Joseph Ellis on American Creation and the Founding
Joseph Ellis, of Mt. Holyoke College and author of American Creation, talks about the triumphs and tragedies of the founding of the United States. His goal in the book and in this podcast is to tell a story for grownups...
Stanley Engerman on Slavery
Stanley Engerman of the University of Rochester talks about slavery throughout world history, the role it played (or didn't play) in the Civil War and the incentives facing slaves and slave owners. This is a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation with the...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Tom D.
Aug 22 2016 at 9:46am

I enjoyed this week’s podcast.

People can be immensely creative when trying to construct seemingly rational and sensible arguments to justify immoral and indefensible practices and institutions.

Fortunately, slavery and infanticide are a thing of the past in the West. Can we hope that the practice of forcefully amputating normal, healthy tissue of other people without their consent, also known as circumcision, will go the same way. Every rational argument for the practice has been debunked long ago AND the very premise is immoral.

Aug 22 2016 at 11:22am

Slaves were a mutually beneficial economic arrangement, conquerers’ rights and not being killed.

With capitalism and the free market, though, a slave contributes more working in his own interest. That made slavery obsolete from a market perspective. Capitalism freed the slaves.

There arose alternative arguments for slavery that were certain to lose in the end, but persisted quite a while. That’s part sociology and part madness of crowds.

Stanley Cavell in _The Claim of Reason_ has a good section on slavery and abortion under the topic soul-blindness, starting around p.373 (editions vary), that might offer some insights into what was going on and how they differed.

Ak Mike
Aug 22 2016 at 1:09pm

Another great episode. Just a minor correction to Prof. Roberts’ question about whether the northerners’ abolitionism had any impact on southern moral views of slavery.

In fact, relatively few northerners were abolitionists. The north was opposed to the spread of slavery in the territories and its incursions into the north (e.g. with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act) for reasons of self interest. The northern whites were afraid that they would be put out of business by the slave system. There is a reason that the party formed in 1848 was called the “free soil party” and not the “freedom party.”

Aug 22 2016 at 1:30pm

Dear Russ and Mike,

Once again, you hit the spot; so thank you, and I look forward to next time (soon hopefully!). Your conversations are my favourites among Econtalk podcasts, because they are particularly clear. Here you seem to have hit a fundamental point in Smith: what makes something moral, and why?

Throughout TMS, Smith’s answer is mainly positive, not normative. We can conceive morality only by viewing our actions through the eyes of an imagined impartial spectator, whose judgments we have abstracted, induced as general rules, from observation of ours and others’ judgments. But Smith, as ever, is very cautious: he notes any spectator judges according to fashion, to fortune, to, indeed, custom. He proceeds to defend these peculiarities, and not just from utilitarian grounds.

What do you think Smith’s normative views are, on what ought to give a moral judgment moral force? because TMS does end up being normative, recommending a moral vision, recognizing some moral sentiments as good or bad, as moral or immoral, and ultimately sanctioning the market. And it isn’t an abstract veil of ignorance which, for the most part, justifies this vision.

To me, Smith advocates forming general rules of proper conduct so they are more visible to an impartial spectator, hence can be challenged, criticized. Some actions (prudential, just, beneficent, and self-disciplinary ones), he thinks are *always* approvable hence appropriate. His test seems to be to push back the question ‘does my impartial spectator approve of this?’ on any principle of moral judgment. And he thinks that from custom can emerge some judgments, like Grecian infanticide, founded on indefensible principles. But nonetheless, the spectator’s sanction is and ought to be what makes something morally good.

Why? Isn’t this circular, using an impartial spectator’s pronouncements to justify an impartial spectator’s pronouncements? No. To Smith, only the spectator can penetrate the warping cloak of self-deceit, so possibly set THE standard of Propriety. His argument seems like a local knowledge problem; hence Smith’s absolute hatred of the man of system, and his aversion to abstract thought removed from context (eg that Stoic passage about God, ‘the most sublime philosophy’, and ‘the smallest active duty’)…which inclines me to believe he should be very cautious of abstract thought experiments like the veil of ignorance as a guide to moral practice or moral judgment.

I wonder whether you agree, or otherwise your thoughts on what is Smith’s reason for justifying the impartial spectator as THE standard?

Thank you again for these podcasts.

Joshua Woods
Aug 22 2016 at 3:56pm

A very interesting episode as usual. The discussion about possible demands to reopen the Atlantic slave trade reminded me of a passage in “The Impending Crisis” by David M Potter. I looked it up and there is a very good summary of the attempts by extreme pro slavery advocates to get the Atlantic trade reopened beginning in 1839 and leading up to the civil war. It’s pages 395-401 in my paperback edition if Prof Munger is interested. It had the support of some Southern newspapers but never much popular support, and apparently the need to keep Britain and France onside once the war began killed the idea.

John Alcorn
Aug 22 2016 at 7:08pm

Re: “The fact that you’re raised in this system, where people take [slavery] for granted, where it’s a kind of convention, and they had these justifications, these elaborately worked out justifications, does make you wonder what, 200 years from now, people will look back at our society, and say, How could they have thought that?”

Might most people, 200 years from now, look back at current restrictions on migration, denounce closed borders as apartheid on a global scale by wealthy polities, & expose justifications of closed borders as elaborate self-deceptions (as bias and privilege dressed up as justice)?

Aug 22 2016 at 7:52pm

I very much respect Mr. Munger for acknowledging that he would have probably been pro slavery had he been born into a Southern slave owning family. It takes a lot to admit that because, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

I have been arguing on another (tech community) website about the pay gap between men and women. I pointed out that currently women are far more likely to take time off for childcare, drop out of the workforce, etc. and this is why it makes sense for employers to discriminate and that the solution is a cultural shift in which we consider it acceptable for men to be primary caregivers. I was told that this was “unnatural”.

Sikhism says that we (men, women, different races) all have the same souls. I’m not a Sikh, but I think that their conceptualization is exemplified by the thought experiment proposed in this podcast about how slavery supporters would feel if they were put into a group and some people were randomly selected as slaves and others as slavers.

Luis Pedro Coelho
Aug 23 2016 at 7:29am

Part way through the conversation, both Mike and Russ agree that ending slavery would be expensive, but it should be pointed out that, at the societal level, it’s the other way around: slavery was very expensive.

It’s just that ending slavery would have transferred resources from the slave-owners to the now-free former slaves. Even just considering material gains, the gains to the slaves should outweigh the losses to the slave owners as, on the whole, the labour force becomes more productive and fewer resources are spent on maintaining this costly institution.

This is the argument that led economics to be called the dismal science: ending slavery is more efficient than keeping it.

Michael Munger
Aug 23 2016 at 8:11am

Luis Pedro Coelho: That’s the standard mistake economists make, all right. The idea that there is a thing called “society” is just nonsense. What there is, is a group with guns and political power called “owners” and a larger group with no guns and no political power called “slaves.” Unsurprisingly, all that matters is that the owners vetoed the change, because there is no way they could capture the gains (which are real, mind you) from the transition to an “open access order.” This is the problem that North, Wallis, and Weingast write about in VIOLENCE AND SOCIAL ORDERS ( In other words, you are ignoring basic public choice, in favor of a notion of “society” that denies methodological individualism. I’m not saying slavery was good; it was both morally wrong and economically disastrous. But it was a stable equilibrium, in the absence of military force.

Aug 23 2016 at 10:04am

How jealous am I that we the listeners have only gotten 30 conversations of what must be hundreds between Russ Roberts and Mike Munger!

Toward the end of the conversation Mr. Munger brings up the Rawlsian veil of ignorance as an antidote toward slavery. As I followed his argument: if one did not know whether one would be slave or slaveholder, we behind the veil might scrap the institution of slavery altogether.

Elsewhere Mr. Munger argues that slavery founded on paternalistic racism became the way of slaveholders justifying slavery. Slaves were considered the dependents of the pater familias due to slaves’ incapability to provide for themselves.

These two arguments seem to contradict one another if the slaveholders actually believed in their justification for slavery.

How opaque is the veil of ignorance? Would I take my metaphysical understanding of the world with me behind the veil?

To make it less about slavery (because what I am about to say is horrible): Suppose there are two segments of the population that are going behind the veil of ignorance, children who don’t like eating broccoli and adults who believe that broccoli is good for children. If the adult brings their beliefs behind the veil, then of course they would still support the serving of broccoli to children!. However, if they only bring subjective experiences behind the veil, no person wants to risk being forced to eat broccoli and broccoli eating will be prohibited (or made more comfortable with butter and salt).

In the context of slavery, if slave-owners actually believed that slavery was for the good of the slave, why would they conclude otherwise behind the veil of ignorance even if they were to be a slave?

Aug 23 2016 at 10:53am

On treatment of the Jews and justifications, Vicki Hearne in _Bandit_, taking off from wondering how loose dogs became a public menace in the 80s from loved pets before, writes

“Things have changed: kindness is no longer something that belongs to people, only to lords and societies, like justice, and justice is now the kindness of many of us, which means that concentration camps are an instance of the kindness of our species, of the ways it pays its dues, of the distorted forms of intimacy we buttress with our solemnity and piety. As when Jews were propelled there in part by the arguments produced by the head of the major German humane society of the period, the Tierschutzverein. Hermann Goering by name.

[…]The important fact about Goering and you and me is that we are human. Hannah Arendt’s essay of 1945, “Collective Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” notes that understanding the horror of the Reich is “not aided by speculations about German national character. The murder machine relies entirely upon the normality of jobholders and family-men.” This normality consisted in decencies — care for the security of one’s family, compassion for animals…”

_Bandit_ pp105-106 (varies with edition)

Which is the meaning, by the way, of Arendt’s “Banality of evil.” It’s everyday decencies.

Aug 23 2016 at 11:16am

On Russ’s remark that the selling point for social security is that you get back “quote: your money”, what you get back is an annuity that has the actuarial value of your money.

The insurance against outliving your income is a big benefit.

Aug 23 2016 at 11:21am

Thanks to Dr. Munger for again appearing on the podcast.

My random thoughts:

1. In the Milgram experiments a not insignificant number of people refused to participate in the experiments and refused the orders to continue to harm. They did many variations and when the subject had to actually hold the patient or apply the electrodes themselves the rate of refusal increased dramatically.

2. Racism in this discussion is defined in a very academic way to be near synonymous with “institutional racism” which made the conversation a little more difficult to follow.

3. What kind of mush for brains does someone need to have to oppose gay marriage but upon meeting someone who is homosexual change their standing? That sounds like a bigot to start with (the underlying assumption of such comments the majority of the time), or political expediency.

4. The paternalism of slavery undermined the slaves therefore produced some self-fulfilling characterizations of the slaves. We have a similar phenomenon going on today inner city African-Americans. The paternalism of the state undermines traditional family structure and work incentives which then produces a dysfunctional culture which appears to need lots of extra help. This also inspires bigotry because people who are so undermined will begin to lead in violent crime, fatherlessness, etc and fit the stereotypes of those inclined toward bigotry.

5. What is the greatest evil of our time people will look back on? I doubt its closed borders – no less a libertarian than Richard Epstein thinks open borders is just a wacky non-sensical idea practiced by no one ever. Its hard to predict based on last weeks podcast – all our predictions tend to be myopic reproductions of our own biases. My first bias would be late term abortions because future technology may make the belief that these beings don’t suffer pain and anguish so untenable it will disappear. If society progresses technologically and informationally where self-organization becomes seamless and independance flourishes perhaps we will look back on taxes via the threat of violence and redistribution as the archaic monster of our time. Or maybe a different future sees a collective looking back at the cruelty of free markets as the monster of our time. But based on last week’s podcast its probably something I cannot even conceive because I am so wrapped up in it (maybe closed borders).

6. The Rawlsian veil of ignorance is perfectly wonderful at assessing past follies and moral changes we wish to agitate for. It is completely useless at detecting evils that live among us that we probably participate in for the average person (such as myself). The concept itself is just a jazzed up version of the Golden Rule. There are a few people that applying these ideas can morally reason current evils but for most they will just find a way within the veil to rationalize behavior or current standards. Its no more or less useless than prior appeals to think outside of ourselves and should be as effective as prior efforts. Better is an objective standard that all can look too but there cannot exist such a standard without an outside observer which is in the realm of religion not philosophy or economics.

Russ Roberts
Aug 23 2016 at 3:47pm

Luis Pedro Coelho,

If I said ending slavery was “expensive,” I meant to the slaveholders, which is why they opposed ending it and looked for moral justifications for sustaining it. Of course slavery was also inefficient in the sense that the pie of economic production would be bigger after it was abolished. But that is a very poor reason to eliminate it and I don’t think it was the reason economists favored ending slavery. They opposed slavery for the right reason–it was immoral to enslave a fellow human being. Economists who opposed slavery argued that slaves were capable of making their own decisions. That attitude is what caused economics to be called the dismal science, a fact that we should ever celebrate and remember.

Michael Byrnes
Aug 23 2016 at 9:45pm

Madeleine wrote:

I have been arguing on another (tech community) website about the pay gap between men and women. I pointed out that currently women are far more likely to take time off for childcare, drop out of the workforce, etc. and this is why it makes sense for employers to discriminate and that the solution is a cultural shift in which we consider it acceptable for men to be primary caregivers. I was told that this was “unnatural”.

Have you read Sarah Kliff’s recent feature about the gender wage gap at Vox? She hits basically the same point you have made, but also notes that the size of the gap varies by occupation, with the largest gaps seen in occutpations with traditionally long, inflexible hours (eg, lawyers).

Michael Byrnes
Aug 23 2016 at 9:51pm

DiggletheMoid wrote:

These two arguments seem to contradict one another if the slaveholders actually believed in their justification for slavery.

The eaisest way to resolve this contradiction is to say that one of the following statements is true about the beliefs of the slaveholders:

1. Their argument about the benefits of slavery to slaves is less a belief and more of a rationalization

2.Their belief is a naive one that has not been tested by the prospect of actually having to become a slave

Earl ROdd
Aug 24 2016 at 7:22am

This excellent thought provoking interview discussed why there was no further talk of re-establishing the slave trade given the dominant rationalization of slavery by the 1830’s. What is missing is perhaps the reason why the slave trade was abolished in the first place. The constitution did not mandate that it be abolished in 1808, just that it could be. In Gary Wills book, “Negro President – Jefferson and the Slave Power”, he makes the strong case that given the numbers in congress, abolishing the trade required southern votes. This happened only because the “old” states (e.g. Virginia) had an excess of slaves by this time. The cotton states needed slaves. By abolishing the trade, the price of Virginian (and other states) excess home grown slaves went up as was noted in the talk. So while moral arguments may have motivated many to vote for abolishing the slave trade, it was self-interest in the internal prices that got it passed.

Samuel Blackmer
Aug 24 2016 at 12:29pm

There is a parallel between the trajectory of the slaver argument and today’s abortion argument. What was at one time seen as a necessary evil is today seen as a positive institution by those who advocate for the cause.

20 years ago President Bill Clinton argued abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” today women are encouraged to “shout your abortion”. One has to wonder if we are seeing history repeat itself again… Have we just had our Dred Scott moment?

Aug 24 2016 at 12:50pm

@Michael Byrnes

Thanks! Despite the slightly off-putting format, that’s a really good article. It’s true that women do more chores as well.

I read once that women disproportionately go into geriatric urology. Is it because they like the work? Or is it because it’s a low-stress job with flexible hours and nice pay?

I think we women (a lot like black people) have to overcome this stereotype that we are “naturally” inclined toward one job or another. I’m a programmer and I frequently explain complicated CS things to my female friends, who sometimes have an amazing intuitive grasp of logic and it clicks immediately. They should have been programmers! Instead, they work in bureaucracy and as counselors, they’re miserable (they tell me so, they’re almost all taking antidepressants), and they make on average $35k/year (to my ~$120k). With the current shortages in my field, it is a massive economic waste, the repercussions of which are staggering.

And, you know, women get socially rewarded for going into a secretarial or “caring” profession. For example, mentioning what I do to a guy flirting with me at a bar causes him to run faster than if I mentioned an STD. It would be funny, except we have a technical labor shortage, strains on our welfare system, etc.

Aug 24 2016 at 2:02pm

A really really good episode. Just a shame Mike didn’t go into more detail about the ideology before 1815 so we had something to compare. After all they still had slaves then.

Also would liked to have heard more about the ‘necessary knots’ slaveowners had to tie themselves in as a result of their ideology.

If anyone can recommend a book or further reading on how ideologies evolve to match pragmatic needs, that would be great. Thanks

John Alcorn
Aug 24 2016 at 3:53pm

@ ChrisRH

See Jon Elster, “Transmutations,” chapter 9 in the 2nd edition of his book, Explaining Social Behavior (Cambridge U. Press, 2015). Dr. Elster provides an insightful survey of psychological mechanisms (alchemies of the mind) that reconcile self-interest and the needs for esteem and self-esteem.

@ Kevin

There is wisdom in your random thoughts! You have got me thinking.

Aug 24 2016 at 4:12pm

@John Alcorn – Thanks, will make a note of that book.

Also just want to add that much as I would like it to be true (as a Brit), this statement by Mike is misleading:

“And the reason that the timing is important, is: England by this time has gotten rid of slavery. It’s gotten rid of slaves; it’s gotten rid of the slave trade. And that was 1807, 1808. They were completely done by 1810. ”

Its technically true – within England itself slavery was abolished in 1772, thanks to a legal judgement (similar to the way Gay Marriage passed in the US). And the slave trade was then abolished in 1807. However, slavery itself still existed outside Britain, in the British Empire (primarily in the Caribbean) until 1834. So only then was Britain really ‘completely done’ with slavery.

Jim Lear
Aug 24 2016 at 6:19pm

Munger does a great job of following the money and finds the economic incentives behind the militant rationalization of slavery. Our understanding of so much in the world would expand if this type of analysis were applied more frequently. What were the economic incentives of the Nazis? What were the economic incentives of the Stalinists, industrialists that exploited their workers, etc? Surely we will find in every case of horrible abuse an economic incentive combined with the power of government.

When economic needs are harsh enough to threaten our survival, we may very well kill our neighbors and our infants. The questions of morality obviously lose weight to those desperately trying to survive. It’s not surprising they would still lose some weight in far less desperate situations as well.

David McGrogan
Aug 24 2016 at 6:28pm

Really good episode – one of the top Munger ones, which of course means it is one of the top Econtalk episodes of all.

A little bit of a pedantic quibble which supports Russ’s point – while it is true that most of the subjects ended up killing the stooge in the Milgram experiments, many didn’t. I think I am right in saying it was somewhere in the region of 60% who went through with it. (It has been a long time since I read the study, but it was certainly a long way off 100%.) That means a healthy number rejected authority and did “the right thing”. So it is always possible to buck what psychology (or economic incentives) would seem to suggest is the “natural” or expected behaviour. Incentives aren’t destiny, and nor is psychology.

John Alcorn
Aug 25 2016 at 12:20am

@ Jim Lear

Re: “Surely we will find in every case of horrible abuse an economic incentive combined with the power of government.”

Strong passions, combined with the power of government, can produce horrible abuses.

Surely hatred, much more than economic incentives, fueled the Holocaust. True, personnel in the “bureaucracy of murder” (e.g., Eichmann) were motivated by career ambition or prudence. (See here.) But Hitler and Nazi ideologues, whose wishes generally guided the bureaucracy of murder, were motivated by sheer hatred towards Jews. Seizure of Jewish assets and enslavement of Jews for labor were secondary motives. While the war on the Eastern front hung in the balance, the Nazis diverted major scarce resources (trains, soldiers, skilled personnel, provisions) to hunt, corral, humiliate, and murder Jews across Europe.

‘Follow the money’ is sometimes a good rule of thumb in interpreting history, but a surer one is to follow the passions and the interests (and occasionally the principles!).

Aug 25 2016 at 12:49am

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David Zetland
Aug 25 2016 at 5:02am

Excellent discussion of how people fool themselves.

I’d like to offer Russ an image for his observation on social security’s misplaced objectives: the spork that does neither of its two jobs well. More:

Mark Crankshaw
Aug 25 2016 at 9:42am

@ John Alcorn

Surely hatred, much more than economic incentives, fueled the Holocaust.

But from where did this “hatred” come from? Peel the onion by one more layer and its’ right back to economic interests. Antisemitism in Europe derived from a widespread perception that Jews had economic advantages that non-Jews did not (namely in banking and lending). It also derived from the perception that Jews acted aggressively against the economic interest of non-Jews in significant ways (in Germany, the “stab in the back” allegation). The Nazis played on the economic insecurity (and the long-held economic resentments) of their population very skillfully. It is no coincidence that the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis followed the greatest economic collapse in German history.

I am not arguing about whether these perceptions were accurate or not. They don’t need to be to engender a great deal of “hatred and passion”. These types of “hatreds” invariably stem from an alleged grievance of economic interest. Historically, redressing (or avoiding) economic grievances is a powerful economic incentive to act. This type of “hatred” seems to wane where the economic situation is generally perceived as “good”.

Mark Crankshaw
Aug 25 2016 at 10:27am

@ Jim Lear

Munger does a great job of following the money and finds the economic incentives behind the militant rationalization of slavery.

What wasn’t touched upon as much was the economic incentives providing the rationalization of the “moral” arguments against slavery (as alluded to by Ak Mike, above). In my view, moral arguments are almost invariably a facade that masks a set of economic interests.

It is surely no coincidence that slavery, as an institution, was first prohibited in those very parts of the world where industrialization was most advanced. In those parts of the world that industrialization was absent, so was the “moral” argument against slavery. Where industrialization was most advanced, there was a greater sense of a “working class” economic interest. The champions of the interests of the “working class” clearly saw, and at that time wrote that slavery was antithetical to the economic interests of “the workers of the world”.

When Karl Marx penned the phrase “workers of the world” in 1848, there has long been a sense of a “workers” interest. This advent of that sense of “workers” interest coincides perfectly, in time and place, with the abolitionist movement. England was the most industrialized part of the world in the late 18th century and also the first country to move to abolish slavery. New England was the most industrialized part of the US in 1861 and also the home to the overwhelming majority of abolitionists. If one feels an institution is injurious to ones economic interests, it follows that one may feel inclined to have that institution abolished. I think the “moral outrage” comes later (and perhaps in many cases, I believe that it was completely feigned). Slavery had always been a venal activity, funny how there was no “moral outrage” when there was no economic interest in ending it.

Even today, the standard treatment of the Civil War (particularly the view promulgated by government run schools) is that the Civil War was a “moral crusade” against Slavery. I contend that behind the moral facade lurked a great many economic interests. I also believe in the “golden” rule of War: all wars are about gold.

It is telling that the Civil War began one week after a sweeping tariff bill was passed that the South viewed as economically crippling. At that exact time President Lincoln was profusely adamant that he had no intention to interfere in the “peculiar institution” of the South. Lincoln was pursuing the American System of Henry Clay, that is, high tariffs to protect Northern manufacture thereby denying Southern agricultural interests access to European markets. This system was intolerable economically to the South.

In my view, slavery was a side show issue that could have been resolved peacefully (as it was everywhere else in the world). The economic interests of the North and South clashed to such an extent however, that secession (and hence war since the American system depended on the cheap Southern agricultural products and protected markets that would have been denied that North had the South peaceably seceded) become inevitable.

The Abolitionist movement was politically weak in the North, the Northern Industrialists were preeminent. Guess who made the call to war. Had there not been any economic clash of interests, there would have been no Civil War. On the other hand, even if slavery had been abolished in the 1830’s in the US (as it was in Britain) I strongly believe that, given the extent of the economic clash between North and South, war would have broken out all the same.

don l rudolph
Aug 25 2016 at 1:53pm

I wonder if a future perspective will look at our society and say ‘why didn’t they see how wrong that was.’ I believe the inequity in our society is wrong, and like slavery, many view it as an evil we must live with because we can’t find a solution. Societies like Denmark might view the issue from a different perspective having come further down the road to a solution.

I liked the idea of not knowing what side you would be on when judging a moral question. If all Israeli children went to Palestine to live and all Palestinian children were sent to Israel to live I wonder how that would effect policy decisions in those two states.

Aug 25 2016 at 6:34pm

An excellent podcast this week.

  • Although the focus of the podcast was on how people rationalized immoral positions, I also saw it as an example of how people rationalized uneconomic situations.

    They touched on the fact that Southerners viewed Northern factory workers as worse off than slaves. In fact, since subsistence living was the norm for a great percentage of the population at the time, Southerners may well have been able to hire workers for less (or slightly more) than the cost of feeding, housing, rounding up escapees, and the other expenses of maintaining slaves. The sharecropper transition after the Civil War showed that the plantations could coexist with freed labor (although the living standards of the workers were not much higher).

    We can look around us now and see people rationalizing the minimum wage, socialism, negative interest rates, and more than a few other fairly basic economic principles if it allows them to maintain their ideology and world view.

  • Slavery remains in the world, with the Walk Free Institute’s current estimation of 30M people.
  • Residual racism remains in the US, but it is much diminished due to the work over the past decades of many civil rights heroes. However, that does not mean that there is not what Sowell would call a “rational prejudice” against some urban subcultures.
  • John Alcorn, I think that the recent experiences of experiments in Europe and the US Southwest have put a damper on the theory that all cultures are equal and so open borders should exist. Even Café Hayek has gone quiet on this recently.
  • Michael Munger, Thank you for that eloquent defense of the Second Amendment. I don’t believe that it was touched on in the podcast, but there was a reason that slaves (and free blacks pre and post Civil War) were prohibited for the most part from having guns. This is of course the same reason that all dictatorships prohibit them. Only Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” put it more succinctly, “There are two kinds of people in this world, those with loaded guns and those who dig.”

    I am not so positive that you would have been as surely pro-slavery as you admit as there was a definite (although small) abolitionist faction in the South. I am sure that there was also a larger but not vocal number that were suppressed by the social norm (you know, like conservatives in Hollywood).

    And my memory may be off, but I don’t believe that children of Roman slaves were free. I think that for the reasons that you state they were considered a slightly higher level of slave, as there was an entrenched hierarchy of slaves.

  • Jim Lear, The Nazis and Japanese enslaved millions (only seventy years ago). One reason (besides a eugenics based racism) was that a large part of their population was dedicated to war, leaving construction and other hard labor jobs unfilled. France had a 2M strong army which, after France’s surrender, was mostly enslaved to build defensive battlements. The Holocaust is most notable for the immediate extermination of the too young and too old to work, but millions died in slave labor as well.
  • Mark Crankshaw, Agreed. When asked, most Northerners will say that the Civil War was about slavery, most Southerners will say that it was about state’s rights, it all depends on how you were raised. (For reference, a couple of months ago my son asked me if I wanted to go with him to see “Captain America: The War of Northern Aggression”…)
Jeff W
Aug 26 2016 at 1:56pm

Thank you EconTalk for covering this topic!

Greg G
Aug 27 2016 at 7:58am

Mark Crankshaw,

>—“In my view, slavery was a side show issue that could have been resolved peacefully (as it was everywhere else in the world).”

Independence from England was also eventually resolved peacefully everywhere else in the world where they were wiling to wait long enough.

Does this make you think the American Revolution was a mistake?

Joel W
Aug 27 2016 at 11:45am

The obvious corollary is taxation. Hopefully, in 150 years we ask ourselves how people ever thought that taking poor peoples’ homes was okay because they didn’t pay their taxes. It is morally repugnant!

Mark Crankshaw
Aug 29 2016 at 9:36am

@ GregG

Does this make you think the American Revolution was a mistake?

Absolutely! The United States obviously could have achieved independence peacefully without the cost of war.

Why the rush to war in 1776? In my opinion, the Revolutionary War was manufactured by a mercantile elite that felt unduly constrained by the British parliament (particularly with respect to land speculation). Popular support for independence has been greatly exaggerated (if not made up completely). The likes of Alexander Hamilton greatly admired the British mercantile system, the only problem he had with it was that he (and his fellow aristocrats and wealthy merchant class in the Colonies) weren’t running the system (and collecting the taxes). Lysander Spooner has done a good job outlining this angle.

The overwhelming majority of the population of the US Colonies would have done as well as Canada had there not been a Revolution: which is to say, they would have achieved political autonomy without any bloodshed in relatively short order. The Revolutionary War wasn’t as colossal a blunder as WW I (which set in motion WW II and the Cold War), but it was clearly unnecessary…as most wars, if not all, are. Could say the same of nation states…

Michael Carroll
Aug 29 2016 at 8:58pm

Prof. Munger writes above:

“The idea that there is a thing called ‘society’ is just nonsense. What there is, is a group with guns and political power called ‘owners’ and a larger group with no guns and no political power called ‘slaves.'”

But this is just false. In reality there were three groups: a wealthy group of 30% of white households that owned slaves, 70% of white families that didn’t, and then slaves.

Not all, but almost all, of the rents from slavery went to the slave owning families. Non-slave owning families largely did not benefit from this wealth and arguably were harmed by it (if you assume that slavery is an inefficient way of organizing human production).

So slavery was an emergent order largely perpetuated for the benefit of less than a third of al whites.

Aug 30 2016 at 10:10pm

Tom D. writes:

“I enjoyed this week’s podcast.

People can be immensely creative when trying to construct seemingly rational and sensible arguments to justify immoral and indefensible practices and institutions.

Fortunately, slavery and infanticide are a thing of the past in the West. Can we hope that the practice of forcefully amputating normal, healthy tissue of other people without their consent, also known as circumcision, will go the same way. Every rational argument for the practice has been debunked long ago AND the very premise is immoral. ”

Tom, would you also agree that we need to stop removing perfectly healthy children in early developmental stages from their mothers? The very premise is immoral.

Aug 30 2016 at 10:21pm

don l rudolph writes:

“I wonder if a future perspective will look at our society and say ‘why didn’t they see how wrong that was.’ I believe the inequity in our society is wrong, and like slavery, many view it as an evil we must live with because we can’t find a solution. Societies like Denmark might view the issue from a different perspective having come further down the road to a solution.

I liked the idea of not knowing what side you would be on when judging a moral question. If all Israeli children went to Palestine to live and all Palestinian children were sent to Israel to live I wonder how that would effect policy decisions in those two states.”

Don, that is an interesting question. Would you elaborate on the hypothetical: will the Israeli children have been indoctrinated in violence before they go? Will the Palestinian children? As is obvious, peace would have already existed in that situation if violence hadn’t served the interested of the “leaders” of the Palestinians (Arafat is the most famous example).

Once one side decides to be violent (and remember the Arabs have instigated war first more than once, beginning in the 1940s, after having a few years earlier allied themselves with Hitler), self defense cannot be faulted when engaged by the. And suicide by unilateral disarmament (unilateral meaning without concessions for non-violence by the other side) cannot be expected. Neither of those scenarios is moral, despite what you try to assert.

Aug 30 2016 at 10:24pm

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Robert Swan
Sep 1 2016 at 7:21pm

Another great discussion with Prof. Munger, and interesting comments too. I’ll throw in a few of my scattered thoughts.

Odd that Russ thinks we are in a new age of “tolerance and openness toward — basically everything”. I don’t see it myself. Society (granting that it exists) is every bit as judgmental as in the past; it just points its finger (granting that it has a finger) at different things. E.g. smokers may bask in a warm atmosphere, but it’s hardly one of tolerance. And stories keep cropping up about social media wowsers attacking someone who has earned their disapproval.

The veil of ignorance was an interesting device, a generalisation of the well-known fair division of a cake (you divide, I choose). In a similar vein, when thinking about racial distinctions I like to imagine that, rather than skin colour being different, it’s hair colour. There’s your test. If you are happy describing the one blond in a group as “the blond guy”, should you not be equally happy describing the one negro in a group as “the black guy”? I think Britain is pretty close on that score — America and Australia seem much more uptight.

Don Rudolph: you say that the “inequity in our society is wrong”. Since the definition of “inequity” is “injustice”, that statement is hardly controversial, but I suspect you really meant “inequality”. In that case, I think I disagree, but it depends on how you measure inequality. As I’ve commented in other threads, a heat engine is driven by differences in temperature, an electric motor by differences in electrical potential. It’s the possibility of improving one’s lot that motivates one to make an effort. If, in some Procrustean way, we are all forced to be equal, the resulting heaven’s going to be pretty stagnant.

Sep 6 2016 at 2:12am

Munger: “…if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off. Well, that didn’t work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children–which the old Roman justification would never have allowed.”

The Romans apparently didn’t know this. “…a child born to a slave mother (vernae) automatically became a slave irrespective of who the father was. “

Sep 6 2016 at 2:27am

Russ Roberts: “What [Adam Smith is] saying is these were morally despicable people, taken from the jails of Europe, who then become slave traders and vicious kidnappers and abusers of human beings from Africa.”

This can’t be one of Adam Smith’s finer moments, as it is, as I understand it, plainly inaccurate. Stave trading ships, as with all other trading ships, were generally operated by the prosperous mercantile class, not jail bait. And they generally purchased their slaves in slave markets, rather than kidnapping them themselves. Not to say pirates, etc., didn’t sometimes make a sideline of slave trading, but such were exceptions.

Sep 6 2016 at 3:00am

Munger: “So, I say, ‘I believe this.’ The Veil of Ignorance says, ‘Well, would you believe that if you didn’t know what your position in the society would be?’…. Slavery is obviously a perfect example;…”

Actually, slavery of the type defended in the American South is a perfect example of a moral question where the Veil of Ignorance has no application at all. The assertion of the slavery advocate is that Negro and White are so fundamentally different that it basically impossible to be that ignorant.

Sep 6 2016 at 3:09am

rhhardin: “On Russ’s remark that the selling point for social security is that you get back ‘quote: your money’, what you get back is an annuity that has the actuarial value of your money. The insurance against outliving your income is a big benefit.”

But of course your political power is your only guarantee that you will not outlive your social security payments. Unlike an annuity, where you have a legal claim on the assets of the insurance company, you have no legal claim to anything from Social Security. And the fact that the notional “Trust Fund” is expected to run out of assets should tell you that benefits+overhead have considerably exceeded the actuarial value of contributions.

Dr. Duru
Sep 6 2016 at 12:37pm

Thank you Professors Roberts and Munger for this episode! I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the kind of education not sufficiently delivered in the way Americans learn about our history. When I mentioned in my comments on another podcast that conservatives do not have a language for constructively talking about matters of race. This podcast reminded me that America in general is lacking the tools for honestly discussing this country’s issues with race. So, thanks again!

I would be equally fascinated to hear you expand your theories and observations into the way America (and most other societies) justified denying women the right to vote. I recently stumbled upon some examples of campaign posters that urged men to vote against women’s suffrage. Not only were they offensive, but in this day and age and society, hard to even comprehend.

Michael McConkey
Sep 8 2016 at 3:02pm

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Russ Wood
Sep 12 2016 at 8:48pm

Mike Munger continues to be, after Milton Friedman, my favorite EconTalk guest.

I am not persuaded that there is a meaningful concept in “social justice”. To me, the veil of ignorance test does not get one there.

Please have Prof. Munger on again to discuss what is meant by social justice and how we would know it if we saw it (or its obverse).

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

  • "The Limits of Friendship," by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, October 2014. On Dunbar's Number.
  • Brown v. Board of Education. Wikipedia.
  • Milgram experiment. Wikipedia.
  • America's First Direct Mail Campaign. Postal Museum Blog, July 7, 2010. American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS), 1835 postcard campaign.
  • Slavery. Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States. Encyclopedia article written in the late 1800s on the history and Constitutional matters related to slavery; tangentially about the stances of the emerging Democratic and Republican Parties.
  • Public Choice, by William F. Shughart II. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Present Value, by David Henderson. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • David Hume. Biography. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Douglass North. Biography. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: July 7, 2016.] Russ: My guest is the great Michael Munger of Duke University, making his record-extending, I think, 30th appearance on EconTalk. Mike, welcome back. Guest: It is great to be here. I just had my 30th wedding anniversary two days ago, but of course the 30th appearance on EconTalk is an even bigger event. Russ: Yeah. I was going to say: Which is more meaningful to you? Guest: I think there's no question which one. Russ: We should interview your wife. I'd like to get her perspective on this, as well. Guest: That is so never going to happen. Russ: Our topic for today is a little unusual. We are going to take a look at a paper that you coauthored with Jeffrey Grynaviski that is forthcoming in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, and the paper is called "Reconstructing Racism: Transforming Racial Hierarchy from Necessary Evil into Positive Good." And we are going to use slavery as our jumping off point, but I'm sure we'll get into general issues of ideology and norms. And of course emergent order. So, let's start with racism. How would you define racism, or how do you want to define it for this conversation? Guest: Well, I think generally racism is a combination of bigotry and an institutionally privileged position. So, any person can be a bigot. Racism requires that the sense of racial revulsion that you feel is combined with an ability to impose that institutionally. So, sometimes you'll hear a question, 'Can a black person be racist in the United States?' And by this definition, not very easily. It's the dominant people who control institutions or who make choices about other people's access-- Russ: Rules of the game. Guest: Yeah. So, the way we defined it in this paper was that racism became a substitute justification for slavery. And the reason was, the original justification for slavery, which was the Roman one of wasn't good enough. And so Southerners cast about and found basically an alternative, which was the Greek justification for slavery. And let me just say very briefly what those two are. The one justification for slavery, and it was pretty common in Rome, was that if you lost a battle and were captured, then you might either be killed or kept as a slave. And there is a mutually beneficial exchange, if you will, in the sense that you've already lost. So, me saying, 'I tell you what: I won't kill you if you will agree to act as my slave for the rest of your life. And I may free you; I may not; but that's up to me.' And you say, 'Killed/be a slave: I'm going to go with the slave thing.' But, it meant that some slaves were very excellent. And in Roman society some slaves occupied very high positions, positions of respect. It's just that they made this promise. It was an economic institution. And that was the way that slavery had existed in Africa: if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off. Well, that didn't work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children--which the old Roman justification would never have allowed. You are not going to be a slave if you are born to a slave, because you didn't lose in battle: you would have been free. So, the Southerners needed a different way, so they were looking for the Aristotelian notion of slavery, which is that slaves are people who are either morally inferior or lack the judgment to make independent choices. They are like children or like horses. That means that you actually have a positive-good justification for enslaving them: if I have a thoroughbred horse or a fancy dog, it would be cruel of me to set it loose to let it run around, because it's not capable of taking care of itself. I have obligations to take care of it. My ownership actually gives me obligations. And what's interesting and what this paper is about is how Southerners worked that out between about 1815 and 1835, and started to understand the implications for how they had to change the economic institutions of slavery to match this new ideology that they were creating.
5:19Russ: So, let's, at this point I think it's important to add the caveat that you make in your paper. We're trying to understand in this conversation, and you and your coauthor in the paper are trying to understand how a certain set of views came to be believed. Which is a form of an ideology--in this case, racism. And when you describe something as an explanation, there is a temptation to suggest it was justified or now we understand it. So I think we should say, as you say in the paper--of course it doesn't need to be said, but we'll say it anyway: This is an evil practice of controlling other people's lives that's repugnant and despicable. I just want to get that in. Guest: It's clearly a theft of property rights. It's not consistent with capitalism. And so the [?] Marxist scholars were interested in slavery because they said that it would show how corrupt capitalism is. Capitalism was something that was put on top of this evil institution of slavery. But it is disquieting for someone who, like me, is a defender of markets to see how easily market practices were adapted to work pretty well with the buying and selling of human beings. What we're interested in--I have a previous paper with Jeff Grynaviski where we try to look at the price of slaves over time in the New Orleans slave market--in this paper what we're looking at is how Southerners manage to persuade themselves. I think it's important--that word 'persuade' is important. It's understudied. They persuaded themselves. They actually came to believe that slavery was, first, a necessary evil; and then, later, a positive good: that not only could they not do without it, but that slaves themselves were better off as slaves than they would have been in Africa. Now, it's easy for us to look at this with hindsight and say, 'Oh, come on.' Or, 'They were telling themselves that, but they are evil people.' I think that's a mistake. The fact is--and I actually have talked about this some in class and people are pretty uncomfortable with it; and I am, too; let me just say, I am, too--I think, that if I were born to a slave-owning wealthy family in the South in 1830, 1835, I would have defended slavery. And that's terrible. But, the fact that you are raised in this system where people take it for granted; where it's a kind of convention; and they had these justifications--these elaborately worked-out justifications--does make you wonder what 200 years from now, people will look back at our society and say, 'How could they have thought that?' Russ: I want to stay with that for a minute, because I find it amusing in an ironic and painful way when people say, 'Well, I wouldn't have been like that.' Well, so many were. It was the norm. It was the standard way of looking at the world. But I think, having said that, I think it's important to make the point that across the ocean in England there were moral voices raised against slavery throughout this period. And in the United States, in the South, even among slave owners, there was a deep unease an understanding that this was not ideal. And I think it's important when you say, 'first' versus 'later,' you are talking about a long period of time. So, why don't you explain the 'wolf by the ears' argument for necessary evil and then the transition, and how that transition took place over really over a very long period of time. And then try to give us an idea of why you think that happened. Guest: Well, what's interesting about this, the 'wolf by the ear,' which is from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that slavery was a necessary evil but also thought it was temporary. In another letter he said that these young Virginians have taken in liberty as if with their mother's milk, and that they're not going to put up with it: 'I don't have a choice. What am I going to do? But these young Virginians, they understand that liberty is not consistent with slavery. It will end soon. But not yet.' So, the wolf by the ear had two parts. One is, economically, they didn't think that their economic system could survive without big gangs of labor: first, tobacco and then cotton. The way that these things were farmed required big gangs of cheap labor. But, if they had said, 'Okay, let's suck it up; let's have reparations'--and all the original reparations proposals were not money for slaves, but money for slave owners. It was as if it was a Fifth Amendment taking. So, 'Yes, we'll give up our slaves, but you've got to pay us for them or otherwise it will bankrupt our whole society.' 'All right, even if we solve that problem, what are we going to do with all these people? Because we cannot have free blacks living among us. They will perhaps understand at least some of them will be pretty angry that they've been treated, taken, wrested away from their homeland, kidnapped and forced to work for generations. We can't let them go and keep them here.' So we have two problems. One is economic: We can't do without their labor and it would bankrupt us to get rid of them as slaves. The other is social: We can't have them living here among us-- Russ: They'll kill us. Right? And just to be blunt about it: They were worried about revenge. Guest: A combination of mixing of races and social connection and, yes--probably justified revenge. Russ: I love that image, the wolf by the ears, the idea that you are holding this ferocious creature. That if you let go of it, it will snap you in two; so you are forced to kind of hold on even though it's an unpleasant experience. There's no real option. You can't let go. Guest: I went back and checked; and we misquoted in the paper--and I apologize for that. It's singular. It's 'the wolf by the ear.' Which is even more scary. But that's why it's matters. I'm not trying to correct you. Russ: No, I was correcting you politely. I apologize. That's great. Guest: Jefferson's language is very precise. So, if you have one hand on one of the wolf's ears, you are pretty much running around yelling. Russ: Yeah. That's precarious, beyond precarious.
12:04Russ: So, that's the way it started. It was like, 'Well, we've inherited this institution; we're stuck with it; it's not attractive. It conflicts with our ideals.' And as you point out, many of the Southerners we're talking about were Christians; saw themselves as morally upright people. Yet were stuck with this institution that--the way they justified it themselves--they felt they were stuck, and they couldn't do anything about it. And so it was a lesser-of-two evils kind of argument, in the early days of the country, is what you are suggesting. Guest: Until somewhere around 1815. And the reason that the timing is important, is: England by this time has gotten rid of slavery. It's gotten rid of slaves; it's gotten rid of the slave trade. And that was 1807, 1808. They were completely done by 1810. And that meant that the big increase in the value of slaves, which starts about 1815 and continues through at least 1830--enormous spike in the value of slaves--the British had gotten rid of slavery before that happened. Whereas the Americans dawdled. They disallowed the slave trade in the Constitution starting in 1808. But that just meant slaves were more valuable. The cotton gin, the spinning mule, the jenny--those things that allowed the industrialization of the production of cotton thread and textiles meant that slaves doubled in price, and then doubled again. And the slave's price is the present value of its--the implicit wages that that person is earning over time. So if I have a-- Russ: It should accrue to the owner, instead. Yeah. Guest: It should accrue to the owner. Because it's as if the person were a horse. So, if I rent out a horse, and the horse is strong and is good at work, it's valuable. It's lived for a long time. And, you can teach them blacksmithing. And carpentry. They are enormously valuable. Russ: So, the point being that the cost of getting rid of slaves goes up dramatically because they are much more productive. Guest: I don't want to give the Brits too much credit. Russ: What do you mean? Guest: It's not clear Britain would have ended slavery in 1830. Russ: Right. You are saying they moved at a time when it was relevant. But I think that's unfair. I think in the sense that--I don't know this literature. My suspicion it was very expensive. I'm thinking back to the episode with Leif Wenar when we talked in his Blood Oil episode and in his book, that the British paid a big price. They just said, 'We're not going to have it.' It's morally wrong; it's repugnant; we've got to stop. And they did. And I think it's--obviously it's a cliché, but it's an enormous blot on our history as America that we did not do that, even though it was expensive. Right? Guest: I have to push back from a public choice perspective. The only place that kept slavery was the one that had very large fields and a shortage of labor. England doesn't have that. Now, yes, it was expensive. But you could also say Massachusetts, New York, the Northern states, they got rid of slavery, also. But it wasn't profitable there. So, yes it was costly for Massachusetts to end slavery; but not nearly as costly as it was or would have been for South Carolina and Virginia. I think that's an open question. Now, you're right, it's unfair of me to say England would not have gotten rid of it. But the cost that the South would have paid, particularly without reparations, was basically suicide. There's no way the South could have done it.
15:37Russ: I disagree. I'm going to wear my anti-economist hat here for a minute. It's not an easy hat for me to put on. But I do like to wear it now and then. It's in the back part of the closet, and if I rummage around enough I can find it. It's battered, because stuff's been piled on top of it. But I'm wearing it right now. Which is: I think it's extremely uncomfortable to argue--and I'll let you argue it if you want--but I'm extremely uncomfortable arguing that incentives are destiny. So, we all understand that incentives matter. As economists--that's my economist hat--I'll put it back on for a sec--we all understand that incentives matter. But we also understand they are not destiny. Again, just like many slave owners justified and deceived themselves about the nature of slavery: Others did not. They rose above it. They put their values ahead of their financial interests. And we do that all the time. Now, we understand that--just to take an example, if you find property and you can steal it without anyone noticing--a wallet on the street where no one is around--obviously the more money in the wallet, the harder it is to do the right thing. But that doesn't mean that there will always be people who will steal the wallet. In fact there was just a story in the news yesterday of a cab driver who returned a wallet that I think had $187,000 in it. It's an unusual wallet. Sounds like a social science experiment. But I can't accept the argument that somehow we can't "blame the South" or we understand that they kept, stuck with slavery because it was really valuable. Guest: I didn't mean to say that they weren't blameworthy. Because individual slave owners could have freed their slaves, and chose not to. Russ: And some did. Right? Guest: George Washington did. Thomas Jefferson did not. Russ: Right. Guest: Now, there was a big difference in their debt position, and you know, what they left. But I don't think-- Russ: Hang on. I'm arguing that's an unacceptable moral story. That's an acceptable story as an economist looking in from the outside saying, 'Well, I can understand why Jefferson didn't do it. He had a lot of debt. He didn't want to pass it on to his children.' But the alternative answer is: So what? He didn't live by his principles. He's a failure. On that dimension. Not every dimension, but on that dimension. Guest: No, I think he is a failure, precisely for that reason. So, I blame Jefferson for not acting on what he said were his principles. What I think is interesting is the institutional response to this problem. Because one thing that could have happened is that Southerners could have said, 'You know, this argument really doesn't work. We have to free the slaves, and it doesn't matter how much it costs.' What happened instead was that a lot of very smart people--without having a meeting, without coming up with any sort of conspiracy--concocted a different story. Which by 1835 was basically universally held. That's what our paper is about. I'm not trying to make a moral judgment whether it's right or not. What I'm saying is that it's interesting that as a response to these incentives. So, let me try a different tack on this. I think you are fundamentally a Smithian. And I am fundamentally a Humean. Russ: Fightin' words. Guest: The difference is that David Hume thought that reasons are the slaves of passion. And passions come down to self-interest. We understand self-interest at a very fundamental level. And we are clever people. We can harness our reason in service of those passions and persuade ourselves that what we are doing is actually right. And I was shocked at the cleverness of the arguments that--and these remind me of the things that Nazis did for Jews. And I would put them pretty much at the same moral level of just execrable. But it--once you think--how could someone really have thought that? Once you set yourself the task, like a puzzle: How would we justify slavery? They did an amazingly good job. The real problem with this is--I grew up--I was born in 1958--Brown vs. Education was 1954. And that said that segregation is per se unconstitutional: it doesn't matter if they are equal; they can't be separate. I was going to segregated schools, still, 10 years later. The resistance of Southern elites, because of this concocted ideology about racism, was so deeply ingrained in the South that even today we still are tortured by its legacy. We are still tortured by the legacy of this racist ideology that Southerners created. So, I don't in any way think it's defensible. I think I may be trying to make the case that it's even worse than you're saying. Russ: Well, first, I want to say: I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my high school was integrated because we bused two kids from Roxbury into our lily-white high school--one of whom was the best basketball player in the state. Just by coincidence, who took the state championship; but his name was Ron Lee. He played for the U.S. Olympic team, won a Gold medal, and had a successful career with the Detroit Pistons. Guest: What a surprising coincidence. Russ: Yeah. Just happened. I don't remember who the other person was, but I wonder what his skills were. But that was just the way it turned out. So I certainly can relate to that. But the point of what I'm trying to do here is pull you back from the social scientist perspective. And I just think we have to--I understand the role that incentives play. I understand why a very valuable activity that is morally repugnant gets done anyway by people who think of themselves as good people. Because they self-deceive. That's the Humean in me; and I think the Humean in Smith, actually, because I think he understood that as well. But the point is that I think we want to be careful in saying, 'Well, can you blame them?' And I think you can. You can't blame them in the sense that, saying 'I wouldn't have done that.' But I just think you have to make a judgment. Especially when you know there were other people who went the other way, and who did--and other countries. Now, to say that England--it was cheaper for British slave holders to do without slavery because of the nature of the economy, I totally agree. And I agree as a social scientist, that helps explains and may help us understand why they got rid of slavery, voluntarily, without a civil war or without any kind of violence. But I think you have to be careful in how you talk about it, that's all. Guest: Uh, huh. Well, it is interesting that Britain was able to get rid of it. The United States, maybe because it was not a unified system--it was federal--more or less left it up to the states. Plus, it was built into the Constitution. I really am troubled by the fact that--my knee-jerk reaction is to blame the South and then say, 'I would have done something different.' I'm interested in the, like the Stanley Milgram experiments, the obedience to authority experiments, where people look from the outside at experimental subjects who were asked basically to torture a confederate of the experimenters; and they always did it because authority told them that. So, what I'm interested in, in this paper, is not the individual morality but the authority that comes from having the political consensus and how dangerous that can be. Russ: Okay, well, carry on. I will add that I'm a skeptic about the Milgram experiments. But whether they were reliably done and whether they really what capture what happened--I don't--at the same time, I don't think you need an experiment to understand that people will do heinous things because they think it's acceptable, or because authority tells them it's fine or because someone says 'Go ahead,' who is wearing a uniform, etc. There's no doubt that that's true psychologically. I have no problem with that.
23:45Russ: But let's get back to the--I've taken you way off course. Let's get back to 1815-1835, as this rationale for slavery emerged in the South, that it wasn't just a necessary evil, but rather it was good for everybody. It was good for the slaves, good for the slave owners. Guest: And probably in some ways best for the slaves. If you read letters--and this is something that I found so difficult in a way--and in fact, I have nightmares and when I was working on the paper and looking closely at letters would wake up at night and feel bad about this, because I was developing some sense of sympathy for people who objectively I think are terrible. They are slave owners. But let me give two examples. One is, the letters of George Washington. He would constantly complain about expenses and how expensive slaves were: 'I'm always having to buy them clothes. They are always food, and stuff.' He's a pretty sensible guy, but how could you begrudge that people wanted food and clothing? It cost him--he was treating it--he was a pretty hard-nosed businessman. And, to be fair, he did ultimately keep his promise and free many of his slaves. The second thing in letters that you find, that I find shocking, is 40 years later, 1863, 1864, Yankee Armies--you can tell where my sympathies lie--Northern Armies, I should say, go through the South. And slaves would just flock, follow them. And Southern slave owners would write letters to each other: 'They're so ungrateful. I raised them. All this time I fed them and clothed them. And, first chance they get, they run off.' Really? Russ: Yeah. Guest: That's what you think? And it is. What's disturbing about this is not so much the central institutional problem, the sort of Marxist problem, maybe a Doug North institutional problem where you are trying to match institutions to economic property rights. It's not a rational process. There was something deeply emotional where people convinced themselves that slaves were part of their family. So, what slave owners did was they used a family metaphor. In the case law, if you look at the book by Helen Catterall--it's 5 volumes--cases concerning Negro slavery; and it's all the state supreme court cases about slavery from all the Southern states; and it's just fascinating to read old tort cases. When you look at those cases, there's two threads that run through it. One is that slaves are like children and are not really capable of making good choices. The other is that slaves are like horses and they don't have any moral sensibilities at all. And that's what took over Southern thinking. Once you think that slaves are like children or like horses, then there's other things that you have to rearrange the society in light of that conclusion. So there's all sorts of remarkably irrational things that the South did because they had to accept the logic of 'Slaves can't take care of themselves; that's why we have slaves.' That had mostly happened by 1825, 1828. It was unanimous after 1835. And let me just say briefly: the end on this was the postcard incident, where the American Abolition Society, AAS [American Anti-Slavery Society--Econlib Ed.], sent tens of thousands of postcards to the South advocating abolition. And before, in 1831, the Virginia legislature had held famous debates about whether slavery was okay: it was an open question; it was okay to talk about it. After 1835 the door slammed shut. No more can you question slavery: 'We all agree that slavery is a positive good; it benefits the slaves. They used to live in Africa. They were cannibals. They didn't live for very long. They didn't have health care. They come here, and we treat them well. We feed them, we clothe them, we give them houses. They are way better off than they were in Africa.' And, I realize I'm skipping around a little bit, but one other thing that I want to mention is the work of George Fitzhugh, who I think is the most interesting thinker in all of the South. What George Fitzhugh did--he wrote a book; he wrote several books, Sociology for the South and Cannibals All!--it's a proto-Marxist theory. I think that's the most developed theory that anyone had. You've probably heard the saying, 'Beat him like a rented mule.' Or, you've heard the claim that no one ever washes a rented car. Well, the claim of the South was, there's a moral hazard problem of having wage labor. So, these workers in these Satanic mills of the North, there's a reserve army of the unemployed: I only have to pay them subsistence; I don't care if they starve because there's three more behind them waiting. But, slaves, since I own them--and it's literally a Coasean argument--since I owned them I have a much better reason to take care of them because they are still going to be valuable to me 5 years from now. Whereas if I rent labor, I don't care: that guy can die; I'm just going to pay him just enough to induce him to come work for me. I don't have to provide housing; no health care. Whereas with a slave, if he hurts his leg, I'm going to take care of him. It's a remarkable argument, once you get past how repulsive it is that this is justification for slavery. Russ: It's an extraordinary example of self-deception. Guest: Not absurd. The comparison to rental means it's not absurd. There's enough of a thread there, where the people who wanted to deceive themselves anyway just latched onto it. Russ: I just want to make an analogy I've mentioned before on the program. When people argue that the average person is incapable of investing his or her own money, and therefore we need to have the government do it, because of that, and that's why we need Social Security, say, or some other form of paternalism, they always forget the fact that if you live in a paternalistic society your ability to think for yourself does get degraded. And it does--you have no reason to invest. If you have no excess savings, the government, by taking your earnings and investing them--not investing them--making a promise later that you'll get money back from the government: your actually Social Security money goes out the door to pay another, either a Social Security recipient or other beneficiary of government spending. But, the point being is that if you have no excess savings above and beyond what the government has taken in the form of payroll taxes, you have no incentive to learn how to invest. And so certainly you will appear to an outsider as an ignoramus; rationally so. And similarly, if you are enslaved, your ability to live on your own is going to be very small. Because you have no reason to learn how to do that. And so that interacts with the view that says they are inferior, to say, 'Yeah. I guess they don't know very much. I guess they are inferior.' Guest: Right. Over and over again, you see in letters and newspaper stories: 'Just look. Look how dissolute and lazy and shiftless these black people are.' In fact, you still find this in the 1930s and the 1960s. Well, they are confusing cause and effect. Your analogy is a good one. If I have no reason or ability to have any effect on my investments, I won't know much about investment. You'll look at me and say, 'Well, you don't know anything about investments. We'll have to do it for you. We're obliged to, for your own good.' Russ: Yep. Guest: Well, slaves were "lazy"--and I'm making air quotes--because they were enslaved, they had no ability to make any money from their work. Basically these were labor actions: it was as if they were striking. So, they were trying to get somewhat better working conditions. They were perfectly rational. A lot of them were extremely bright; they were extremely motivated; they were good workers. The fact that they didn't work hard-- Russ: Well, strangely enough they didn't get much of the benefit from it. Guest: But then, white people looked at them and said, 'Look how lazy they are.' Russ: Yeah. They're not hard workers. Guest: 'Of course they have to be slaves.'
32:55Russ: Let's talk a little bit about the emergent nature of this. What's fascinating--I just want to take a step back and take us back to Adam Smith and the whole idea of morality as an emergent order that you and I did a conversation about The Theory of Moral Sentiments and my book on Smith a while back; and we'll put a link up to that. But the idea that civilization emerges, that we don't need top down forces to get people to be honest, to get people to be trustworthy, because there's a natural incentive. If you are honest, trustworthy, you'll be respected by the people around you. And that that is a brake on dishonesty and people exploiting other people. And of course Smith wasn't a fool. He didn't think that worked perfectly; he didn't think that worked all the time. But he understood that there were a set of feedback loops and our desire to be respected by others, that encourages us to do the right thing sometimes--at least not to put ourselves first all the time. We've talked about this many times on the program. I always like to add the point--we call that emergent--that order, a set of norms that emerge--we call that an emergent order. It's something that is not created. It's not designed. It isn't top-down. It's bottom-up, and emerges from the individual choices that we make in interacting with each other; and it's a beautiful thing. But I concede--and this bothers some people--but I concede at the same time that there are many emergent orders that are not attractive. Leaving things alone doesn't always lead to great outcomes. It's not perfect. One obvious example is traffic. Racism is another. You can have a racist society where, if you want to be thought of as lovely by your neighbors, to be respected, you have to be a racist. Otherwise, it's like, 'What's wrong with you? Don't you understand?' And I think what's fabulous about this paper is it's a beautiful example, a tragic example, of how an ideology or a norm emerges and can be sustained. It's not writ on high; it's not legislated. These emotional and intellectual arguments, they just emerge because they were productive: that people found that if they held these views, they were happier. And so they did. And that was great for them, and really horrible for the people they enslaved, because it persisted for another two generations and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths through the Civil War. So it is an incredible example of how an order can emerge that is disgusting. Not lovely. Not delightful. But makes sense to the people who are living through it. Guest: And that's the--the difference, ultimately, between Hume and Smith was that Smith had some more confidence--not that much more: he was actually pretty careful. But he had some more confidence that there were some objective standards that would help us be able to figure out whether, in some objective sense, these norms that we're imposing on each other and trying to live by, ourselves, are actually good. Whereas Hume thought almost anything could happen. And one of the reasons that game theorists are so interested in Hume and Ken Binmore has written a series of books where he tries to formalize Hume's insights on this, is what's called in game theory the folk theorem. And the folk theorem says that if you have a long-term process where people get benefits from cooperating, almost anything can happen. There are all sorts of different arrangements where, if I do it, you do, we each expect the other one to do, they tend to persist. What's interesting about this is what Smith overlaid on top of that. And that is, that we also like to be seen as the sort of person who obeys the rules, because that just intrinsically gets us the respect of other people. And there's work now in philosophy by Gerald Gaus at the University of Arizona and some others; but in particular Gaus, where he is trying to bring back the sort of Kantian concept of public reason. And public reason is a set of things--it's a kind of Rawlsian concept--but it's a set of things that we would all agree on, if we were suitably removed from our own self-interest. Russ: A veil of ignorance kind of idea. Guest: Absolutely a veil of ignorance idea. That's the Rawlsian part of it. But, not exactly Rawlsian, because Rawls thought, and many Rawlsians think that there's one set of things we would all agree on. Gaus doesn't think that. There's a number that we might agree on, but there are some limits of--unlike the Folk Theorem, unlike the sort of [?] almost any convention works, there are some things that we wouldn't do. So what Gaus and I have been arguing about is whether slavery--in fact, the original reason that I wrote this paper was whether this was an emergent project in public reason or not. Which disproves his claim. Because if this could happen, almost anything horrible could happen. Russ: Yeah. Guest: And he still disagrees. It may just have been a particular time in the past. I do think it's interesting that it lasted so long.
38:14Russ: Well, I want to quote Smith, because I think it's important here. I'm going to defend him a little bit. I don't think there's that much difference between Smith and Hume on this. You can disagree with me, after I read the quote, and then make a point. Which is, Smith at one point in The Theory of Moral Sentiments talks about the magnanimity of savage people when they are tortured. And he basically says that they are very stoic. That they can be tormented and tortured physically and they will not show any sign of it; they'll chitchat about it. And Smith finds this very impressive. And then, in particular talking about slavery, says the following. It's a complicated quote but it's so eloquent and so beautiful. What he's going to say in this quote is that it's disgusting that the people in Africa are enslaved by the brutes of Europe, and abused. He says
Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.
What he's saying is these were morally despicable people, taken from the jails of Europe, who then become slave traders and vicious kidnappers and abusers of human beings from Africa. He's saying they do it in a way that the people they are abusing have no respect for them; they have contempt for them. And how horrifying it is that that is the way that the world has turned out, in writing in the middle of the 18th century. And, you know, Smith then goes on to say--and I learned this from Dan Klein, my former colleague at George Mason, the power of this passage--Smith then goes on to give the example of infanticide: that in ancient Greece, infanticide was considered acceptable. And in fact made a similar transition in moral public justification to the one you are talking about for slavery. It started off, 'Well, when you are really hungry and you are really poor and you are near subsistence, you can't sustain a child sometimes anyway. So sometimes you have to put them on the hillside. And it's a brutal, horrible thing to do but you don't have really much of a choice. It's a necessary evil.' But then it becomes, 'Well, you know, it's probably a good thing. Sometimes it's for the best.' And it becomes much softened. And he talks about how even Aristotle and Plato justify it. And Smith is horrified about this. He thinks it's disgusting. And he uses it as an example of how what he calls custom can impose moral decisions on us that are not attractive: that these can emerge even when they are not lovely. And he concedes that this can happen here and there; but he rejects the idea that it can be universal, that these kind of decisions, these morally repugnant decisions, while we might justify what he calls a particular usage--one corner of our society--he says if it was widespread throughout our society we could abuse each other and do immoral things, society would just fall apart. So he views it as an aberration that can happen but can't be common. Guest: Yeah. Right. I wonder if--maybe you can say it won't survive, and that its inconsistencies will eat away at its moral core. But there do seem to be quite a few of those criminals that he talks about: Europe empties its jail--it's a very evocative claim. But what's interesting is the South agreed about that, too--at least the United States agreed about that. Slave trade is terrible; so they got rid of that in 1808. The question is: What should we do about the slaves that we already have? And the transformation of that--slave trade is terrible, but somehow it's okay to have slaves--really seems inconsistent. Then they did this thoroughgoing cleansing of their institutions of anything that contradicted it. So, let me give one example; and I wonder what Smith would think about this example. One of the things that was interesting about slaves--and a lot of people have made this observation--that slavery is inefficient in the sense that people work less hard as slaves, particularly once you take account of the monitoring and enforcement that's required to induce any effort from them. Because nobody is going to work as a slave unless you force them to. That's the definition of slavery. So, suppose I own someone who is a blacksmith; and he'll work as long as I watch him. Or, I can rent him out and let him earn money and buy his own freedom. Now, I, the slave owner, probably am going to prefer the second of those. The slave is certainly going to prefer that. Suppose his market price as a slave is 1000. I can set a market price to him of 1500; and he can earn that, because he'll work harder, he'll earn the money, and he'll give me the $1500. The question is: What did the South think about that? Because it gives the lie to the claim that blacks are incapable of initiative, planning for the future-- Russ: Planning for themselves. Guest: Yeah. So, this guy's really smart and he manages to save enough money to buy himself and his whole family. So he shows up and I own the whole family--his wife, and they have two children--and I've agreed in the past and signed a piece of paper that says 'For $3000, I'll give all of you your freedom.' He shows up with the $3000, and you say, 'You know, I was thinking about this. You're my slave. That money that you earn, that's actually mine. That's not yours. You didn't make that. So, I'm going to take that money. And now how are you going to buy your freedom? Because that money's actually mine.' Well, this happened several times in South Carolina and Georgia. And early on, the courts said: 'Well, you made a promise. So it doesn't matter that you owned him. You said he could go out and earn the money. He's going to work harder. It would be repugnant to the very idea of contract. Even though we all understand that blacks can't sign contracts, promises have to be kept.' 1815, 1818 these self-purchase agreements were honored. They were enforced. By 1821, the courts had realized, 'You know, we can't enforce these, because it destroys the logical underpinning of the whole system.' And so, it meant that those contracts were not allowed. Now, if you're a clever slave, you realize that you can't buy your own freedom, but you can say, 'I tell you what: I'll buy yours, and you buy mine.' By 1826, those were outlawed. So, all of the efficient responses that would have allowed higher productivity and benefit the masters were outlawed in service of this ideology that required people to say, 'I'm a Christian but I own human beings.' That these human beings were not fully moral human beings. So that they stripped away all of the things that all of us recognize would have benefited both the slave and the slave owner, in order to preserve the institution of slavery.
46:13Russ: I want to raise two points, if I can remember them, and let you respond. One is--I'm not going to remember both--but one of them is: If you are right, you'd think there would be some demand for the slave trade to be reinstated. Because if you saw the situation of a slave on an American plantation in South Carolina as being superior to the situation of a native African living without slavery, you think it would be a charitable act, then, to go bring some more of them over here. So I think that's an interesting question of whether that became more common. The other point, I do now remember, is that part of the--maybe this is in your paper--part of the resolute rejection of any opening toward freedom that the South felt was perhaps a result, in part, besides these economic factors and the self-rationalization, was also in part a reaction to the North's relentless drumbeat that it was wrong. So I think there's a digging in of the heels. Guest: Yeah. Russ: But I would like to hear what you think of, first the point about the slave trade. But second, how did people in the South persist in seeing this as a paternal good deed toward the slaves when so many people in the North said otherwise? I guess they said to themselves, 'They just don't know them like we do.' I guess that would be the rationale. Guest: Both of those are good questions. The first one, I've actually looked for, and I haven't found anything. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen. But it does seem like, if you are going to implement this ideological program and become persuaded by it, it's pretty obvious that you would say, 'We should go as missionaries and bring over more slaves. Because we're actually benefiting them.' Now, they may have been worried that it was too expensive, too difficult. I think that's a great question; I don't know the answer to that one. Russ: Well, the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. So we don't know. Yeah. Guest: But still, you'd think there would have been something. And I did look a little bit, although it may just be that I'm not looking in the right places. It's something that you might have thought--newspapers at least would have put up as a trial balloon, because they were trying all sorts of things during the 1830s. Well, the second question that you asked: There's absolutely no doubt that the 1831--two things happened in 1831. One was the Nat Turner Rebellion, which just sent shock waves through the South. Herbert Aptheker, who catalogs Negro slave revolts, 220 slave revolts--if you look through them, almost all of them were labor actions, where they were trying to say, 'Instead of working 14 hours, we want to work 12. We want breaks. And if not, then maybe we'll kill the overseer.' These weren't really revolts. Nat Turner was a real revolt. And the South tried to suppress information about it. But in some counties, the whites were outnumbered by blacks 10 to 1. And if there was a servile revolution--any attempt to foment servile revolution was treason of the worst sort. And the South saw the North as trying to do this. Also in 1831 was the debates in the Virginia legislature which seemed to legitimate asking questions about whether slavery even could be justified. So those two things unsettled Southern elites so much that there were newspaper campaigns saying 'We have to prevent anyone from asking these sorts of questions.' And then the cherry on top was the extremely ill-advised attempt by the American Abolition Society in 1835 to send tens of thousands of postcards and abolition newspapers, through the Postal Service, that were then distributed in the slave states. There were giant bonfires and riots in protest to this. So anyone who even privately might have a sense, 'You know, maybe this slavery thing isn't so good'--if they said it, they would be beaten. They would not be lovely. They would be ostracized. So, some of them, if you freed your slaves, you had to go north, because you were contributing to the problem. Free blacks were perceived as being dangerous because they had guns. They would be the conduit for servile revolution to start and be perpetuated. So, 1835, that postcard campaign, is what, in my mind ended any legitimacy for discussion whether slavery might be ended in the South.
51:05Russ: Let's look at some other related ideologies. And one thing we haven't talked about, we're two white people talking about this, but--skin color. It would have been an interesting case if this had just been white slaves. Which, of course, there are white slaves in history. The fact that they were a different color of skin I think made it much easier for people to be judgmental and to hold racist views. Guest: Not just easier. It made it possible. Russ: Yeah. Guest: The Roman slaves and indentured servants wouldn't have served the purpose. Russ: So, I just--I want you to talk generally about how either fear or disdain or hatred of the other, whether it's skin color, religion, sex--this is a pervasive phenomenon in history. Is it serving similar purposes historically to the ones you are attributing to racism in the South in the early 19th century? Guest: I think the answer to this is rather long. And it's a bit speculative. But it's something that really interests me. Our minds are evolved to live in clans whose size is governed by Dunbar's Number. So, something like 150. And that's the number of people we can actually have individual relations with that we know that we know we can trust. Some anthropologists have speculated that one of the reasons that one of the reasons humans have such sharp vision and big brains is that we can detect dissembling: we are looking to figure out whether someone is lying. So, we have cultural shibboleths that allow us to say we are part of the same group. Now, it's true that race is something that is socially constructed. But, having something as obvious as skin color as a way--reduces the cost of me having these views. So, we are not constructed psychologically to live in big groups and be able to trust other people automatically. One of the reasons that markets are so important is they reduce the transactions cost of trusting. As Smith said, the extent of the market is what limits division of labor. 'Extent of the market' means that we have to evolve other institutions, though. It's not just something that gets bigger. We have to have ways of having distributed trust. And those are really expensive. Those are really hard to do. Race is a very convenient one. And as long as you are on the winning side and you can construct--that's why racism is so important and so different from bigotry: we've come full circle. Racism is a set of institutions that allow me to use some feature--real or imagined; it may be entirely socially constructed. So, Dr. Seuss has this thing about the Zaxes, I think. Some of them have stars on [?] and some of them don't. They are identical but some of them have stars on their chest. And it's a story of racism. And then it turns out that several of them have stars and it was unexpected: they didn't have the features that they thought; people became confused. They were no longer sure that it meant what they thought it did. It's easy for us to fall into--because of the way our brains are constructed--this 'us versus them'. Smith talks about how psychologically we cooperate; we want to be lovely. There's a dark side to that, and that is: We want to be lovely to the people that we care about. And if basically we deny social standing--and that's what racism is about: Deny social standing. You don't count. You don't count in the society. If you don't like me, it's okay. I don't care whether I'm lovely to you or not. Russ: So I guess--the standard view is that--in authoritarian states, run by dictators and occasionally by democratically elected demagogues who often head toward dictatorship--they use fear of the other, and disdain for the other, as a way to unify the population. This is more of a top-down formulation of racism or of ideology. Guest: Sure. They are taking advantage of this residual brain architecture that comes from the fact that we grew up in small places. So it can be exploited. Napoleon said, 'My great military genius is that I can make men die for little pieces of ribbon.' Russ: Yeah. Exactly. And I guess we have gone, culturally in America: at least I used to think--I'm not so confident now, but I felt that over the last 25, 30 years in many dimensions we have gone to a very, very different ideological norm of egalitarianism: of tolerance and openness toward--basically everything--much less judgmental about a whole variety of either endowments that we have such as skin color or choices that we make in terms of lifestyle. And the prejudices may still persist because of that brain architecture you are talking about. But culturally it, in many circles--not all, and we are seeing a backlash against it right now--it's just considered totally inappropriate. To judge people by any of these factors. And I think it's just an extraordinary time in human history to wonder whether that is just a veneer or whether that is sustainable. And, you know, I think for a lot of people, a lot of post-moderns--we are entering a new world where we are all equal; no one is judged; and we are all going to sit around the campfire and sing folk songs. But there's a darker side of us that remains. And I think can be exploited. And civilization may not be quite as resilient as we sometimes think it is. Guest: And paradoxically, the reaction of many people who believe that to someone who doesn't believe it is to ostracize and exclude them and to accuse them of being terrible people. So, there is still an out group. And that is someone who doesn't immediately agree with every single part of that program. So, it is interesting that we have managed to get rid of much of what was sort of accepted, the differences between women and men, differences between races, differences between sexual orientation. It's no longer acceptable to discriminate on those bases in many sorts of societies. But, anyone who is seen to do that is immediately ostracized. So, I'm not sure that we're that good at discriminating. The problem is that when I see someone violate what I think are the norms, by body is suffused with a cocktail of chemicals. I emotionally provide the norm of enforcement of the rules. And even if the rules are different, I still have that emotional response: we're no longer using reason. And the reason is still a slave of the passions. I'm going to make a kind of Humean point here.
58:43Russ: Yeah. I'd extend that, because I think--I'm certainly in agreement with that. And as I said, I think Smith in many ways was also. I think Smith recognized that we self-deceive. But I think it is a fascinating thing, that we see ourselves as civilized. We see ourselves as post--post-modern is maybe not the right word. I don't know what the right word is--post-heathen, post-savage. We see ourselves, ironically, as I think a different species than the people we were talking about in 1850. They were primitive. Guest: Yeah. Russ: They had these views. And I think--it's an unanswerable question but there's the possibility that deep down, we probably haven't changed at all. Guest: Well, in evolutionary terms, we can't deny. Russ: Yeah--we can't have. So, is culture that powerful in imposing costs on me? Again, coming back to the Smithian--the cultural feedback loops that I think sustain our civilization, sustain our norms. We want the approval of the people around us, a certain set of things become morally acceptable. And so we grasp onto those. And then they become not acceptable. In which case, we change over time. And so, now, in the South--or the North--racism, over-racism is considered socially unacceptable. But, are we really any different than we were back then? Guest: Right. And if we are, is it just a result of culturally knowing that I'm not allowed to say this? Maybe we still construct in group and out group--what we're bound to. That's just unavoidable. And the psychologists who point out that these are socially constructed I think underestimate their potency, nonetheless. The fact they are socially constructed doesn't mean that we don't use them every day to make judgments. And saying you shouldn't do that is not as good--and this is why I am interested in the problem of persuasion. I think the great, unanswered, understudied problem in the social sciences is persuasion. And Doug North, one of my dissertation advisers, always put it this way: Why is it that people never change their mind until they do? Russ: Yeah. Guest: Because usually they don't. And yet sometimes they do. Now, persuasion is not 'I got new information.' That's, 'I drive a BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) and I hear that a Toyota is better.' All right. I didn't change my mind. I got new information. I have the same preferences. Persuasion means I actually changed something that I believe. And it doesn't happen very often. But: Did Southern racists change their mind? There are old people now who--George Wallace ended up being quite popular among African Americans, after he had been a racist, in the schoolhouse door, he ended up saying, 'Yeah, I was wrong about all that.' So a number of people who had been segregationists said, 'I don't know what I was thinking.' And I don't think it was just instrumental. Many people have said they are opposed to gay marriage; they get to know a gay person and they say, 'Well, I don't know what I was thinking.' So, we are in a period when many people are changing their minds about social constructions that seemed hard. But these institutions are not hard like steel. They are hard like glass. They shatter. They break. And when they break, they are not there any more. They are completely gone. And so the--I think we need to think more about persuasion. It's not an accumulation of information. It's something else that we don't understand very well. And that's one of the things that social scientists--and economists--should work more on: How are we constrained by our moral beliefs? To what extent are our moral beliefs part of our objective? And that's why I'm interested. There's one more point that I had wanted to bring up that I think is related. You had mentioned earlier about the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. And there's some debate about who came up with this first. And John Tomasi recently pointed out that Hayek had said something quite like it. I found, I think, the first instance of the use of a veil of ignorance. And notice that the veil of ignorance is a challenge about persuasion. Russ: Yeah. Guest: So, I say, 'I believe this.' The Veil of Ignorance says, 'Well, would you believe that if you didn't know what your position in the society would be?' Russ: Right. Guest: Slavery is obviously a perfect example; and it was the Baron Montesquieu, in Spirit of the Laws in 1748, which is a very long time ago--and we'll put up a link to the actual passage in Spirit of the Laws. But basically what Montesquieu asked was this: 'We always hear people talking about how great slavery is. And you say, well, slavery is beneficial to you and it's beneficial to the slaves; but it's mostly slave owners who say stuff like that.' Russ: Which makes you think. Guest: Well, suppose we all go into a room. And when we come out, some of us are going to be slaves, and some won't. Now, do you still believe in slavery? And if that's then standard, then okay. But otherwise I'm not persuaded that this is really a moral argument about how we should live our lives. And so, what's interesting is: there are these conventions. And then there are these challenges. And I think Rawls deserves credit for having said, 'Here's a standard that it would have to pass.' Gerry Gaus and the people who want to work on public reason deserve credit for saying, 'Here's a standard that it would have to pass.' I don't know we're going to end up believing. But if you think 'Yes,' then in order for you to persuade anyone else that it's actually just, it would have to pass these sorts of tests. It's not exactly the same thing as understanding persuasion. But it is a way of problematizing the conventions that come down to us that we just accept because they are traditions.
1:04:58Russ: I think it's a really deep point. I think those of us who like free markets, free trade, we're against government intervention of various kinds--I think we have to use that veil of ignorance. And when I hear people talk about, 'You know, we need to privatize Social Security because you'd make more money'--well, you'd make more money, the person typically on the website, but there are other people being subsidized by the current system and they wouldn't make more money. They'd actually lose a lot of money. You might argue that's just, but please don't pretend everybody's going to be better off if we get rid of Social Security. We might be, but that's a very different argument than saying, 'If you had your money to invest for yourself, you'd do better than the government.' Because the government system, which, they don't invest--they use a pay-as-you-go system--has a built in redistributive aspect to it that helps poor people. And that's--one of my many complaints about Social Security is that that should be transparent. My preference would be that we just had a program that helped old people that are poor; and we could see what was really happening. But the way it's done now, it's a pretend system that says 'You pay into it and you get back "Your money,"' which is a lie. So, when you make this justification that Social Security is good because you make more money, I think that's a totally unacceptable social justification. So, when you make an argument that we should have private schools, no government schools, you have to make the argument, if you are a non-poor person making that argument--as I am blessed to be--I have to make the argument that it's good for poor people. It's not just good for rich people who can avoid the tax burden of redistribution, etc. You can justify it--at least that's the way I think it ought to be. And when we talk about the potential for capitalism to let people flourish, you have to have an argument for why a market system will let more people flourish, or different people flourish, or there'll be more flourishing. You can't just say, 'Well, it's good for me.' Because it is good for me. The current system. And I think one should always be aware of one's own prejudices in sustaining it. So, I'm really coming horribly full circle here. I'm suggesting that we have to be careful that we don't act like slave owners and say, 'Well, it's good for everybody.' And people on the Left, who are worried about free trade will often say, to me and to others, like me, 'Well, it's easy for you to say. You don't have to compete with foreign professors.' But, of course, we do. And I wish we had to compete more with them--at least I say that. Do I really believe it? That would be the test of my claim. Guest: You might very well--the advantage of the veil of ignorance, actually, is you are taking yourself out of your self-interest as a professor and saying: What's going to be mostly better for the system. So, using the veil of ignorance approach you are actually more likely to favor competition with foreign professors. Whereas I'm clever enough to come up with reasons why maybe we shouldn't do that because I know that maybe I'm going to be a professor. The general question: you are coming dangerous close to a heresy here, and I want to ask. You don't have to answer. I'll answer first. But, I'm worried that you are a heretic, like I am. Is there such a thing as social justice? Hayek said No. I think, Yes. Russ: Explain. Guest: Well, there are institutions that we can judge about their performance behind the veil of ignorance, or, as Montesquieu talks about slavery, separate from individual acts. And the test is that: Does it satisfy the test that if I didn't know what my position in the society was, I would say, 'Yes.' That's the sort of society that produces a set of outcomes that I think are consistent with justice. Now, it may still be true that there's no way of getting there; it's not obvious whether redistribution is just because of the other-side problems that it causes. But I don't think that social justice is a nonsense concept. Hayek said it was like a moral stone. But that's one of the reasons that I write for bleeding heart libertarians. I actually think that our side--whatever that means--should take the problem of social justice a little more seriously. And that's one of the reasons that I'm so interested in this appalling institution of slavery--was that it was constructed by people who themselves were interested in justice. And who made a defense that, when you look at its complexity and the logic of its construction, is actually pretty hard to attack directly if you grant the premises.
1:09:54Russ: Yeah, I don't know how I think about that. I have to chew on that. I haven't read that Hayek piece in a long time. I certainly am sympathetic to your argument that we can view certain institutions or certain rules or certain norms as just or not. And I do think--the part about this conversation that we've stumbled on which I love is forcing yourself to use the veil of ignorance to, if I may mix metaphors here, to merge with the impartial spectator-- Guest: Yeah-- Russ: This idea that: try to take out your own self-interest; try to take out your own prejudices, your own upbringing, your own set of values you've absorbed in a thousand ways that you think you've come to because of reason but a lot of it has nothing to do with reason and you have to, one has to concede that. I just would say, in closing that--and I've made this point before but I think it's an incredibly important point--we live in a very mixed system in the United States right now, economically. There's some free market elements. There's some socialist elements. There's some, lots of top down. Still many things that are bottom up. And when government messes up, you know, it has a cost. But the fact is, I have a very good life. And I think it's--when people complain about, say, the President of the United States, whether you are on the Left or the Right doesn't matter. People complain, 'The country is going down the tubes. It's horrible.' Well, for a lot of people it's actually quite good. And to some extent, I think the pessimism people have is misplaced because we've misinterpreted some of the data. So, you know, for a lot of people, it's really good. And there are a lot of bad things that could happen that would still allow me to have a decent life in terms of my ability to express myself, my ability to use my talent, my ability to dream, my ability to create. Those are things I value deeply. And I think my children are in a position where they'll be able to do that, too, because of the many gifts and advantages that they have over other people. And, I'm not worried about them. When I worry about government intervention, I'm worried about the kids who are not getting a good education, who have horrible home neighborhood environments that are violent and dangerous and disturbing. And I think, those are the people we should always be worried about. So that's the sense in which I guess that's the social justice side of me. And I think certainly rhetorically if not in reality--and I do think it's real--those are the people we should care the most about. Guest: I think that's a brilliant formulation. It's really interesting that most of the time we can probably rely on the impartial spectator. But you might want to ask yourself, now and then, does this pass the more abstract test of the veil of ignorance? Because then I'm actually putting myself in the position of people I might not have contact with very much. I wish I had said this, because I think what you said is exactly right: the reason I was interested in studying slavery in this way, is, I think many Southern elites managed to persuade their impartial spectator that this was okay by avoiding the logic of the veil of ignorance. And I worry that we are all capable of doing that. So, the way that you put it is a terrific way of understanding: The check that we might have. We should usually be confident about the impartial spectator. But sometimes you may want to ask yourself: What if things were different?