November 10, 2021

LibertyLimited Government

The Real Origins of the Fight for Equality

By: Matt Hampton

Depending on what source you hear it from, Glenn Youngkin’s election in Virginia has been praised as a rebuke against teaching ideas related to Critical Race Theory in schools or condemned as a victory for racism. We should take this opportunity to question the assumption that conserving the values of Western Civilization is opposed to the interests of groups who have historically been oppressed by it. 

The Left often says that our society’s culture is fundamentally oppressive, particularly to people such as women and minority groups. They argue that we should take down symbols of our past, they argue for teaching America’s founding in a white supremacist light, and they claim that ideas like individualism, rationalism, and meritocracy perpetuate injustice. These claims just aren’t correct. 

The Right says frequently enough that our society has provided the greatest advances in equal rights in history. Broadly speaking, in surveys that measure racial tolerance and acceptance of gay people, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, and Western Europe come out on top. This is not to say, “You can’t complain about our society unless somewhere else is better,” or that we should ignore past injustices. But bigotry is not the fault of cultural values that certain people argue we should abolish when those same values have actually provided the antidote.

Though it is almost a cliche to urge people to appreciate living in a free country, it’s another thing to recognize that it’s the result of specific cultural norms and values.

The idea that people had inherent rights that did not depend on where they were born in society and could not be arbitrarily violated was a concept that emerged out of European traditions such as English Common Law during the Enlightenment, and then expanded further with the American Revolution. Why the concept of individualism emerged when it did, is debated, but it’s a fact that it developed out of a specific culture. In Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg argues that these ideas originated mainly in England for reasons including a traditional belief in liberty and a history of competing institutions that limited state power. 

These principles were, of course, not consistently applied for a long time. But it was the existence of the principle that “all Men are created equal,” that eventually forced our society to actually follow it. 

It was, for example, the basis for the abolition of slavery.

As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “[The Constitution] will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” And in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it.”

Without these principles, what philosophical motivation for legal equality could there have been?

After abolition, Black Americans continued to fight for their rights to compete on an equal playing field and be protected by the rule of law—but were restricted both by racist mobs and laws that went against Constitutional principles. 

“Except for the brief period of fluid race relations in the North from 1870 to 1890, the state was a major instrument of racial oppression,” wrote William Julius Wilson, a Black sociologist at Harvard University. 

To the degree that they were allowed to compete, capitalism allowed their community to economically improve. The same can be said of numerous other racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant communities, women, and the LGBT community. 

Therefore, it’s both ironic and counterproductive when people who claim to support equality want to tear down the ideas it’s based upon.