In my view, the economist Robert Fogel is one of the most important thinkers of our time, and not only for his contribution to economics: he is also an important moral thinker. Fogel stirred up considerable controversy when he found that the enslavement of human beings proved “efficient” in the Old South, a finding that went a long way towards explaining the persistence of one of the most vile institutions in history. And yet he went on to make a deeper point: that there are human values far more important than efficiency. Without Consent or Contract, a sprawling work that unites all the human sciences and moral philosophy, might be one of the most important books published in the 20th century.
Of course, there were those who damned Fogel for making any serious and sustained inquiry into this question at all: better to impose a taboo that would prevent us from ever asking these awkward questions. Better to enforce the fiction that the efficient is always the good, and to enforce it through a regime of ignorance. Fogel felt otherwise, and he was right.
I thought of this when I read my friend Chris Hayes’ blog post on “mainstream economics.”
Other papers to consider:
Was the Ante-Bellum South Pareto-Optimal?
Efficiency Gains from Japanese Internment: A Discontinuity Approach
Extraordinary Rendition and Comparative Advantage: Does Outsourcing Torture Make Economic Sense?
And I suppose he means to suggest that there is something indecent about even asking certain questions, like whether the caste system was efficient.
I know Chris well enough to know that he has no interest in shutting down intellectual inquiry, and I suppose he means to highlight how morally blinkered economists can be. This, of course, begs the question: What is the upshot? And which moral sensibilities are allowed to inform scholarship? I assume there would be redlines here as well, and that those who cross them would be marginalized if not excluded.
Some argue that something like this already obtains in the world of scholarship, and that this hasn’t contributed to the diversity and vitality of intellectual life.
I worry when we start defending only the heterodox thinking we like. That’s why I really dislike David Horowitz and his anti-intellectual crusades.