I recently spoke to a trained economist who argued that racism was bad, but only because it was bad for the economy.
What can we say here? (Beyond Oof.)
PART 1: No of course that doesn’t work.
For an hour and a half, this guy argued that racism is bad because it leads us to misallocate talent, which introduces inefficiencies into the economy. We’d be better-off if we allocated talent more accurately, untainted by our racist biases and prejudices.
What an ambitious claim.
First off, it seems wrong on its face—Are we sure the economically optimal amount of racism is always zero? Is that always going to maximize GDP or whatever?
If not, racism would actually be good sometimes. Maybe a different or even higher level of racism would boost the GDP. Whoops!
(If GDP’s too crude, sub in whatever sabermetric would emerge from the Completed Economic Science to capture all economic value perfectly and call it GDP*.)
While we’re here, I’m not even sure that having zero slaves is economically optimal. Maybe GDP* would go a little higher if 5% or 10% or 99% of the population were slaves? Who knows!
What this suggests is that we’re dealing with the wrong kind of reason to explain the fundamental badness of racism.
We think racism is clearly evil. Period!
The cracks in this economic analysis are beginning to show:
It makes the badness of racism unclear. Would less racism really improve the economy? Idk? Probably??
The deeper issue: It makes the badness of racism contingent, which means now racism isn’t necessarily bad. It might even be good under weird enough economic circumstances!
You can see how this trivializes the badness of racism. An economic recession is a bad thing. But racism is evil and wrong.
Simple lesson: Bad economic effects are the wrong kind of reason to hang the entire badness of racism on. Surprise!
So what went wrong?
PART 2: How did we end up here?
Calling this position implausible is perhaps too charitable. (Evil might be better?) But here’s my best reconstruction of how you c0uld end up there.
Suppose you’re a liberal—hold on, you might be surprised whether you really are in the sense I’m about to describe!
Liberals—in the philosophical sense—are committed to a powerful conception of individual liberty. Liberal society promises to let me freely pursue my own personal vision of the good life. My private life must be kept free of government meddling as far as possible.
By the way, liberals hate big government. They argue that the government shouldn’t interfere with individual liberty in the name of the common good unless it’s on extremely minimal, uncontroversial grounds.
The government can sort of regulate public health, but only because good health is useful for a wide range of private lives you and I might choose, and only as far as they can avoid trampling our liberty trying to make us healthier. The government’s use of force to uphold the common peace must be similarly justified as unfortunately necessary and minimized.
But the government can’t make claims about what all this usefulness is for. What’s ultimately valuable? Bad question! Even a value like happiness can’t be argued for straightforwardly. After all, if you value a life of hedonistic indulgence, and I value a life of detached contentment, who is our government to say whose notion of happiness is better?
A liberal government might have to launder happiness in terms of desire-fulfilment or (the dressed-up, economic term) preference-satisfaction, fancy words that try to defer back to our own private visions of what’s ultimately valuable. Any intrusion by the government can only be justified in terms of what is useful for us as sovereign individuals deciding for ourselves what is ultimately worth pursuing. But your ultimate values are individual to you and cannot be compared to mine.
Some things, like fascism, might get ruled out in this way, at least in theory. (Fascists surely undermine the rights of others to live the lives they choose!) But overall, liberalism is going to pitch a huge tent including all sorts of lives as acceptable, and only argue against anyone in terms of what’s 1) useful in folks’ private lives, or 2) dangerous to the liberal project as a whole.
I told you—you might be surprised whether you count as a true liberal!
Anyway, if you think this is right, how can we talk about values in public?
What can it mean for us to agree that racism is bad?
Well, how can I appeal to any of my ultimate values, even if you and I happen to share them? My private religious and ethical thoughts are so individual to me that they can’t be compared to anyone else’s who might disagree. This isn’t just incommensurability; it precludes public ethical conversation, criticism, or progress. It’s nihilism.
Is racism dangerous to the liberal project? Even if 79% of Republicans believe racism still exists in America, I take it folks disagree how big a deal racism is today. And if you don’t want to go that route, your only alternative is to argue that racism isn’t useful.
And how do you do that in an impartial way? Well if you can appeal to economic figures—those are just numbers! Isn’t growing GDP helpful for giving people more choices in terms of how they wanna live? And isn’t high unemployment bad for their individual liberty? Look, it’s right there in the name, they can’t even work!
What else can I do? What else do you want?
Of course I might personally condemn racism for private religious reasons, or because I’ve seen how detrimental it can be for other people trying to live the sorts of lives they would choose if their society empowered them a little more, or out of my own personal experiences.
But I can’t appeal to any of that. Those are my private values and experiences, and over there you have yours. Many well-meaning liberals think that on ultimate values, we just can’t decide who’s Wrong and who’s Right through rational argument. That’s a big reason we won’t let the government do it!
PART 3: What would a fuller answer look like?
In the last month, you might have noticed me despairing over the inadequacy of argument to make headway against committed or sophisticated opponents. Curiosity and care are prerequisites for making argumentative progress, not things you can beat out of the other party with increasingly revolting reductios. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) But in moments of good faith, we can appeal to tons of shared ultimate values beyond individual liberty. The good life isn’t quite as utterly mysterious as the committed liberal might have made it out to be. So why’s racism bad? Here are just a few shared ultimate values:
Domination and oppression aren’t just bad, they’re evil.
It’s wrong to treat people as brutely gradable things.
Superficial hatred of others causing unjustifiable suffering seems really bad.
We might have warranted precaution given the history of eugenic movements. (This may initially look like a matter of usefulness, but it ultimately rests on the irrevocable evils of things like genocide.)
Even liberalism attaches deep importance to some notion of equality. (That’s why my vision of the good is just as valid as yours!)
To say nothing of the fact that so many racist beliefs are just insultingly false...
Look, there’s a much broader basis of shared values that we can appeal to here, but that means we can’t shy away from developing the tools of ethical criticism. We have to start talking about our ultimate values, and seeing how they hang together, how pulling one thread (individual liberty) seems to tangle another (equality), and what we’re supposed to do now that there are at least two different values that might intelligibly compete or even come into conflict with one another. GDP* looks to be in trouble. It won’t always be clear how to proceed, or what even counts as progress. But surely we can agree on values a little further than The Economy.