Ugly Emergence

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Munger on Slavery and Racism... Leo Katz on Why the Law is So ...

EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes back favorite guest Michael Munger of Duke University for a complex discussion of slavery and the evolution of racial attitudes in the 19th century American South. Munger argues that white Southerners evolved over time as a way of rationalizing an increasingly unattractive institution. How did white Southerners' attitudes change over time? And how are we to feel about emergent orders with ugly consequences?

As I mentioned earlier this week over at EconLog, this episode is a tough listen. But I learned a lot, and it's really made me think. How about you? As always, we love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with us in the Comments.

1. There's a lot of discussion of the role of incentives in perpetuating slavery. Roberts argues that incentives are not destiny. What does he mean? Don't economists believe that incentives explain behavior? To what extent do the financial incentives of slavery contribute to our understanding?

2. How do the incentives of slaveowners as discussed in this week's episode compare to those of prison ship captains as described in this article from Roberts? Munger notes the slave trade was abolished in the US well before slavery itself. How would the belief system surrounding slavery have emerged had the slave trade continued? To what extent would it be different from the ideology which Munger describes?

3. Roberts is well-known for his appreciation of Adam Smith's invocation of our desire to be lovely. But this week, Roberts notes that there's a dark side to wanting to be lovely. What does he mean by this in the context of this week's episode? Have you witnessed instances of this? How did it affect you?

4. One listener was disappointed that Munger and Roberts failed to discuss the role of government power in maintaining slavery. What role do you think the power of the state played in maintaining the social norms and attitudes that Munger put forward?

5. OK, so here'e the big question of the week...and a stunning instance in which Munger says Hayek is wrong (gasp!)... Is there such a thing as social justice? If so, what is it?

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Michael York writes:

Astoundingly wonderful conversation! One question: if the emergent cultural/social/political order of the ante bellum South was "ugly" and "unattractive" (which, from today's pov is undeniable), then is it possible to say that some emergent economic orders could, at least in principle, be equally "ugly" and "unattractive"?

Rich Schmidt writes:

When I was in grad school many of the students were required to take a diversity course which taught that African Americans could not be racist in this country because they had no power. I found this to be patently ridiculous. I still do for the most part, but Prof. Munger got me thinking about this a little differently by making the distinction that the problem lies with institutional power, not with race, per se.

I will concede that the history of African Americans in the US is unique, but I'm uncomfortable with the notion that it is impossible for African Americans to be racist. By being careless with the definition of racism (i.e., not attaching it to the concept of institutional power) the implication is that only white people are or can be racist. When the notion of institutional power and white "people" gets conflated, all manner of social distress arises.

The notion of institutional power is also blurred in my mind - is President Obama powerless? What about the concept of Affirmative Action, a legally mandated form of discrimination? Does the fact that Affirmative Action is supported by powerful institutions (legislatures and the courts) allowing college administrators to discriminate based on race make it racist? According to the definition, I would say yes.

To borrow from economics, I think racism can be seen in both macro and micro terms. If relational power is a necessary variable, it would seem to me that anyone can be racist if they exercise bigotry in relational decision making (e.g., I go for a job interview and the interviewer dismisses my candidacy because of my skin color or my opinion and my class grade get affected because the professor has a prejudice against me because of my skin color).

I guess my point is that if we let people off the hook by saying they cannot be racist, we may unwittingly be allowing racism to thrive, and a new, equally distressful, emergent order may be in the offing.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
Is there such a thing as social justice?

Yes, much as there is such a thing as vigilante justice. In fact, I would say that, in fact, social justice is just a form of vigilante justice. If we define vigilante justice as:

extrajudicial punishment that is motivated by the nonexistence of law and order or dissatisfaction with justice.

then "social justice" fits the bill perfectly. However, as with vigilante justice, the "dissatisfaction with justice" has no established redress in current law and little basis of agreement between the "social justice warrior" and his/her intended victim with respect to the dissatisfaction part. Rich Schmidt has eloquently summed up just some of the logical and conceptual problems with 'social justice' and the concept of 'institutional racism'.

Social Justice, in practice, is typically based on vague and sweeping generalizations. The idea that one is guilty merely because one gets lumped into a group which has no meaning to oneself (such as "all white people" or "society" or "The West") but only has meaning in the mind of your "accuser" is patently absurd. That one can be held guilty or responsible for the actions of others over which one has absolutely no control is reprehensible enough. That you are guilty just because you merely look like those others in some vague ill-defined way is just beyond the pale. But this is the type of justice preferred by angry mobs quite unconcerned with logic or who did what to whom. To my ear, 'social justice' is synonymous with political 'lynching' by an angry mob.

Allen Jacobs writes:

As fascinating as any one of your Podcasts.

However, there was an economic alternative to slavery, given the economics of the South vs. the North or England: Importing workers, African or otherwise, so that there is a low wage pool to do the labor and thereby generate the wealth from farming, etc. Chinese laborers into California 150 years ago, Migrant laborers into California and Texas 50 years ago, etc. are all such examples that economically accomplish similar results for the landowners. It seems that economically, this could have been the alternative that the country moved toward in 1810-1830 period as an alternative. Instead, the south became locked into slavery in 1825-1835 even more than ever with no alternative.

Just simple economics alone doesn't automatically make the case for the shift. If enough people viewed slavery as an evil in 1820, then it seems like the other alternative could have occurred. Could it really have gone either way in the 1820's? The cheap labor force alternative in ending slavery would eliminate the wealth of slave ownership (e.g. Jefferson's debt issue vs. Washington's extreme wealth in unilaterally getting rid of slaves). However, a cheap ample labor pool still puts most of that wealth in the hands of the landowning factor of production, so I don't really see that being the dominant reason why it went the way it did.

I'm not opposed to economic determinism of ideology with that ideology then supporting or creating the particular institutions. However, I'm not sure I see that there is such a simple economic story here for why this shift to ideological slavery INEVITABLY occurred.


Dave Hamilton writes:

I found this podcast very interesting. Though I too don't agree completely with Professor Munger on who can or cannot be a racist. Although, by his definition I can only be a bigot because I have no power. I think that when Professor Roberts said the dark side of wanting to be lovely he meant that we can delude ourselves into thinking we are lovely when we are not truly being lovely. I like the idea that we should apply the blind test to things supposing we don't know the outcome would we be slave or master if you decision changes then you know there is something wrong in your reasoning.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Responding to question 5: Justice means to give to each what is his due - what he has earned. Social justice has come to mean: to give to some what is due others - essentially the opposite of justice. Justice qualified is injustice.

I think that the inherent problem with the term is that the word "social" implies the collective: "society." We get into trouble when we try to apply justice - which makes sense only on the level of the individual - to collections of individuals, distinguished only by some shared trait.

Greg G writes:

I have often complained about the libertarian tendency to use "emergent order" as a compliment for processes whose results they like without realizing that the fact that an order is emergent doesn't necessarily make it desirable.

The title and text of this EconTalk Extra were an excellent corrective to that tendency. So thanks for that Amy.

I though the podcast itself was one of your best ever. EconTalk tends to shine the most in my opinion when it tackles topics that other people seem to have trouble talking about constructively. No matter how much Michael Munger we get, it's never enough.

Amy Willis writes:

Thanks, Greg G...and @Michael re: ugly emergent economic orders, I think the answer has to be yes, don't you?

And there's NEVER enough Munger, is there???

Tom Coss writes:

What struck me is that in order to reconcile the unreconcilable nature of slavery, slave owners had to fabricate the notion that slaves were "not morally human". As immoral as that sounds, it is as though it was a necessary condition to enable the practice to continue. I suspect the same applied to German concentration camps in WWII.

So why is this any different from the abortion issue today? We are certain that if left to its own devices an embryo attached to the uterine wall of a human will not likely come out a tree or bush, it must come out human does it not? In this sense abortion shares the necessary deceit of other forms of bondage and treachery: first dehumanize the intended victim.

Am I wrong?

Great discussion and outstanding podcast.


SaveyourSelf writes:

5. Is there such a thing as Social Justice?

I interpret this question to mean, “Can Justice be applied to groups?”

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Section II.II.5, Adam Smith writes, “the violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons.”

  • I interpret Smith’s statement to mean: when Justice is violated, someone gets hurt. Justice applies only to positive actions. Lack of action cannot violate Justice. And Justice applies only to, “particular persons”—ie not to groups.
In Section II.II.9, Smith writes, “justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbour.”
  • I believe Smith is saying that Justice is not an active virtue in the way giving to the poor is an active virtue. Justice is more like the absence of action—specifically the absence of actions that hurt others.
Smith’s definition of Justice works tolerably well when considering individuals, though not perfectly. For one thing, the definition assumes a perfect dichotomy—black and white questions. If an action causes harm, it violates Justice. Sounds simple. However, I have heard many times on Econtalk that all decisions involve tradeoffs and, put another way, every decision has opportunity costs. So, probably, decisions about harm are never really black and white either. There are degrees of harm and tradeoffs of harm and there may also be more than one kind of harm possible from a single action. So Justice appears simple in theory but its application in the real world is not simple. Richard Epstein has said something along those lines many times on Econtalk, in his web-lectures, and in his books.

With all that in mind, let’s imagine that Smith might have been wrong—that his definition was too specific. Let us ask the question, ‘What if Justice could apply not only to “particular persons” but also to “groups?”’ Furthermore, let’s split that question into two parallel questions: 1) Can Justice be applied to groups in theory? And 2) Can Justice be applied to groups in practice?

1) Can Justice be applied to groups in theory?

  • Yes, obviously it can. Swap out a specific individual for a specific group performing a specific action, then assess for harm and, presto, you’ve a formula for “Social Justice.”
2) Can Justice be applied to groups in practice?
  • No, it cannot. If the application of Justice is difficult when considering individual actions, how much more complicated is it when applied to groups of people? The comparison between macroeconomics and microeconomics springs to mind immediately, where the degrees of freedom in macro are so numerous as to make data gathering, data manipulation, and true understanding of the data impossible. I think “Social Justice” must be the same. The level of complexity increases in an exponential curve as more people are added to the equation so that, very quickly, the leading edge of the information curve AND the area under the curve both approach infinity. Even with humanity’s irrepressible, irrational confidence—see Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman—surely we must admit we cannot manage infinite amounts of information.
  • A second, equally valid problem is that of substitution. When we ask questions about a group we really don’t care about the group, we care about the individuals that make it up. A “group” is just an artificial object we create to help make an otherwise incalculable amount of information appear somewhat manageable. If the “group” violates Justice and is assessed a penalty it is not the “group” that pays that penalty. It is the individuals in the groups who pay. The “group” is not a substitute for the individuals that make it up. It is something else altogether. It is the same with a “mean” and a “data point” in statistics. A “mean” is not a substitute for a “data point” in a sample. They are categorically different, even though one is derived—in part—from the other.
  • In summary, I think “Social Justice” can exist in theory, but has no practical use in real life. The fact that we even think manipulating “Social Justice” possible is, I think, the end result of a long chain of logic errors including lack of appreciation for the quantity and complexity of information in questions involving multiple individuals and their interactions, irrational confidence in the face of insurmountable ignorance, and an perpetual willingness to substitute variables in and out of equations that are not equivalent while simultaneously pretending that they are—data points with the mean, individuals with the group, theories with real life.

Brett McSweeney writes:

Another great podcast. What a treasure it is, this series!

Regarding the emergence of 'unlovely' orders, we don't need to look past the societies from which the African slaves came from, or perhaps at cultures in pre-Colombian South America. By our standards, these societies were remarkably savage and even evil, and yet they persisted and were stable from generation to generation.

As to determining a set of basic rules defining a 'proper' order: According to whom?

Robert Best writes:

With all the emphasis on the social justice, I want to dilate on the small southern slaveholder. He holds an important position in the economy which is only tenable by use of slave labor. Slaves are his factors of production. There is no room for the ontological argument Russ. If his factors of production are instantly made valueless, he has no means of production. It is impossible to talk of doing the right thing - it makes no sense.

So the institution is reprehensible - and must be destroyed. Is there a way that the Federal Govt could have compensated the South as a transition away from Slavery? I contend that apart from any moralizing, the only way to practically dismantle the institution is through governmental assistance - and by that, I do not mean wanton and utter destruction.

The moralizing is just a sub-plot. Arguably removing the factors of production and terrorizing the land into ruin, the Union introduced much deeper and longer term issues with which we still wrestle. As an analog, consider the French following WWI... facing such pain and suffering, they ignored Wilson's efforts to allow Germany a loss with dignity. You'll recall - and Keynes reflected clearly in 1919 - Germany lost all its factors or production AND was charged with paying reparations. They had no money, could make no money, and owed enormously inflated debts. All of which provided an environment in which radical Nationalism could grow.

Painfully or blindly setting the southern moral responsibility aside, was there a chance for a more equitable solution to the slave issue? ... one where both blacks and whites had more support than to be thrown into a new norm with no economic clout, power or choices.

Respectfully, Bob

Richard Fulmer writes:

Robert Best,
I think that you're right that freeing the slaves and compensating their owners would have been far lest costly - in terms of lives, capital, and good feeling - than was the Civil War. But would such an action have been politically possible?

Would southern whites have agreed to the freeing of the slaves given their fear of them? Would northern whites have agreed given their concern that freed slaves would take their jobs? Would the moral certainty of the southern slaveholders that slavery was a "positive good" or the moral certainty of abolitionists who believed that slavery was an abomination have allowed such a settlement?

In hindsight we know how terribly costly the Civil War was. But at the time, both the North and the South thought the war would be over very quickly and nearly bloodless.

I want to believe that slavery in America could have been ended peacefully as it was elsewhere. Whether it could is something we can never know.

Alan Johnson writes:

Michael Munger's description of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire did not ring true.
In fact, the Slavery Abolition Act was not passed until 1833.
A fund of £25M was set up to purchase the freedom of 800,000 slaves within the British Empire. This was a significant amount of money, representing by one estimate 40% of the Treasury's spending budget.
The slave compensation commission made 46,000 individual payments to the slave owners. A recent on-line publication of this information has caused some embarrassment to certain well known persons.
Although the act was passed in 1833 it took 5 more years for the slaves to be freed.
Alan Johnson.

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