Beyond Good & Evil

Since our move to South Carolina I’ve had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I’m a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it’s important to remember this. It doesn’t let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn’t be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese’s book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn’t they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn’t have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn’t have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there’s something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one’s own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn’t have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.

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