Michael Munger on Slavery and Racism

A chunk of an EconTalk podcast that's been stuck in my head today (as it semi-regularly has been for the past while):

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.

Neither Munger nor Russ Roberts are historians, but this is the sort of perspective that I've over the years come to expect from historians or those who read a lot of history - the notion that people think differently than you do is difficult to escape from if reading the writing of another generation. It's actually one of the reasons why, although History appears to have the highest ratio of Democrats to Republicans amongst academic disciplines it's one of the areas that I'm least worried about tolerance for ideological diversity in. To quote Paul Graham:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed. ... It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise. Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no.

It seems to be that there are parallel dangers faced by different segments of the academy which I think play around quiet interestingly in research by Gambetta and Hertog that generally is advertised with headlines like This is the group that's surprisingly prone to violent extremism. Specifically they discuss the overrepresentation of engineers among jihadi terrorist groups as well as amongst right-wing terrorist groups in general. What's seldom noted in these articles, but does appear in the one above (as well as in the original research) is the following claim:

left-wing terrorists are likely to be humanities graduates

The one seemingly odd standout in that group is historians (figure from p. 113 of Engineers of Jihad):

I don't think that the explanation is all that odd though - I think it's basically the historical mindset - as I've posted about here before playing out. Engineers may fall prey to the first ideology they encounter, and social scientists may wind in ideological bubbles and thus overconfident, with a tendency towards extremizing. A historian, by contrast, will never be able to change their source's views at the time of writing, even if they may see in them hints of future changes. As such I think the conclusion that not-everyone-thinks-like-you is much more difficult to escape from in that field than in many others.

I'm mildly amused that I seem to be quoting everyone other than professional historians here1 but do I think it applies more broadly to people reading individuals from outside their time. By and large I agree with Peter Dreier's view:

I am a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology who now teaches in a political science department and chairs a department of urban and environmental policy. In other words, I do not have strong disciplinary loyalties and think that the boundaries between many academic fields are pretty blurry. I believe that most social scientists - sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists - should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose. Although I'm not formally trained in English literature, or art history, or other humanities subjects, I can grasp the basic points, if not the nuances, of most articles published by scholars in these fields, if they are written to be understood rather than to impress and intimidate.


  1. Roberts and Munger are both economists by training and Graham did a philosophy degree followed by a Computer Science Ph.D. before cofounding the startup accelerator Y-Combinator. ↩︎