(Washington Post) -- The white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, a city that boasts “diversity makes us stronger,” made a lot of things clear. One of them is that generic solutions to the racial problem — bland affirmations of inclusiveness, tolerance and “free speech” — will no longer work. Indeed, they have never worked, at least not on their own. The problem of discrimination and equality in America has been far more dynamic, operating like an oversized historical game of paper-rock-scissors. And in such a game, throwing the same thing over and over again is never a good idea.
For a long while, we’ve been throwing a lot of “paper.” Liberalism — our paper — preserves our country’s long commitment to contracts. Under liberalism, citizens stand in contract with their government. The government’s job, in turn, has been to enforce contracts between individuals and groups. Truly, when people ask for rights, be they women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, or rights as people of color, they are asking for contract rights. Capitalism, for better and often for worse, is that baked-in to our political system.
Markets didn’t give citizenship its only meaning, to be sure. But the meaning of citizenship in America has remained most real in the commercial possibilities and legal certainties offered by contract. Our “paper” citizenship, thus, inheres in things like the defensible access to employment, ownership and even, at times, the right to kill as a soldier, police officer or property owner. Liberalism’s loftiest promise, in brief, has been the right to own and not be property.
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