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Asking the correct question – Publications – AEI

Summary:
AEI Asking the correct question A couple examples below of asking the wrong question. Wrong Question No. 1: What is the cause, explanation, or origin of poverty? Reason it’s the wrong question? Because human history is a story of abject poverty that has been the natural state of mankind for many, many thousands of years (see chart above) and therefore no explanation is needed or necessary to understand the historical origins of poverty. Thomas Hobbes famously described the natural state of mankind in the 17th century as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” More recently, Jonah Goldberg in his 2018 book Suicide of the West wrote that “The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death. It was like this for a very, very

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Asking the correct question

Asking the correct question - Publications – AEI

A couple examples below of asking the wrong question.

Wrong Question No. 1: What is the cause, explanation, or origin of poverty?

Reason it’s the wrong question? Because human history is a story of abject poverty that has been the natural state of mankind for many, many thousands of years (see chart above) and therefore no explanation is needed or necessary to understand the historical origins of poverty.

Thomas Hobbes famously described the natural state of mankind in the 17th century as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” More recently, Jonah Goldberg in his 2018 book Suicide of the West wrote that “The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death. It was like this for a very, very long time.”

As the natural state of the human condition for millennia, poverty really has no “cause” or “origin” and therefore the question “What causes poverty?” is meaningless and irrelevant.

Correct Question: Not what causes poverty, but what caused the unprecedented and phenomenal “hockey stick” rise in economic growth and human prosperity and flourishing illustrated in the chart above that suddenly started a few hundred years ago, especially in the West?

As Thomas Sowell explains in the video below:

It’s not the origins of poverty that need to be explained. What requires explaining are the things that created and sustained higher standards of living [illustrated in the chart above]. There’s no explanation needed for poverty. The species began in poverty. So what you really need to know is what are the things that enable some countries, and some groups within countries, to become prosperous.”

Wrong Question #2: What’s the reason for slavery and why did it exist in the US and elsewhere?

Reason it’s the wrong question? Because slavery was practiced everywhere for most of human history and is still practiced today. For example, according to that National Geographic article titled “21st Century Slaves“:

There are an estimated 27 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved — physically confined or restrained and forced to work, or controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.

Therefore, there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade [11 million total, and about 450,000, or about 4% of the total, who were brought to the United States]. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives.

And as Thomas Sowell wrote:

Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and color were enslaved – and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed.

Therefore to ask the reason for any type of human cruelty including slavery, which have existed for millennia and continues to exist today is to ask the wrong question as Gary Saul Morson points out in his article “How the great truth dawned“:

To ask the reason for cruelty is to ask the wrong question. People sometimes ask the reason for slavery, but since slavery was practiced everywhere for most of human history, the right question is the opposite one: why was slavery eventually abolished in many places? In the Bolshevik context, it is mercy and compassion that require explanation.

So there we have the Correct Question: Why was slavery eventually abolished in so many places including the US following thousands of years of the practice, and what’s the explanation for the rise of mercy and compassion that motivated the end of slavery in the US and elsewhere?

Here’s more from Sowell on the topic of abolishing slavery:

Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others. Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century – and then it was an issue only in Western civilization. Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of the 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there. But who is singled out for scathing criticism today? American leaders of the 18th century.

Deciding that slavery was wrong was much easier than deciding what to do with millions of people from another continent, of another race, and without any historical preparation for living as free citizens in a society like that of the United States, where they were 20 percent of the population.

It is clear from the private correspondence of Washington, Jefferson, and many others that their moral rejection of slavery was unambiguous, but the practical question of what to do now had them baffled. That would remain so for more than half a century.

In 1862, a ship carrying slaves from Africa to Cuba, in violation of a ban on the international slave trade, was captured on the high seas by the U.S. Navy. The crew was imprisoned and the captain was hanged in the United States – despite the fact that slavery itself was still legal at the time in Africa, Cuba, and in the United States. What does this tell us? That enslaving people was considered an abomination. But what to do with millions of people who were already enslaved was not equally clear.

That question was finally answered by a war in which one life was lost [620,000 Civil War casualties] for every six people freed [3.9 million]. Maybe that was the only answer. But don’t pretend today that it was an easy answer – or that those who grappled with the dilemma in the 18th century were some special villains when most leaders and most people around the world saw nothing wrong with slavery.

MP: There’s a lot time spent discussing the two wrong questions above rather than the two correct questions. Focusing on the correct questions would be a lot, lot more productive than wasting time on the wrong questions.

Asking the correct question
Mark Perry

Mark Perry
Mark J. Perry is concurrently a scholar at AEI and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. He is best known as the creator and editor of the popular economics blog Carpe Diem. At AEI, Perry writes about economic and financial issues for American.com and the AEIdeas blog.

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