Cancelling David Hume

Daniel Johnson writes on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on David Hume and cancel culture. The University of Edinburgh “decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as ‘40 George Square’.” The decision was taken because what Johnson calls “the fatal footnote – a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture.”

The key argument by Johnson is at the end of his piece:

Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac Newton had been a large shareholder in the South Sea Company, which supplied slaves to Latin America. Hume’s compatriot, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, accepted a post as a slave overseer in Jamaica, though he was unable to take it up. These and many other luminaries of the Enlightenment turned a blind eye to slavery and made no secret of their ethnic or religious antipathies. Yet none of them has been ‘cancelled’—at least, not yet.

Hume was unusual in only one respect: he confined his most odious prejudice to a single footnote.

This is a point what makes Edinburgh’s decision so astonishing. Hume was a highly original thinker, whose originality has little to do with his argument over persons of color. In a sense, this was actually nothing original: for once, the great philosopher somewhat echoed the prejudices of his time. Plus, nobody is reading Hume for *that* message: you cannot picture a thinker who is less likely to become popular among white suprematists or fascists of any sort.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the new name of the building is strictly “geographical”: 40 George Square. But, as a Facebook friend of mine (alas I cannot remember whom!) pointed out, George Square is named after George III, whose reputation is not really that of a committed anti-racist.


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Implicit and Structural Witchery

You’re back in Salem during the 1690s.  After an exhaustive hunt for witches, the Lord High Witch Hunter files a bombshell report: Despite his best efforts, he’s failed to find any witches in Salem.  Don’t imagine, though, that the fight against witchery is over.  During his investigation, the Lord High Witch Hunter uncovered an enormous volume of “implicit witchery” and “structural witchery.”  For example, residents of Salem occasionally skip church, or lose interest during the sermon.  That’s implicit witchery, pure and simple.  Even worse, some leading merchants happily trade with Catholics and pagans.  That’s structural witchery at the highest levels of society.

If you’re part of this society, you’d better not laugh.  That’s implicit witchery, too.  For anyone else, however, the Lord High Witch Hunter’s report is absurd.  The magistrate launches a massive witchhunt.  He fails to detect actual witches.  So he redefines “witchery” as “Lack of single-minded devotion to my faith.”  Why bother with this farce?  To make a thinly-veiled threat:  If you’re not part of the solution to witchery, you’re an implicit/structural witch.  And will be burned like a witch.

Similarly, imagine that during the McCarthy era you fail to uncover any actual Communists.  The Lord High McCarthyite could admit he was wrong, but where’s the fun in that?  Wouldn’t it be better to declare that you’ve discovered a massive dose of “implicit Communism” and “structural Communism”?  As long as your society fears you, anything could count.  Perhaps support for progressive taxes is implicit Communism.  Perhaps the overrepresentation of left-wing academics in state-funded universities is structural Communism.  Yes, you can cry, “Bait-and-switch.”  But that sounds dangerously close to implicit Communism.

Or suppose you’re in modern Iran.  The Lord High Inquisitor hunts for atheists, but can’t find any.  So he declares war on implicit atheism and structural atheism, which abound even in the Islamic Republic.  Shocking?  Not really, because almost anything qualifies as implicit atheism or structural atheism.  If this is such an obvious scam, how come hardly anyone in Iran says so?  Fear.  Minimizing the danger of implicit atheism is a prime example of implicit atheism.

In the modern West, hardly anyone worries about in-the-flesh witches, Communists, or atheists, much less implicit or structural versions of these creeds.  But that’s because the targets have changed, not because the age of moral panic is over.  And while the list of targets is long, racists and sexists are plainly at the top.  The most obvious result is that people spend ample time trying to find racist and sexist individuals.  In practice, however, this is as frustrating as trying to find witches in Salem.  People today are about as likely to declare themselves racists and sexists as people in 17th-century Massachusetts were to declare themselves brides of Satan.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is fear; avowed racists do get punched in the face, after all.  The main reason, though, is that almost no one sympathizes with creeds that almost everyone hates.

So what are you supposed to do if you want to continue the good fight against social ills you’ve already practically driven to extinction?  Move the goalposts all the way to Mars.  These days, the world’s best detectives would struggle to find outright racists and sexists.  Yet implicit racism, structural racism, implicit sexism, and structural sexism will always be in plain sight, because the definition expands as the phenomenon contracts.


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Benjamin Boyce Interviews Adrian Lee Oliver

As regular readers of my posts know, I have little patience for long interviews. But I was blown away by this one. It’s the best interview I’ve seen in 2020.

I hadn’t heard of either Boyce or Oliver before, but from now on, whenever I see their names, I’ll pay attention.

I was so enthralled by the first 37 minutes that I forgot to time stamp things. So this time stamping will be rough up until the 38th minute.

In the first 30 minutes or so, Oliver talks about what it was like to grow up as a black kid facing extreme discrimination and racism in America. And not 1940s or 1950s America, but America of the 1990s and early 2000s. In one story he tells how he won over a white racist in school. Really neat story.

38:00: Why the cops suddenly apologized for torturing him. Hint: nepotism.

39:50: Why what’s going on with cops is not systemic racism. Many of them would like to treat everyone badly, but their statistical analysis stops them with certain groups.

41:38: The left’s preemptive strike against expertise and the recent Steven Pinker attack.

46:45: How what the left is doing could lead to an even more virulent and wider spread white nationalism.

57:00: We need arenas for the non-political. (By the way, my own is pickle ball. Political conversations are actively discouraged.)

59:00: Oliver makes a fantastic point about the failure of Communism.

1:03:40: Being in a cult isn’t fun.

1:14:50: We need to be ruthless against bad ideas but not against the people who hold them.

HT2 Bob Murphy.


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Discrimination and State Power

Reading a column by Karen Attiah in the Washington Post (“Monuments of White Supremacy Obscure the History of Colonial Crimes. That’s Why They Must Come Down,” June 13, 2020), I remembered the guy who defended the state by asking, “If the state did not exist, who would have abolished slavery?” The real question is, of course, “If the state did not exist, who would have protected slave owners with overwhelming monopolistic force?” The guy should have known Article IV, Section 2 of the US Constitution about fugitive slaves, which remained in force until the 13th Amendment in 1865:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Most of Ms. Attiah’s column can be read as a justified attack on the governments who financed and enforced racial discrimination, not only by erecting statues but in more direct ways. She mentions Belgian king Léopold II, a “brutal colonial ruler” whose

claim to genocidal fame was his orchestration of mass violence against the people in the Congo, a large portion of which he considered his personal territory for cultivating and exporting rubber and ivory.

She also writes:

Powerful governments erased the contributions of black people, the customs and traditions of native populations during colonization—and then whitewashed the evidence of the great harm done to these communities.

She ignores many things, though, such as zoning laws, which were originally adopted to prevent black Americans from using their economic freedom to move into white neighborhoods and which continue incognito to play that function today. (See my Regulation review of Jonathan Rothwell’s recent book, A Republic of Equals: “The One-Percenter State,” Regulation, Spring 2020; and my Econlog post “Rothwell Si, Piketty No!”  But, to be fair to Ms. Attiah, one can’t talk about everything in one column.

Still, I suspect Ms. Attiah is not a closet anarcho-capitalist, because such people are rather rare at the Washington Post. But if what she wants to defend is individual liberty instead of group identity, she might want to reflect on the following classical-liberal principle and apply it also to other issues than race: Grant to the state only powers that would not be dangerous if the worst racist (or hater of any minority) came to its helm. Who knows, you might not always be in a group preferred by the government.


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AEA Hides Its Racist Past


I posted on Thursday about the fact that the officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association don’t know much about the literature on the economics and discrimination. In their statement, they wrote:

We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.

I had thought at the time that they were simply ignorant of the literature. But it may be worse.

Commenter Richard Ebeling pointed out something I had missed: the AEA’s statement linked to literature on the “History of race and racism.” Take a look. Some of the items are excellent. The Richard Rothstein book, The Color of Law, is an example. I reviewed it positively here. Also, they recommend the movie Just Mercy, which my wife and I saw last month, and which is excellent. But the fact that they came up with a list would suggest that they did some kind of search. Where is the mention of work by Gary Becker or Thomas Sowell? Or how about work by Kenneth Arrow or Thomas Schelling?

And, most important, given that the list is presented by the AEA, where is the literature on Richard Ely, one of the founders, and the first secretary, of the American Economic Association, and a renowned racist? It’s not as if he hasn’t been studied. Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard wrote an excellent book, Illiberal Reformers, in which he documents the views of Ely and other Progressives. Ely called blacks people who “are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.”

The straightforward way to deal with the AEA’s racist past would be to acknowledge it. There’s lots to choose from. How about, for example, the time (1888) when the AEA “offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration?” (The quote is from Leonard’s book on p. 143.) A lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Leonard notes, was based on race.

Or how about Ely’s hostility to Chinese immigrants? He wrote:

[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements—like, for example, the Chinese. (1894, “Thoughts on Immigration, No. I”) [quoted in Clifford F. This and Ryan Daza, “Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2011, pp: 147-156.]

Or how about the fact that from 1962 to 2020, a prestigious lecture held every year at the annual AEA meetings was the Richard T. Ely lecture? To its credit, the AEA has suddenly deleted Ely’s name in the last few days. To its discredit, it says nothing about why.

Are we to believe that the AEA officers are ignorant of all this? One tell is that, as noted, they deleted the “Richard T. Ely” identifier from the annual lecture. Why do that suddenly if not for the fact that they do know something about the AEA’s racist past?

Of course, it’s possible that some of the AEA officers are ignorant. If so, I would recommend that they start with Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. And if are unwilling to take the time to read it, at least they should put in on their own reading list.

Here’s Russ Roberts’ interview of Leonard.

Here’s Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book.



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Why We Need to Keep Talking About George Floyd

I must begin by pointing out that this is really not what I wanted to be writing about. This is EconLog, for crying out loud; a virtual property of Econlib.  They don’t just let anyone natter on here, and for that reason, I would rather my introduction to the readers here be a message of freedom and hope. It was a mere few days ago that NASA launched a rocket built by SpaceX into space, ferrying humans to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, signaling the successful culmination of a public-private partnership (sort of) that may one day see mankind colonize the stars.  But…I can’t engage you in a whimsical fantasy of our descendants enjoying Andorian ale in a bar on the joint colony at Titan.

Those of us tethered to the ground have been subject to pandemics, government overreach, massive loss of employment…and then there’s George Floyd. Those of us possessed of the masochism inherent in formal training in the social sciences have an obligation to review the world as it is, making data-driven observations, providing deep analysis of proximate causes, and generating recommendations aimed at making improvements and finding solutions. This last is the most difficult, because in matters involving race, I don’t necessarily know that here are any solutions outside of “we all need to be better.” Nor, in truth, am I an indifferent observer. As an African American myself, I have known too many George Floyds to remain indifferent.

It must be noted that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resultant riots raging across the American landscape aren’t entirely about race. As Reason’s Christian Britschgi has so ably observed, a combination of coronavirus lockdowns, joblessness, and other related factors combined to form a perfect soup that boiled over the day Derek Chauvin and his cohorts essentially strangled Floyd to death. This, however, is an outcome, not a cause. While this matter isn’t entirely about race, it’s still about racial relations in America. As ostensible thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, those of us dedicated to the natural rights of all men often shrink from in-depth discussion of such matters, when we may be the only parties left with any shred of moral authority to lead the charge.

So, we’re going to have that discussion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We’re going to discuss public choice and path dependencies. The ruinous War on Drugs and its unholy offspring, the carceral state, are also on the docket.  Institutional bias, uneven enforcement of laws that, by all right, shouldn’t even be laws…they’re on the table as well. The first step to solving a problem is admission that the problem exists, and we’re going to get to the root of it.  We’re going to analyze through the filters of economics, sociology, political science, history…because we must. To channel Acemoglu, history happens when critical junctures mate with institutional drift, giving birth to persistent paradigms.  We are, as the fires attest, at a critical juncture. To create new paradigms, we must facilitate changes within our institutions.

I will, of course, talk about other things. It is an honor for me to be here, and this isn’t the only issue that needs discussion. Nevertheless, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that both author and readers benefit from it. The American apartheid system known as Jim Crow was relegated to the dustbins of history because men and women of good conscience did not bury their heads in the sand at a critical juncture in time, but the work is not yet done. It is up to us to find its completion, so that we can truly fulfill the obligations inherent in our credo “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”



Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.


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