Liberals, blacks, and Stockholm Syndrome

Recently, the Hispanic-flavored sights and sounds of downtown Bridgeton, New Jersey triggered the recall of a conversation I once had with a black, twenty-something IT professional about race, politics, and racial politics.

My friend is a minority within a minority: a black political conservative (pro-Second Amendment, anti-affirmative action, fiscal and social conservative, et al.).  The real world has taught him that the unintended consequences of many of the programs of the political left do more harm than good, especially to minorities, their putative beneficiaries.     

With the exception of Pearl Street’s Century Bakery’s sweet indulgences, downtown Bridgeton has been an economic wasteland for as long as I can remember (my brother lives nearby).  Recently, however, the town appears to be experiencing a modest comeback, as immigration from Mexico and elsewhere has brought an influx of bodegas and Hispanic-centric businesses in its wake.  

Unfortunately, with the exception of the occasional produce stand, barbeque pit, or barber shop, black-owned businesses are noticeably absent from the mix.  Nor is Bridgeton alone.  From the mean streets of North Philadelphia to Philadelphia’s bucolic suburbs, I’ve often wondered about the excruciatingly slow rate of economic progress among blacks.           

Walter Williams, an economist with George Mason University, has similar questions.  Williams, who grew up black and poor in a Philadelphia public housing project in the 1940s and ’50s, lays much of the blame at the feet of Democrats.    

Originally a member of the political left, Mr. Williams earned his stripes as an economist in the mid-1970s with his research on the effects of minimum-wage law and the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 on youth and minority unemployment.  

The research also changed his political stripes.

Davis-Bacon, which requires high prevailing (read: union) wages on federally financed construction projects, had the unintended effect of freezing black construction workers, most of whom weren’t union members, out of jobs.  But to Democrats and their friends in organized labor, Davis-Bacon remains sacrosanct despite its demonstrably negative economic impact on minorities (and taxpayers as a whole).    

Similarly, Thomas Sowell, another black economist and thorn in the side of the political left, asserts that “open space” crusades by environmental zealots have priced working-class blacks out of liberal enclaves like San Francisco.  Minorities have been forced inland, where housing is cheaper and environmentalists are not as strong politically.  The upshot is that San Francisco and its coastal environs are now overwhelmingly white and liberal.

At street level, critics of licensing requirements for occupations such as cat groomers, bartenders, manicurists, and similar service-sector occupations argue that state and local licensing laws inhibit the entry of low-income, poorly educated, under-capitalized entrepreneurs into entry-level trades; restrict competition; frustrate inter-state mobility; and spawn huge tax-supported bureaucracies.

For example, Wisconsin’s mishmash of local licensing laws includes Christmas tree sellers, jukebox distributors, pawnbrokers, and makeup artists..   

In 2012, the Institute for Justice analyzed roughly 100 of Wisconsin’s low- and middle-income occupations and found that nearly half required licenses approved by state regulators.  On average, job seekers in these industries had to “pay $209 in fees, lose 145 days to education and experience, and take one exam.”

Another study estimated that occupational licensing had prevented the creation of 2.85 million jobs and costs consumers $203 billion every year.

Thankfully, that has begun to change.  The Wisconsin legislature has just passed a bill barring local governments from creating new occupational licenses.  It awaits only Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.

Mr. Williams’s research taught him that you have to evaluate the effects of public policy as opposed to good intentions.  In his 1982 book, The State Against Blacks, he wrote “that laws regulating economic activity are far larger impediments to black progress than racial bigotry and discrimination.”   

It may feel uncomfortable at first, but like my friend, blacks owe it to their own economic self-interest to think (and vote) with their heads rather than with their hearts.