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Russ Roberts talks with Mike Munger about slavery and racism


Devoted readers may recall my earlier suggestion to listen to the Econtalk podcast. A recent episode featuring Duke University Political Scientist, and frequent Econtalk guest, Mike Munger is a good reason why.

Host Russ Roberts and Munger discuss the, understandably, emotionally charged issue of slavery and the ways in which slave owners in the American south attempted to rationalise their own “peculiar institution”, as Southerners dubbed the practice, and how justifications on a moral basis “emerged” as  ideological balast for slavery not solely as a necessary evil needed to economically support slave owners (of course, that would still be wrong) but as a moral practice for the betterment of slaves. The starting off point for the conversation is a paper published by Munger, along with Jeffrey Grynaviski,  in which the authors note a price spike for slaves in the mid 1830s suggesting which, he supposes, may have suggested a belief in slave owners that abolition had become less likely.

What’s interesting about this is Munger, supposing (and this sounds plausible to me) that public opinion is shaped by elite discourse, notes a shift in elite discourse from an openness to abolition to more resolute defences of slavery on the part of the elites. The Virginian born George Washington (1732-1799), for example,  argued for the gradual abolition of slavery and provided in his will for the manumission (a legal procedure freeing slaves from their bondage) of all his slaves. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), although he only ever manumitted two of his slaves, also argued for gradual abolition. Munger and Grynaviski quote from other opinion shapers of the time who, before 1830, argued slavery would eventually be abolished. They also note that the Virginia legislature considered legislation to free slaves in 1831 but, as this entry notes, attitudes hardened after those proposals were rejected.

Slavery, viewed from the comfort of a modern tolerant and developed country, is a hard thing to understand. Our first inclination is to deride all slave owners as simply evil and, therefore, impossible to understand.  I think the institution itself, the buying and selling of flesh and blood human beings was, and is, utterly evil but the challenging part of the conversation comes when Roberts and Munger talk about the environment of the slave owning south. Munger provides, I think, a good definition of racism which he says is  “a combination of bigotry and an institutionally privileged position” and adds that it “requires that the sense of racial revulsion that you feel is combined with an ability to impose that institutionally”.

The definition is important because, while a person can hold and express racist views, the ability to enforce that prejudice through a powerful coercive institution has much more potential to be extremely damaging to the group that is discriminated against.

Roberts has written a very good book distilling the 18th century Scottish enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith’s dense Theory of Moral Sentiments (I am still collecting my thoughts on that book and will chronicle them soon). Roberts, interpreting Smith, argues,  that  social conventions are the product of an emergent order which develop over time.

Looking upon the social landscape of a modern country (I live in New Zealand) in 2016 where tolerance and respect has grown for both women and non white ethnic groups and those groups have been able to increase participation in the workforce and the acceptance of overt sexism and racism has fallen, this emergent order seems a good thing.

But, if Roberts and Smith are correct, then environment matters. Slavery, as Munger points out, was socially acceptable in the south. Southern slave holders believed, and tried to justify to themselves, that their repugnant institution was a moral one. Munger notes that slave owners wanted to perpetuate generational slavery so they  justified to themselves that they were doing the slaves a favour because the slaves were somehow incapable of freedom.

It is in this fashion that Munger argues that later defenses of slavery “emerged” for the institution to be seen by slave owners as a moral one.

Most of us like to think that in certain contexts, we would choose the moral course. Were we to live in the American south, in the slave owning era, we declare “but, of course, I would have been an ardent abolitionist”.

This is a very easy thing to say but we do not know how we would behave unless we find ourselves faced with such a situation. I certainly hope that, faced with such an egregious practice, I would have been an abolitionist.  To actually run counter to the prevailing sentiment of a particular time and place, however, is hard. There is a reason why films like Amazing Grace (the biopic about English abolitionist William Wilberforce) or Schindler’s List capture our imagination. Yes, it is because they are films about the righteous but they are also about people in the minority pursuing a moral course in rejection of the majority view.

Munger brings up the authority experiments of Stanley Milgram which found people overrode their own personal conscience in deference to the instruction of an authority figure. Roberts is sceptical of Milgram’s findings. There is a very good recent biopic of Stanley Milgram (here is the trailer) which I saw with my father and sister at the start of the year. We all left the theatre feeling a strong sense of discomfort.

It’s easy to say we are moral beings but, quite another, to actually do the right thing when put to the test.

Listen to the podcast in full.

PS: Here’s my earlier post on the 2016 edition of TV series “Roots”



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