They Are But Men Like Us

Sam reminds us that lies and violence are the system, and suggests that the worst get on top.

I had the pleasure of dining with Richard Wagner, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Dan Hammond two summers ago at the illustrious, but now-on-hiatus Adam Smith Summer Institute that David Levy and Sandra Peart organize at the University of Richmond. The other gentlemen were gracious enough to not split the check evenly amongst us that evening.

In conversation I discussed my work on William Wilburforce for abolition in Great Britain. My model argues that reform came at a great cost, and that the same results could have been achieved if the abolitionists had directed their resources toward purchasing manumission directly, in order to generate sympathy between slaveowner and slave. My general premise is that reform that does not redeem the oppressor in situations of systematic injustice will inevitably give rise to new injustices.

I was leaning hard on Wilburforce, suggesting that ambitions in Parliament drove his efforts toward abolition. Creation of a dedicated set of Baptists (evangelicals) makes it easier to identify Bootleggers from whom to collect tidy rents.

But O’Driscoll urged me to give Wilberforce the benefit of the doubt, in order to make my case more robust. T’was not the ambition nor the latent self-interest that drove Wilberforce’s efforts toward a second-best solution. Rather, the nature of the beast that is representative democracy is the root source of the emergence of special interest groups. Evangelicals became an internally cycling loose coalition that effectively captured the median voter for most of the 19th and 20th centuries in Great Britain and the United States.

The lesson is that we can assume the very best of intentions by the agents within our models of government, but where there is occasion for faction, it will emerge, with negative consequences for the whole.

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