A House Divided Cannot Stand
Riots such as we have not seen in years erupted over the weekend, leaving our country asking questions about what, if anything, can be done to ease fears on the one hand of police oppression and on the other of mob violence. Ironically, the problem that caused this wave of violence—excessive use of police force—also happens to be the first tool for which we reach to make the violence go away.
Thankfully, at least of the time of this writing, there was more damage done to property over the weekend than there was injury of loss of life.
There has been some criticism of police forces for failure to better protect property amid the riots, but it seems as though the decisions of law enforcement not to enter into violent direct conflict with protestors and, at night, rioters, have helped defuse the potentially explosive situation. Of course, small business owners whose businesses were shuttered, damaged, or even destroyed amid these protests will have a different view. They can claim, probably rightly, that their interests were sacrificed for the greater good, that limited resources were deployed to help them in their hour of need. Of course, this is the precisely the perpetual problem that plagues marginalized communities, especially those of color. In a world of limited resources, whether we’re talking about resources for education, nutrition, or public safety, these resources will follow capital formation, and where capital formation does not exist, neither will these desirable aspects of society that many of us are fortunate enough to take for granted.
Systems that foment institutionalized racism or that produce police brutality do not appear overnight and they will not disappear overnight. However, I do not believe that the terrible outcomes of racism and police brutality are the intentional outcomes of limited resources—they are byproducts, not finished products. They are effluence, not inventory. If we maintain our commitment to improving our systems, our economic systems, our political systems and our social systems, we can do better.
While there will always be limits to resources, there is simply nothing that comes close to a free society for providing opportunities for its citizenry. Ideas and skills both create and serve markets, and capital follows, creating more opportunities and more markets. The dynamism of a free capitalist society is almost alchemy in that regard. The pie grows, and the people enjoy the benefits.
However, it is a feature, not a bug, that the pie is not evenly distributed, and there is always terrible conflict at the margin for additional resources. Big business tends to be first in line for everything, whether for tax cuts or PPP loans. That’s because business generates revenue, tax revenue and actual revenue. Rich folks are next in line. Resources become more dear the further down the economic spectrum—and public employees, including police officers, are pretty far down the line.
The incident that sparked this national tragedy has been reported to be that a man may have been in possession of a counterfeit $20 bill. His alleged crime was that he was attempting to create $20 in wealth using a fake bank note. Depending on one’s perspective, this was a criminal act or an act of partly driven out of a desire for survival. Either way, the apparent penalty for the alleged crime was to be smothered in broad daylight by several policemen. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see why this has created such outrage. Such law enforcement just seems like a brutal modern day version of hired guns once employed by the railroad barons in the Old West. It’s not difficult to understand how this is perceived by the marginalized—that they are truly outside the system.
The good news is that a free society welcomes all comers. Anyone with skills or an idea is a welcome addition to the network. The bad news is that not everybody has market skills. Some folks are passing phony $20 bills to get by. And that’s a terrible shame.
There are some corners of society where the oceans of capital available in the world have not yet reached, and it’s easier for us to want to throw rocks at each other or build walls than to create markets and grow the pie. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s not simple. Our freedoms pose questions, but we already have the answers. They are the same answers that have been lifting us out of poverty for generations—education, access to health and nutrition, and capital. All three require investment. And time. We are not each others’ enemy. We are each other’s opportunity.
Most of us recognize that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that a house divided cannot stand. The problem is that that too many of us seem to be locked out of the house altogether.
I believe that capitalism—freedom, really—is still the key.