Everyone has the same rights — even mean people

Published 8:37 am Monday, August 14, 2017


Contributing columnist

We have a constitutional republic because simple democracies have a history of oppressing minorities. The Bill of Rights insures all individual rights are protected from the government and from the democratic majority. The Bill of Rights is the bedrock of liberty in America.

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Groups of citizens have no special legal privileges or rights embedded in the constitution. Should any government — federal, state or local — pass a law or ordinance that favors or targets a group of citizens, that law is unconstitutional. Further, the Bill of Rights prohibits collective punishments, as does the Geneva Convention. Hence, mean people have constitutional rights.

Given the historical context surrounding the foundation of this republic, vesting individuals with rights and specifically excluding any inherited privileges or punishments was a rejection of class-conscious old Europe. The founders were fleeing abusive governments, where aristocracies held legal dominion over common people. Hence, the founders wanted a government where “privileged” groups cannot be sanctioned by law.

Obviously, we did not find the first-best solution to liberty for all at the Constitution’s initial drafting; but, the Constitution is a mechanism through which the country can pursue better solutions.  Pursuit of the optimal has been slow and frequently bloody.  Mistakes have been made; but, those mistakes have been corrected — at considerable cost in some cases. Individual freedom of speech guarantees mistakes can be identified and solutions pursued.  Freedom of speech is essential to the preservation of liberty.

The civil rights movement accomplished two important objectives: It eliminated government-sponsored discrimination, such as the “Jim Crow” laws, and it made overt discrimination socially unacceptable.  This advance was achieved by opening the eyes of most whites to the reality of black life in America at the time.

We have yet to resolve how to deal with private conflicts between individuals that are outside the jurisdiction of the law: It is not illegal to be a mean person; bigots have constitutional rights. They exercise those rights by saying rude things to others. Acting against others is illegal; so, physically trying to stop someone from speaking is illegal.

“Scapegoating” is a favorite tool among dictators and political extremists, such as Robespierre against the aristocracy during the French revolution, Hitler against the Jews, Stalin against the Kulaks, Mao against the counter-revolutionaries in the Cultural Revolution, and Venezuela’s Maduro against the “speculators.” In each case, the people selected for demonization are resented by others in the society. Spite and envy is easily manipulated in times of distress.  The dominant group is led to believe their prosperity has been stolen by the targeted group.

Currently, a difference in average outcomes is asserted to be evidence the favored group is “privileged” and the other group is “oppressed.” So, if whites make more on average than blacks, that is evidence of “white privilege.” This is a gross abuse of statistical method and logic.

The simple average analysis is illogical because it cannot explain why Asians and Jews have higher incomes than whites. Could whites claim Asians have “Asian privilege” and Jews have “Jewish privilege?”

Could anyone seriously claim whites are subject to “systemic racism” by Asians and Jews? Clearly, average Asians and average Jews are more talented and work harder than average whites.

Differences in averages can be due to a complex variety of causes; picking one possible cause to suit your bias is a major error in statistical analysis. The truth can only be sorted out by accounting for all potential explanations in the analysis.

This type of study frequently reverses the explanation suggested by comparing simple averages. Simple differences in average outcomes are meaningless by themselves. They cannot prove systemic discrimination. Finally, statistics can never prove or disprove any proposition; they are simply consistent or inconsistent with the hypothesis.

It is well past time that we have conversations about the apparent differences between average outcomes and what they may or may not imply. This is important because answers to long standing social problems are embedded in those differences.

However, conversation is a constructive exchange of views between multiple parties, not a condescending lecture. If you are offended by other people’s views, a conversation is probably not your cup of tea.  Constructive conversation is not possible if one side demonizes the arguments put forward by the other. The indispensable ingredient in conversations is a sincere intent to listen to and understand what others say.

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.