David R. Henderson  

Frederick Douglass on What He Learned from Adam Smith

Poverty and Income Inequality ... Liability, Disclaimers, and Ad...
The old doctrine that the slavery of the black, is essential to the freedom of the white race, can maintain itself only in the presence of slavery, where interest and prejudice are the controlling powers, but it stands condemned equally by reason and experience. The statesmanship of to-day condemns and repudiates it as a shallow pretext for oppression. It belongs with the commercial fallacies long ago exposed by Adam Smith. It stands on a level with the contemptible notion, that every crumb of bread that goes into another man's mouth, is just so much bread taken from mine. Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land, the more mouths you have, the more money you can put into your pocket, the more I can put into mine. As with political economy, so with civil and political rights.
This is from the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, November 17, 1864.

Douglass is taking on the idea that we are in a zero-sum game. If we were, it would be more understandable why some people would want others enslaved. What Douglass understands is that both sides gain from exchange.

HT to David Beito.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Michael Makovi writes:

An excellent argument against the critical theory of "white privilege", which assumes that wealth is zero-sum when it states that whites benefit when blacks are harmed.

And this little blurb here is an excellent companion to a recent book and article on Douglass's libertarianism: http://reason.com/archives/2012/07/17/frederick-douglass-classical-liberal The fact that Douglass cites Smith is itself worth the price of admission.

John Soriano writes:

I wouldn't say this disproves "white privilege" as there is a significant literature in psychology and economics that does show systematic biases that non-whites face, but it certainly is a point in favor of the argument that people from different groups stand to gain from interacting with each other in non-coercive and mutually beneficial ways. However, shouldn't all econlog readers already know this from Bryan and David's extensive discussion of immigration?

Shane L writes:

Interesting that Douglass quoted liberal economics while campaigning against slavery while Nelson Mandela and other 20th century campaigners against injustice identified with far-left thinkers. I don't know my history enough here so someone may correct me if I'm wrong. However I wonder if a part of that is just a kind of fashion: the economic liberalism of the 19th century began to lose popularity and far-left thought became popular.

Daublin writes:

That's fascinating. As Shane says, the vast majority of people agitating for social change are very bad with economics. They cite Marxism and mercantilism, and when those don't work out, they poo poo the whole field of economics. I hadn't realized that Fredrick Douglas was a big believer in increasing the pie.

More broadly, market thinking has the potential to justify a great many things that most people would think of as social advances. In particular, the notion of tolerance gels quite well with the notion of mutually beneficial trade.

Shane L writes:

My understanding is that many liberation movements of the 19th century were aligned with liberal economic perspectives. Ireland's Daniel O'Connell, for example, campaigned for Catholic Emancipation and Irish independence (and denounced slavery) in the early 19th century and was a staunch liberal who also fought regulation of industry:

Likewise in the 1848 rebellions in several European countries the early rebels were often middle class liberals who wanted democracy and free trade, but were also fierce ethnic nationalists who sought to wreck the multiethnic empires and built a "springtime of peoples" - a patchwork of ethnic nation states across Europe.

So it's interesting that movements for national liberation from imperialism or injustice flipped from being associated with liberal economics to socialist economics in the 20th century. (I'm not sure how true that statement is, however; perhaps this shift didn't really take place.)

NZ writes:
Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land...

Seems like that "abundant land" part is pretty important. Abundant land makes it inexpensive for the common man to own property against which he can leverage risk, and on which his family can be comfortably raised. In the 18th century Ben Franklin recognized this as a primary component of emergent American dominance.

Will importing millions more people per year make land more or less abundant?

aez writes:

Can we extrapolate from "land" to "industry"? Many of us,imported or native, work in goods and services rather than agriculture. I understand the value of real property vs. personal or intellectual, but those latter are what's more available now, perhaps.

Paul Morel writes:
Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land, the more mouths you have, the more money you can put into your pocket, the more I can put into mine.

This is actually false in societies in a Malthusian equilibrium (i.e.: roughly all societies before the 19th century). As Gregory Clark puts it in "A Farewell to Alms":

(...) improvements in sanitation, or declines in violence and disorder, which reduce the death rate schedule in preindustrial societies, can raise life expectancy, but only at the cost of lower material living standards.

This Malthusian world thus exhibits a counterintuitive logic. Anything that raised the death rate schedule—war, disorder, disease, poor sanitary practices, or abandoning breast feeding—increased material living standards. Anything that reduced the death rate schedule—advances in medical technology, better personal hygiene, improved public sanitation, public provision for harvest failures, peace and order—reduced material living standards.

NZ writes:


I think the implications are very different. What can I do--what value can I create for myself--with abundant land vs. abundant stuff?

Many may be tempted to say "Well today you can, for under $400, but a nice laptop and use it to design an awesome app which you can sell and get rich from, or start a successful business with." I don't know, but I'd guess that the odds of an average IQ person (100 ±1/2 SD) with a family being able to do that are vanishingly slim.

aez writes:

@NZ: guess I was thinking about jobs designing/making/selling the stuff. Land increases in value per its present or projected use, I would imagine, so I was thinking not so much about a person's net worth as calculated on their stuff as about the jobs it took (held by the imported or native folks) to get it to the person, and the values exchanged in those transactions. Did Douglass have in mind the land itself, or its use, I wonder?

Tracy W writes:

@NZ: I'd say the same is true of farming. An awful lot of would-be farmers go broke - it's a very tough job intellectually.

NZ writes:

I wasn't specifically thinking about the act of building on or farming the land, which is also beyond the abilities of many people--though, it's probably relatively easier for the average person to be a successful farmer than a successful app developer.

I was thinking of the more general idea of having access to and owning land, the financial and economic implications of landownership (ability to leverage risk against it, for example), and the idea of having a lot of space and privacy and how that impacts people's decisions and lifestyles.

It used to be explicitly clear to many people that having lots of room and not living right on top of your neighbors is desirable. Today people still understand this (thus the draw of exurbs) but the polite thing is to say you want more urbanization and "walkability" (just make sure you don't come off as supporting that wicked "gentrification").

NZ writes:

I hadn't thought about it before, but my above comment reveals a problem with another standard libertarian argument, provided you accept the reality of unevenly distributed genetically-based intelligence.

The libertarian argument is that it doesn't matter if we outsource jobs or import cheaper unskilled labor, because the native population can retrain for newer jobs as they emerge (i.e. "the pie will grow bigger").

The problem is that this presumes that a person who was just intelligent enough to, say, work on a factory floor is also intelligent enough to learn how to, say, program software or design a marketing campaign. Or, more generously, that at least his kids will be.

But, since A) many people lack the intelligence to learn new highly technical skills, b) usually pass this relative lack on to their children, and c) new jobs requiring highly technical skills also require high intelligence, the model breaks down. Populations will not be able to "retrain," or at least not nearly as quickly as libertarians predict.

Add to this the problem of IQ regression towards the mean: even smart people's descendents may, over generations, become dumber.

Bryan had a recent post about the universal rejection of being simultaneously pro-open borders and pro-IQ realist, so there is a tie-in to that as well.

Tracy W writes:

@NZ, I'm sorry but I don't really understand what you're thinking about then if you're not comparing income-generating possibilities.
As for living spaces, there's all sorts of tradeoffs and no reason that everyone should have to choose the same one.

NZ writes:

@Tracy W:

I read that bit of Douglass's comment not as about generating income necessarily, but generating wealth. Abundant land = real property is inexpensive, and even Average Joes can stake their claim. Landowners command capital even by freeriding on the value produced by others: if my plot of land lies fallow while a metropolis sprouts up around it, the value of my land will still rise, either because people want to expand the metropolis onto it or because people want to escape the metropolis, and I will become wealthy.

Though, I see now that I have veered off topic: Douglass referred to having more mouths to feed as correlated with having more money, suggesting that he was talking about an increase in wealth derived from having more people around, specializing in different things and producing value, benefiting from a system of mutual exchange, and so forth. In that case, he may have mentioned abundant land simply because it translates to a lower cost of entry into this system.

Regarding your second point, in a situation where land is abundant it is possible to choose to live densely, whereas in a situation where land is sparse there is no choice but to live densely.

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