Tulsa Under an Economics-of-Politics Lens
By Pierre Lemieux
One hundred years ago today, on May 31 and June 1st, 1921, white mobs descended on a prosperous black enclave of Tulsa, Oklahoma, dubbed “Black Wall Street.” The original purpose was to lynch a black man who was in custody after being accused of raping a white woman. The riots that followed, in which armed black men also (understandably) participated, ended up with hundreds of black residents killed or injured, and the burning and looting of most of the neighborhood (as shown on the feature image of this post, a photograph taken on June 1, 1921). For example, Dr. A.C. Jackson, a nationally renowned surgeon, “was shot dead by the mob, after he walked out of his home with his hands held up.”
A debate is going on in Oklahoma about how public schools taught or should teach the history of this shameful event. The Republican governor recently signed a law that bans the teaching of “critical race theory,” a Marxism-laden interpretation of race conflict. It also restricts all public schools from teachings that make an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex”–which could be looked at as a strange borrowing from woke victimology although, in this case, the victims are indeed children. Some believe that the legislation aims at restricting the teaching of the massacre’s history. Note however that the state’s educational standards already require to teach it from third grade and even encourage starting in second grade. (See Tawnell D. Hobbs, “New Oklahoma Law Sparks Debate Over Teaching About Tulsa Massacre,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2021).
What lessons can the economic analysis of politics suggest on both the intriguing debate and the shameful original event? (The economics of politics studies government action by ordinary people as opposed to angels.) Here are a few reflections.
When the opinions professed by the state (“the state” meaning the whole apparatus of government) aim at the equal protection of all individuals, there is little to object as they correspond to what appears to be the basic function of a non-identitarian state. It is different if the state is ultimately responsible for everything and may thus intervene anywhere. It must then have an official opinion on everything. Except if all citizens share the same opinion, the state’s official opinion “takes sides” (in Anthony de Jasay’s terms), that is, discriminates in favor of some citizens’ opinions and against the opinions of others. But the main problem comes when the state acts on its discriminating opinions, when its actions take sides for some citizens and against others.
It is of course not literally true that the state has an opinion or does things. The state is not a big individual. Even the most dictatorial state is an assemblage of institutions and ultimately of individuals, and what the state thinks or does is the result, often unintended, of the statocrats‘ interactions both among themselves and with their supporting clienteles. This is how public-choice economics generally analyzes the state.
The State of Oklahoma is the same state that, at the time of the Tulsa massacre, by action or inaction, took the side of a faction of citizens, the whites, against another section, the blacks. Many other governments in America did the same. In contradistinction, the normative dimension of the economics of politics à la Buchanan aims to prevent the exploitation of minorities. Regarding the exploitation of blacks in America, the mission has been accomplished (although sequels still remain, aggravated by regulations such as professional licensure and zoning). In 1997, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed by the government of Oklahoma to investigate the massacre. It was not too soon. It sometimes seems, however, that the state-exploited minorities and the state-supported exploiters are actually switching places. Whichever side it takes, group-identity politics remains a recipe for social strife.
Education should arguably be separated from the state, just like religion is. This ideal raises a problem if one also believes, like most classical liberals, that the state should ensure all children a minimum level of education in order that future citizens be not deprived of a minimum of opportunities. But the government is not manned by omniscient angels. In America, divisive politics intervened in matters of education such as whether the theory of evolution should be thought. Many youngsters have likely been handicapped either by bad public schools or by reactionary religious-sectarian schools.
The state’s control of education is an easy propaganda tool. Since the state cannot satisfy everybody, especially when it intervenes everywhere, it will choose whom it better please (to paraphrase de Jasay). It will publicize statist values and the beliefs of its most important clienteles. It is easy to imagine how public education in some American states supported segregationist views. Today, despite the theoretical diversity of the locally-controlled public school system, schools have been cartelized and standardized by teachers’ unions and their supporters in the intellectual and political establishment.
The same discriminatory states that, under the weight of majority opinion, enforced slavery and then Jim Crow laws now tend to enforce opposite preferences, which include affirmative action and the shaming of the descendants of some white exploiters as if to punish a collective sin. This is of course the opposite of the classical-liberal ideal of a state that does not take sides–except in more or less unanimously agreed values such as formal equality and the repression of crime.
In Oklahoma and elsewhere, children seem to have become pawns in a political power game. I would argue that education is a matter of time and gradualism. What purpose can be served by an organized effort to teach third-graders about the Tulsa Race Massacre? Only after receiving some basic education and gaining some understanding of life and its beauty, can a young individual become intellectually capable of dealing with horrors such as the Tulsa massacre, eugenics, the Holocaust, the hundreds of millions of deaths under communism, the internment of Japanese Americans, and, we may fear, the sort of Plantation State that is now being built (see the last chapter of de Jasay’s The State).
Tulsa 100 years ago (the massacre) and Tulsa today (the strange debate) can illuminate a comparison of two major economic theories of politics. On one hand, James Buchanan’s theory of “constitutional political economy” aims at preventing the exploitation, or at least the continuous exploitation, of a minority by the majority. On the other hand, Anthony de Jasay’s theory takes discrimination and exploitation as the essence of politics: for him, taking sides by political authority is the only meaning of governing.