Bryan Caplan  

They Were Terrible

Lies, true lies, and statistic... The Phillips curve doesn't pre...
Suppose you identify with a large, unselective group - a nationality, religion, ethnicity, political party, etc. An historian comes along and shows that this group once committed a monstrous atrocity - say mass murder.  This leaves you with four options.

1. To keep your identity and share the blame: "We were terrible."

2. To renounce your identity and avoid the blame: "They were terrible."

3. To redefine the perpetrators' identity and avoid the blame: "We weren't involved."

4. To keep your identity and deny the facts: "Never happened - and they had it coming."

If you value your identity, the first two options are bitter.  The third option's only slightly more palatable, because it makes group membership contingent on good behavior rather than a birthright.  No wonder, then, that humans around the world gravitate toward the fourth option. 

Intellectually, of course, denial's unconvincing.  When outgroups evade ugly truths, we readily detect their dishonesty.  But when you deny, fellow group members will back you up.  If you're sufficiently clannish - or if your group is very common - you'll rarely be called to account for your childishness.

What alternative is there?  As I've argued before, you simply shouldn't identify with large, unselective groups.  Truth matters more than any tribe.  And if you've followed this advice, you can interpret history honestly, without bruising your ego.  Americans, Catholics, Irish, or Democrats committed grave wrongs?  Then they were terrible.  It's got nothing to do with me.

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Ahmed writes:

There is another option. Be an occasionalist, i.e., everything comes from God. Then you don't have to defend anything. Except for being an occasionalist.

"Occasionalism is a philosophical theory about causation which says that created substances cannot be efficient causes of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God." —Wikipedia

As a Muslim, this is the belief that I hold. In Christianity, Calvinists are the closest to this position.

Also, on the subject of evil, one does not have to defend something which does not actually exist.

"Evil does not exist; once you have crossed the threshold, all is good. Once in another world, you must hold your tongue." —Franz Kafka

Incidentally, Franz Kafka was Jewish and wrote this before the Holocaust but I believe he would have stuck by his words.

CMOT writes:

But what if the truth is that there are no good guys or bad guys, just winners and losers.

Chimps have wars and commit murder and rape; high ranking female chimps will kill and eat the infants of their rivals to keep them in line.


"The outbreak of the war came as a disturbing shock to Goodall, who had previously considered chimpanzees to be, although similar to human beings, "rather 'nicer'" in their behavior."

So instead of blame, shame or value judgements, option (5) would be: we are (human) primates.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Seems like there's an obvious fifth option: in any big group of people you'll always get terrible ones and their terribleness is going to express itself in ways specific to their (and my) identity but there's nothing inherent to this identity that's terrible.

Isn't this a pretty standard way to respond?

Andrew_FL writes:

Actually your solution is just 3 taken to its logical extreme. In the limit, "we weren't involved" becomes "I wasn't involved"

Ted writes:

I identify as human. By your logic, Bryan, should I stop identifying as human?

I think you can identify with a group without being irrationally attached to notions of blame. Compatibilism is possible.

Graham writes:

Groups don't do anything, individuals do. I am male, but I don't have to defend or deny the fact that males rape because it is specific individuals that rape, not the gender. I am an Englishman living in Ireland where the English have not behaved particularly honorably, historically, but, again, that was specific individual English men, not the entire race. I feel no need to avoid the reality that I was born male in the geographical area known as England and place the blame for any perceived difficulty fairly and squarely where it lies, with collectivism.

Emily writes:

I don't recognize my responses (or other responses I've seen) in any of these.

When I identify with a group, I'm not taking credit or blame for the past actions of others. I'm tied to those actions more subtly because they're part of my heritage and what shaped my views and material conditions. Also, my future and the future of my kids is tied up with this country, which makes me invested in it (and invested in other Americans) in a way that I'm also not with other countries. It's trivial to say "they did terrible things." Of course they did. But they also did important and positive things that I am grateful for. I can judge the bad things they did more acutely than I judge it when people I'm not bound up with did them, and celebrate the good ones more enthusiastically as well.

Ricardo writes:

I think the general form of the argument is:

1. Many years ago, group X unfairly expropriated wealth from group Y.

2. As a descendent of group X, you inherited wealth from your ancestors.

3. Some of that wealth had been expropriated from group Y.

4. Therefore you are not the rightful owner of that wealth, and it should be returned to the descendents of group Y (where it would have been in the first place, but for your nefarious ancestors).

In this scenario, are you saying "they were terrible, but I'm keeping the money anyway"?

(Not endorsing or justifying the scenario... just providing as a thought experiment...)

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I think the general form of the argument is"

I think this is a very rare situation (like cases as the "slavery reparations polemic"), not "the general form" - in most cases, polemics about the "badness" or "goodness" of groups are more about status, or at least immigration laws, than about tangible money reparations. Look the discussions about who was more intolerant in Middle Ages - the Catholics or the Muslims? Never or almost never these discussions are about money - nobody is demanding that Catholics pay reparations to Jews and Albigens (and Muslims), or that Muslims pay reparations to Eastern Christians, Hindus and Zoroastrians (and Catholics); it is all a competition status between Islam ("Islam is the religion of peace"), Christianity ("Christianity is the root of Western Civilization and its tradition of freedom and tolerance") and Secular Humanism ("religion is evil - Europe only became tolerant since it abandoned its religious roots")

David R. Henderson writes:

I’m pretty sure I agree with Daniel Kuehn’s response above. I identify as an American and a Canadian. People in both groups did lots of good; people in both groups did lots of bad. If you go through my over 2,000 blog posts and hundreds of articles, you’ll see me praising people in those groups when they do good and criticizing them when they do bad.

Hazel Meade writes:

The problem with your argument is that, at least in practice, "group X" often contains many individuals that are NOT descended from people who expropriated from "group Y", and "group Y" often contains many individuals that aren't descended from anyone that "group X" expropriated from.

It's not really fair to expect everyone and anyone in group X to compensate everyone in group Y. You have to identify which individuals actually benefited from their ancestors misdeeds and which individuals we actually harmed.

Ricardo writes:

@Miguel -- the root of the conflict you describe has been, for over 1000 years, the question of who has clear title to a relatively small section of land in the Levant. So it seems like the same scenario to me.

@Hazel -- not my argument; just a hypothetical. But to address your comment: suppose clear lineage were established, such that Bryan is a descendent of a family that had large slaveholdings. Does Bryan get to say "they were terrible, but I'm keeping the money anyway"? (I am not arguing either way, but would like to hear arguments on both sides.)

Hazel Meade writes:

On that point I'm inclined to agree with you. If we could establish clear lineage from slaveholders to their descendants and their slaves to their descendents, I think we could establish some sort of obligation to compensate, especially if the descendants of the slaveholders still possess significant wealth that can be tied to their ancestors ill-gotten gains.
I'm sure there are many former slaveholders descendants who don't really own anything left of their ancestors property - they could have been wiped out by the civil war or the depression or any number of things, but there may indeed be some cases where the family still owns property wealth that dates back to the civil war.

Ahmed writes:

@Hazel and others discussing slavery

It's actually more complicated than that. Here's my ideas from an economic perspective:

Slaveholders did not profit from slaves because their competitors also enjoyed the same lower labor costs. Economics teaches us that excess profits are always competed away. Slave sellers also did not profit from selling slaves as other slave sellers drove down any excess profits.

No, the real benefits of slavery were the people who enjoyed lower cotton prices, which was basically everyone. Some of these people weren't even in America, i.e., cotton exports.

On another note, how much money was saved by using slaves? I mean you still had to clothe, house, and feed them. And also bear the risk they get sick or die. I don't imagine that cost saving were that great as compared to just hiring labor.

I have read reports that say slavery was a very poor return on investment, considering the other uses of capital.

Thomas Sewell writes:

I'm human. Either I'm responsible for all the bad AND all the good humans have ever done and deserving of the credit/blame and victim's rights for it all, or else I'm just responsible for my own actions.

I personally just go with the latter option (individual), but I don't really see how the former option really nets out any different in the end, except perhaps to make me responsible for nothing at all, because ultimately that's the same as being responsible for everything.

Other than that, you'd need to have some sort of rational basis for subdividing my "group" smaller than all humans. The idea of sex or race or religion or almost all of those types of groups are ludicrous on the face of them because in order to become responsible for the group, you'd need to also have chosen into the group and into having some way of controlling what the group does. The vast majority of the groups used that way aren't going to qualify.

Hazel Meade writes:

Slaveholders did not profit from slaves because their competitors also enjoyed the same lower labor costs.

That's not really true. First of all only 28 percent of the white population owned slaves, and only 3% owned more than 10 slaves. Most of the slaves were owned by a few large plantation owners. About 60-65% of the population comprised either small yeoman farmers who owned no slaves or working class laborers who had to compete with slave labor. Both of these groups were at a competitive disadvantage due to slavery practiced by the wealthy landowners who owned hundreds of slaves.

Ahmed writes:


It's a moot point how many slaves were owned by who. Like banks, slave owners were in the spread business, earning the spread between the price of cotton and the cost of slaves.

The question is did they earn extra profits on account of owning slaves versus investing their capital elsewhere? Did they conspire to set the price of cotton?

The benefits of cost savings always flow through to consumers. Think bar code scanners here. When the first supermarket brought in bar code scanners, it used the cost savings to lower its prices in order to capture market share. The other supermarkets followed suit to maintain their market share. That means the benefits of bar code scanners flowed through to consumers in the form of lower product prices.

Likewise, the real beneficiaries of slave labor were consumers, not producers.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Ahmed, well, let's not forget that 19th century markets were merchantilist markets with lots of government interventions, not free markets. The British empire outlawed slavery in 1833, which would have immediately put cotton plantations in the British Empire at a disadvantage, which would have increased profits to slave holding plantations in the US.
Markets may converge to an equilibrium if left alone but that takes time, and the system is always dynamically changing. It's overly simplistic to assume that cotton prices were at a stable equlibrium where all of the profits went to consumers and not the owners of slaves.

Ahmed writes:


The issue of who profits off of the cotton trade and who profits off of slave labor are two separate issues.

To use a more modern example, consider the auto market in the US. When foreign companies like Toyota located their manufacturing plants in Southern right-to-work states where labor was cheaper, they captured market share away from companies like General Motors.

However, that strategy was also available to other foreign companies. So competition between companies like Toyota and Honda meant that the lower labor costs were passed along to consumers in the form of lower auto prices.

In the same vein, while US cotton producers could capture market share from foreign producers, they still had to compete with each other. This is how the cost savings were passed along to consumers.

Later came the cotton gin. It also lowered the price of cotton. Again, it was consumers who benefited, not producers. The producers gain nothing from lower costs. Competition sees to it that this is so.

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