m particularly interested in his analyses of the completely opposite consequences of bad policies.

E.g. he wrote:

“you will discover that “gun control” laws do not control guns, the government’s “stimulus” spending does not stimulate the economy and that many “compassionate” policies inflict cruel results, such as the destruction of the black family.”

And this he wrote regarding the impact of minimum wage on black unemployment:

EXTRACT from Differential Impact, The Thomas Sowell Reader

The history of black workers in the United States illustrates the point. From the late nineteenth century on through the middle of the twentieth century, the labor force participation rate of American blacks was slightly higher than that of American whites. In other words, blacks were just as employable at the wages they received as whites were at their very different wages. The minimum wage law changed that.

Before federal minimum wage laws were instituted in the 1930s, the black unemployment rate was slightly lower than the white unemployment rate in 1930. But then followed the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938—all of which imposed government-mandated minimum wages, either on a particular sector or more broadly. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which promoted unionization, also tended to price black workers out of jobs, in addition to union rules that kept blacks from jobs by barring them from union membership. The National Industrial Recovery Act raised wage rates in the Southern textile industry by 70 percent in just five months and its impact nationwide was estimated to have cost blacks half a million jobs. While this Act was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was upheld by the High Court and became the major force establishing a national minimum wage. The inflation of the 1940s largely nullified the effect of the Fair Labor Standards Act, until it was amended in 1950 to raise minimum wages to a level that would have some actual effect on current wages.

By 1954, black unemployment rates were double those of whites and have continued to be at that level or higher. Those particularly hard hit by the resulting unemployment have been black teenage males. Even though 1949—the year before a series of minimum wage escalations began—was a recession year, black teenage male unemployment that year was lower than it was to be at any time during the later boom years of the 1960s. The wide gap between the unemployment rates of black and white teenagers dates from the escalation of the minimum wage and the spread of its coverage in the 1950s.

The usual explanations of high unemployment among black teenagers—inexperience, less education, lack of skills, racism—cannot explain their rising unemployment, since all these things were worse during the earlier period when black teenage unemployment was much lower. Taking the more normal year of 1948 as a basis for comparison, black male teenage unemployment then was less than half of what it would be at any time during the decade of the 1960s and less than one-third of what it would be in the 1970s. Unemployment among 16 and 17-year-old black males was no higher than among white males of the same age in 1948.

It was only after a series of minimum wage escalations began that black male teenage unemployment not only skyrocketed but became more than double the unemployment rates among white male teenagers. In the early twenty-first century, the unemployment rate for black teenagers exceeded 30 percent. After the American economy turned down in the wake of the housing and financial crises, unemployment among black teenagers reached 40 percent.

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