Why did slavery last so long in the American South? When and how did racism emerge in America? Russ Roberts, Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and host of the podcast, EconTalk, interviews political scientist Michael Munger who provides insights from Locke, Hume, and other great thinkers to answer these questions.
Note: The interview below is a transcript from the Econtalk podcast and was originally published by Russ Roberts. You may find the original here.
Interview: Michael Munger on slavery and the origins of racism in America
Russ Roberts: My guest today is the great Michael Munger of Duke University, making his record-extending, I think, 30th appearance on EconTalk. Mike, welcome back.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Yeah. I was going to say: Which is more meaningful to you?
Michael Munger: I think there’s no question which one.
Russ Roberts: We should interview your wife. I’d like to get her perspective on this, as well.
Michael Munger: That is so never going to happen.
Russ Roberts: 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, [working paper version is here] 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?
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Rules of the game.
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (5:19) 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: They’ll kill us. Right? And just to be blunt about it: They were worried about revenge.
Michael Munger: A combination of mixing of races and social connection and, yes — probably justified revenge.
Russ Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: I went back and checked; and we misquoted it 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 Roberts: No, I was correcting you, politely. I apologize. That’s great.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Yeah. That’s precarious, beyond precarious. 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: It should accrue to the owner, instead.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: So, the point being that the cost of getting rid of slaves goes up dramatically because they are much more productive.
Michael Munger: I don’t want to give the Brits too much credit.
Russ Roberts: What do you mean?
Michael Munger: It’s not clear Britain would have ended slavery in 1830.
Russ Roberts: 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?
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (15:37) 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: And some did. Right?
Michael Munger: George Washington did. Thomas Jefferson did not. There was a big difference in their debt position, and you know, what they left. But I don’t think —
Russ Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Fightin’ words.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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 us to victory in the state championship; 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.
Michael Munger: What a surprising coincidence.
Russ Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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. But 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.
Michael Munger: 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 wanting 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? That’s what you think? And it is. [For a slightly different perspective, here is a letter from a former slave that puts the former slave owner’s grievance in a different light. I found it exhilirating—Russ]
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 Roberts: It’s an extraordinary example of self-deception.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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.’
Michael Munger: 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.’
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 Roberts: Well, strangely enough they didn’t get much of the benefit from it.
Michael Munger: But then, white people looked at them and said, ‘Look how lazy they are.’
Russ Roberts: Yeah. They’re not hard workers.
Michael Munger: ‘Of course they have to be slaves.’
Russ Roberts: (32:55) 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.
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.
Michael Munger: 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.
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 Roberts: A veil of ignorance kind of idea.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Yeah.
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (38:14) 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 [in The Theory of Moral Sentiments]:
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.
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 [Smith] 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.
Michael Munger: 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.
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 Roberts: Planning for themselves.
Michael Munger: 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.’
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.
Russ Roberts: (46:13) 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. 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Well, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. So we don’t know.
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (51:05) 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.
Michael Munger: Not just easier. It made it possible.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Michael Munger: The Roman slaves and indentured servants wouldn’t have served the purpose.
Russ Roberts: 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?
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (58:43) 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. 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.
Michael Munger: Well, in evolutionary terms, we can’t deny.
Russ Roberts: 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?
Michael Munger: 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?
Because usually they don’t. And yet sometimes they do. Now, persuasion is not ‘I got new information.’ That’s, ‘I drive a BMW 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.’
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.
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. 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; 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 Roberts: Which makes you think.
Michael Munger: 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.
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.
Russ Roberts: (1:04:58) 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 [if we kept the government involved] that we just have 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 favor of 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.
Michael Munger: 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 Roberts: Explain.
Michael Munger: 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.
Russ Roberts: (1:09:54 ) 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 —
Michael Munger: Yeah —
Russ Roberts: 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.
Michael Munger: 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?
[Interested readers/listeners may wish to read the superb analysis by David Levy and Sandra Peart of the origins of economics as the “dismal science.” And here are all the interviews of Mike Munger on EconTalk.]
Photo Credit: By Henry P. Moore (Library of Congress (Image page)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons