Sunday, April 22, 2007

So many Americans graduate high school and college having learned what to think as opposed to acquiring the tools of critical, independent thinking. Likewise, they have learned little about our nation’s history. As such, they fall prey to the rhetoric of political charlatans and quacks. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

One of the arguments against international trade is that companies such as Nike and Gap Inc. exploit workers in Third World countries by paying them wages far lower than those that prevail in the U.S. and other developed nations. Are the workers being exploited? It all depends on how you answer the following question: If someone comes along and offers you an opportunity superior to any other that you have, is “exploitation” an appropriate term to describe that offer?

Put more concretely, if a U.S. company pays a Cambodian $3 a day, when his next best opportunity — digging through trash at a nasty dump — yields 75 cents a day, has that company made him worse off or better off? If your answer is “better off,” how can “exploitation” be an appropriate term to describe the transaction?

You say, “It’s exploitation because the worker should have been paid more.” I think George Mason University should pay me more. Is it appropriate to use the term “exploitation” to describe my relationship with George Mason University?

Now let’s turn to history. Condoleezza Rice said, in an October 2003 speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, “When the Founding Fathers said ‘We the People,’ they did not mean me. My ancestors were considered three-fifths of a person.” Though not Miss Rice’s intention, this common misunderstanding of history is often used to discredit the great men who founded our nation — without telling the whole story.

The Founding Fathers struggled over the issue of slavery. George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Patrick Henry and others were highly critical of slavery, describing it as a ” lamentable evil,” “disease of ignorance,” “oppressive dominion” and “an inconsistency not to be excused.”

The delegates at the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention had to negotiate many contentious deal-breaking issues. Slavery was one of them. The Southern states made it clear they wouldn’t vote to ratify the Constitution if it abolished slavery or ended the slave trade. Delegates from slave states wanted slaves counted as whole persons for the purposes of determining representation in Congress. That would have given the South greater political power.

Delegate James Wilson offered a compromise whereby slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining the number of representatives a state had in the House of Representatives. The corresponding compromise was to set 1808 as the year to abolish the slave trade.

There’s little question that slavery is an abomination and a gross violation of human rights, but the Founders had to decide whether there would be a Union. Had morality been their sole guide, the Constitution would have never been ratified and a Union would not have been created.

One question we might ask those who condemn the Founders is whether black Americans would be better off or worse off today with the Northern states having gone their way and the Southern states having gone theirs, and as a consequence no U.S. Constitution and no Union.

Americans’ ignorance of our history and inability to think critically have provided considerable ammunition for those who want to divide us in pursuit of their agenda. I don’t usually buy into conspiracy theories, but it’s tempting to think America’s charlatans, quacks and demagogues are in cahoots with the teaching establishments at our government schools and colleges to dumb down the nation.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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