A well-known free-market economist recently submitted an essay to me, asking that I publish it on my blog. Let me reproduce a sample of it and then tell you how I answered him:
The continuing slowness of economic growth in high-income economies has prompted soul-searching among economists. They have looked to weak demand, rising inequality, Chinese competition, over-regulation, inadequate infrastructure and an exhaustion of new technological ideas as possible culprits.
An additional explanation of slow growth is now receiving attention, however. It is the persistence and expectation of freedom.
The world just hasn’t had that much slavery lately, at least not by historical standards. Some of the recent headlines about involuntary sex trafficking make our world sound like a very unfree place, but today’s statistics on human bondage pale in light of the hundreds of millions of people enslaved under the totalitarian governments of the 20th century.
Counterintuitive though it may sound, the greater freedom of the world may make the attainment of higher rates of economic growth less urgent and thus less likely. This view does not claim that enslaving people improves economies, as of course the actual production of nets, chains, and slave ships diverts resources from other potential uses. Rather, the challenge of dominating other human beings—the craftiest and most elusive of prey—pushes people to extremes that lower animals, or inanimate objects, would never stimulate.
It may seem repugnant to find a positive side to slavery in this regard, but a look at American history suggests we cannot dismiss the idea so easily. Fundamental innovations in the design of nets, auction rules, and the modern navy were all pushed along by groups eager to capture, transport, and sell African slaves to American plantation owners.
As you can imagine, I told this economist “hell no!” I wasn’t going to run this article. Not only did I think it was palpably absurd on its face, but its coy I’m-totally-against-slavery-but-let’s-talk-about-its-merits-anyway stance was sure to get me excoriated by respectable society. My critics would never let me live down the fact that I had run such a “pro-slavery” article, even though technically it wasn’t pro-slavery. People would understandably wonder what the heck was wrong with me for running it, let alone the author who wrote it.
In case the innocent reader is still confused, allow me to end the charade: I am making all of this up. There was no such article submitted to me on the economic benefits of slavery. Instead, I am satirically criticizing economist Tyler Cowen’s recent article in the New York Times, in which he made such a case, not for slavery, but for war. If the reader follows the link, he will find that I have faithfully mirrored Cowen’s stance.
My point with this demonstration is quite simple: In modern America, anyone writing an article on the benefits of slavery such as the hypothetical one I “quoted” above, would seriously jeopardize his career. There would be mass hysteria among “respectable” opinion makers. Depending on the institution at which such an economist taught, there would be organized student protests demanding at the very least that the professor renounce his shocking views and formally apologize for his insensitivity. I am not just guessing that this would happen; we know it would happen, because academics have had their heads bitten off for much more modest remarks regarding slavery that were not considered sufficiently aghast at the institution.
My point in this essay isn’t to wag my finger at Tyler Cowen; I know he isn’t “for” war and I know he wasn’t pining for a war to stimulate the economy. Rather, I am criticizing the fact that in modern American life, it is a far worse sin to even say or write something that could conceivably be construed as tolerating slavery, whereas discussing the benefits of war carries no professional repercussions and hardly any social ostracism. Yes, American plantation slavery was a horrible thing, but the melting of children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was at least as despicable. And yet, Tyler Cowen can call the Manhattan Project a “speedy and decisive achievement” without fear of alienating his respectable lunch companions. Such a declaration at worst provokes his critics into complaining about opportunity cost, rather than demanding an apology to the descendants of the victims of the U.S. government’s atomic bombs.
Let me admit that I myself have fallen into the twisted acceptance and indeed celebration of violence that is part of American culture. I remember that I once explained to someone that a certain movie had an R rating “just for violence—there’s no profanity or nudity.” As those words left my mouth, I was struck by the perversity of it: It’s fine to let young children watch, say, a graphic human sacrifice in The Temple of Doom (which had a PG rating though it prompted the creation of PG-13), complete with the victim’s heart being ripped out of his chest. But if Indy had used the F-word a few times, or if we had seen Kate Capshaw’s nipples in the bedroom scene, then the movie would have been considered inappropriate for children.
If people want to be Puritans, either literally or figuratively, I can understand the impulse. I just wish they would be consistent about it. It is a strange state of affairs when people can ruin their careers by saying the N-word, while it’s just a minor gaffe when John McCain jokes about bombing a country.