Weekend Reading: George Stigler in 1962 on "The Problem of the Negro"

The ε-Stigler and the Other Components of Stigler: On George Stigler's 1962 Denunciation of the "Insolence" of Demonstrating Negroes, and Other Topics

School of Athens

Twitter Thread: Daniel Kuehn wrote: "We say something intelligent and on-point about Buchanan or Friedman or Tullock or Stigler and then we try to extrapolate a history of conservatism from it. Generally we're not equipped to do that (I'm certainly not), and should be wary of it. Wary doesn’t mean don’t cross-pollinate. I think the interaction between the two communities is great. Just something to be aware of..."

Let's take the George Stigler vector and project it onto a complete intellectual basis made up of the unit vectors ε, σ, π, β, γ:

Along the economics basis vector, the ε-Stigler has a set of powerful arguments about the thumb-fingered capabilities of government, about the vulnerability of state action to rent-seeking, about the willingness of the market economy to provide a substantial reward to productive investment, about how historically antitrust policy has created as many and as large gaps between price and marginal cost as it has suppressed, and about how the best strategy when confronted with problems is to exit, diligently build up your productive capacities, find an alternative competitive market someplace else to trade on, and outlive the bastards. This ε-Stigler's arguments are sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but they always need to be confronted. The sub-Turing ε-Stigler instantiation I currently have running on my wetware is a very powerful piece of my personal intellectual capital. I use it every week, to my great benefit.

Along the sociology basis vector, the σ-Stigler has a rather amateurish set of arguments about African-American family structure and culture. The standard white expression of them is found in Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965): The Negro Family: The Case for Natural Action, that he as DoL ASPPR and his Johnson-administration staff wrote. Two things about Moynihan and this Moynihan Report: (1) It is in part a personal psychological exercise for Moynihan: the fatherless youth running in gangs through the urban streets committing petty crimes and violence are Moynihan's memories of his and his friends' childhoods. (2) It is Moynihan's bid for a substantial piece of the Great Society to be explicitly devoted to racial reparations: to make the Great Society not just an expansion of the societal well-being safety net, but to include lots of special money to get resources to African-American single mothers and positive male role models to African-American boys and teens. This line of argument, however, is much better set out by the likes of William Julius Wilson, Glenn Loury, and company than by Moynihan (and Moynihan's sets them out much much much much much much better than Stigler): the fact that Moynihan's document is political-bureaucratic (a bid for funds) and personal-psychological and white makes it... not terribly good as sociology. And when I run into these issues, I look around for a competent sociologist to give me the lowdown, as they are outside my wheelhouse.

Along the political science basis vector, the π-Stigler fears that African-American action to get the federal government to act on its side will (i) induce a white backlash, (ii) induce a federalism-small government backlash, (iii) lead to a wealth-destructive quota régime of economic regulation, and (iv) distract the African-American community from the more important and more effective task of building social and human capital, both because African-American leaders want to get on TV rather than serve their communities, and because African-American youth will learn that they shouldn't study and work but instead burn things down because whitey is to blame. This π-Stigler seems to me to be highly engaged in unprofessional motivated reasoning. It takes a certain kind of strange mind to view working for (a) equal rights, (b) appropriate reparations, and (c) community uplift as exclusive options only one of which can be chosen.

Then there is the bigot basis vector: The β-Stigler denounces the "much greater disservice... of the leaders of Negro opinion... direct[ing the discontent at the white population"; condemns the "demonstrations, growing in... insolence'; sneers at "the political, intellectual, and religious leaders of the nation" for "approv[ing] or at least tolerat[ing] these demonstrations; sneers again at "a semi-literate Negro teenager in a slum"; sneers again at "Negro youth" who lack "the love of knowledge and the willingness to work hard and achieve it; and condemns the "Negro leaders should be helping the emergence of this cultural tradition" but are "instead... diverting Negro energies to better school buildings". The β-Stigler then goes on to note that the average Negro "lacks a desire to improve himself, and lacks a willingness to discipline himself"; is "inferior... as a worker... lacking a willingness to work hard"; condemns Negro leaders for "not fostering the ancient virtues of diligence and honesty and loyalty" because "it is so much easier to seek quotas for Negroes"; expresses sympathy for the white man's repulsion and avoidance of the average "Negro family... a loose, morally lax, group" bringing "a rapid rise in crime and vandalism" and lacking "the liking and respect that sober virtues commend"; and again condemn the "leaders of Negro thought" for falsely pretending that "individual responsibility could be bought" if only Negro incomes were higher by "a thousand dollars a year". The β-Stigler then goes on to approve of the Jews, and how "they are in the rapid process of losing their identity". And the The β-Stigler sneers again at "The leaders of Negro opinion": "How much easier to march on the mayor than to teach industry to a boy!" "How much simpler to keep the children home to coerce the school board than to instill in them a love of art and literature and science! The task does not allot a large role to the prominent leaders". And the β-Stigler closes by adding those pushing for decolonization to his list of villains: "Africans are poor and ignorant? Out with colonialism! The American Negro is a lesser citizen? To the barricades!" Enough said.

Last, there is the greedy basis vector: The γ-Stigler takes pains to remind his readers over and over again that he should not be taxed because money spent would do not good: "the past is not for us to relive", "no amount of restitution for past injustice by the white man could solve the basic problem", "the real task... is not to provide good schools and good teachers".

We economists in our daily work and in our studies of the internal intellectual history of our discipline aimed at honing our present-day intellectual panoply focus rightly on the ε-Stigler: it is right and proper that we should do so.

But we economists are also a human community. As Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges writer in his The Ancient City, human communities (at least patriarchal human communities) forge their identity by constructing largely-fictitious kin ties based on notional genetic, intellectual, or adoptive descent from common ancestors, who assume the role of heroes whose example we must live up to, and whose memory we respect. George Stigler is one of economists' common ancestors. But the Stigler who is our hero is only the ε-Stigler component, not any of the others. And if we are going to have a, say, Stigler Centers, it needs to prominently divorce itself from the other components—definitely not sweep them under the rug, and definitely not endorse any of the them. Praising Stigler's valid insights does not entail or require that we either praise or ignore those of parts of him where he was ignorant, stupid, or evil. And reckoning with those parts of Stigler that were ignorant, stupid, and evil does not mean that we should avoid proper acknowledgement that his are (some of) the giant shoulders on which we stand.

And acknowledging the intellectual force of the arguments of the ε-Stigler does not mean that we need to transfer the same respect we give that component to others who thought like Stigler. As the very wise John Holbo recently wrote:

The fact that someone can come up with an ingenious philosophical defense of a view that most people, who hold something like that view, hold for plain old bigoted reasons, is not a good reason to treat those who are, actually, bigoted, as if they are, instead, ingenious philosophers...

Even the good arguments developed by the ε-Stigler can (and often are) deployed in bad faith by bad people for bad ends. And sometimes they were so deployed by George-Stigler-the-man, who is always both more and less than the ε-Stigler, himself.


#twitterthread #highlighted #politicaleconomy #race #racism #orangehairedbaboons #economicsgonewrong @cterbeek @heerjeet @D_Kuehn @TommSciortino @economeager

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