Liberation through Commerce
Many newspapers I read in February published articles in honor of Black History Month. In contrast to those who now so stridently advocate more government (i.e., more coercion) as the "solution" to social problems facing blacks, one article about George Washington Carver stood out to me as a sharp contrast. His creative scientific efforts (including developing products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans) benefited blacks as well as many others, without coercion.
With my interest piqued, I started researching Carver, whose efforts were critical to southern economic development. But that soon led me to his connection to Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute he founded and led (they are buried alongside each other on the Tuskegee campus). In Washington's equally inspirational life and his more extensive written work, I discovered a man with a far better understanding of the moral means to success—self-improvement that benefited others as well through voluntary arrangements—than statist proposals others pushed then, and even more push now.
Booker T. Washington, born a slave, was seven when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. At 11, he got his first book and taught himself to read. He thought to "get into a schoolhouse and study . . . would be about the same as getting into paradise." At 16, he went to Hampton Institute in Virginia—500 miles away—with but $1.50 in his pocket, where he attended classes by day and worked nights to earn his room and board. After graduation, Hampton made him an instructor. In 1881, he founded and then led what is now the Tuskegee Institute for years as principal, emphasizing education and an unwavering work ethic.
The most complete freedom compatible with the freedom of others.
--Booker T. Washington
Washington was a tireless educator and advocate of black self-improvement. At Tuskegee, he taught technical skills needed to provide the ability to earn a good living. He pushed the values of individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for enduring moral character as the best means for former slaves, who started with little but the shirts on their backs, to succeed. He encouraged business, industry and entrepreneurship, rather than political agitation, as the most effective foundation for success. He formed the National Negro Business League. He understood and modeled the spirit of capitalism, recognizing that those who serve others best will benefit themselves by doing so.
Washington recognized that for blacks to advance, starting with little but the legacy of government-enforced slavery, coercion on other fronts was not the answer. Instead, that could not be found except in self-improvement and voluntary arrangements. That is because, regardless of past injustices, only voluntary arrangements prevent additional injustices from being committed, and "No question is ever permanently settled until it is settled in the principles of the highest justice."
On the Inadequacy of Coercion
- . . . whenever people act upon the idea that the disadvantage of one man is the good of another, there slavery exists.
- You can't hold a man down in a ditch without staying down in the ditch with him.
- There are two ways of exerting one's strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.
- decide with yourselves whether a race that is thus willing to die for its country, should not be given the highest opportunity to live for its country.
- I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery.
- Slavery presented a problem of destruction; freedom presents one of construction.
- . . . we shall make a fatal error if we yield to the temptation of believing that mere opposition to our wrongs, and the simple utterance of complaint, will take the place of progressive, constructive action, which must constitute the bedrock of all true civilization . . .
- [instead of politics] . . . I would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart.
- I have never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed. I have always had high regard for the man who could tell me how to succeed.
- Each one should remember there is a chance for him.
- no one can degrade us except ourselves . . .
- Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
- Nor shall we permit our grievances overshadow our opportunities.
- I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.
- Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.
- Character, not circumstances, make the man.
- . . . only little men cherish a spirit of hatred.
- I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.
- I believe that any man's life will be filled with constant and unexpected encouragement, if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day . . .
- Success in life is founded upon attention to . . . the every day things nearest to us rather than to the things that are remote and uncommon.
- . . . in a state of freedom, along with the elements of industry there has got to go one other element, and that is the element of intelligence, the element of education.
- . . . freedom, in the broadest and highest sense, has never been a bequest; it has been a conquest.
- One constructive effort in the way of progress does more to blot out discrimination than all the whinings in the world.
On Freedom and Voluntary Arrangements
- . . . the most complete development of each human being can come only through his being permitted to exercise the most complete freedom compatible with the freedom of others.
- Our republic is the outgrowth of the desire for liberty that is natural in every human breast . . . freedom of body, mind, and soul, and the most complete guarantee of the safety of life and property.
- . . . at bottom, the interests of humanity and of the individual are one . . .
- In a state of freedom and enlightenment, [man] renders the highest and most helpful form of service [to others].
- The world cares very little about what a man knows; it is what a man or woman is able to do that counts.
- No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is left long without proper reward.
- No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.
- The individual who can do something that the world wants will, in the end, make his way regardless of race.
- More and more thoughtful students of the race problem are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution.
- ...those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms [of the rich] do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much sufering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises.
In reading Booker T. Washington's words, I found someone who inspired me with both his actions and his character. His emphasis on rejecting coercion of others, and relying instead on self-improvement and voluntary arrangements is exactly what we, as parents, try teach our children today, regardless of race, as we prepare them to make the most of their lives. And despite the fact that it involves hard work and sacrifice (as does every real success), which makes it a message many do not want to hear, it is as true, and as valuable, today as it was during his life.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.