By Amy Willis
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 over at EconLog, this episode is a tough listen. But I learned a lot, and it’s really made me think. How about you?
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?