Subject: Re: The term "intellectual property" considered useful
From: "Ben Tilly" <btilly@gmail.com>
Date: Mon, 15 May 2006 09:17:58 -0700

 Mon, 15 May 2006 09:17:58 -0700
We're going around in circles, so I'll just respond to a couple of
points and, unless something extraordinary is said in reply, let the
thread drop.

On 5/15/06, Stephen J. Turnbull <turnbull@sk.tsukuba.ac.jp> wrote:
> >>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <btilly@gmail.com> writes:
>
>     >> It doesn't.  Not without a lot more work.
>
>     Ben> I agree that it is not a proof.  However it is damned
>     Ben> suggestive, and it would be extraordinary in my eyes if the
>     Ben> South could really be over 9% more efficient as a free
>     Ben> society than the North.  Doubly so since the reasons that I
>     Ben> can think of why free societies are more efficient are ones
>     Ben> that worked better in the North than the South.
>
> Honestly, I don't see anything suggestive or extraordinary here.
>
> The South had a relatively simple problem (extracting agricultural
> product from the land, exploiting labor).  It seems reasonable to
> suppose that that simplicity makes it easier to be efficient in the
> sense of "fraction of potential output achieved."  If IRC that the
> efficiency that Fogel meant was something like "factor productivity,"
> pure rent on the excellent land and superior weather conditions in the
> South could very easily account for a much larger differential in
> factor productivity, measured in value units.  But value units are all
> we have to work with, since the North was *not* an agricultural
> economy, certainly not one based on cotton exports.

The simplicity of the problem is exactly what makes slave labour more
feasible, IMO.  Because the problem is simple, it is easy to tell who
is shirking, and therefore who to whip.  With more complex
environments it is much harder to decide how much someone is working,
and therefore harder to make them work hard.

[...]
>     Ben> Also note that this was not originally a question, this was
>     Ben> an ASSERTION that I questioned.  I've offered some relatively
>     Ben> concrete data backing up the position that the theft of
>     Ben> slavery was (temporarily) worthwhile for the thieves.  I have
>     Ben> yet to see you quote any actual data for the assertion that
>     Ben> it is not.
>
> And you won't, because I did not make any such assertion, not by your
> definition of "worthwhile".

Here is how this thread devolved.  David Lynch said that people could
not be owned.  I commented that they could be, and have been, however
it is wrong to own people.  Therefore once it became economically
feasible to act, society banned owning people.  You responded by
saying that it has been economically feasible to act for the last 2000
years, what changed is that it became profitable to do so.  I
responded by saying that I did not see the profit.  Then Roblimo
jumped in with a long essay about why it was in the slaveowners
interest to give up slavery.  Roblimo's essay had many obvious
mistakes, so I responded in detail, and then we were off.

The assertion that I questioned, and still question, is that it was
profitable to ban slavery.

> What I implicitly asserted was that the South could have been at least
> as productive under a free regime, assuming it was politically
> feasible to get to it.  You counter that the South was more productive
> than the North (at least, that is what Fogel claimed IIRC), and
> conclude my assertion was false.

I countered with more arguments than that.  Another one that I brought
up was the fact that if free labour was more productive then I'd
expect at least one plantation owner to have tried free labour with
success.  The fact that that didn't happen suggests that the
monotonous work of picking cotton was indeed something that slaves
could be made to do efficiently.

[...]
> You need to argue, at a distance of 150 years, that the South's
> agricultural efficiency was directly comparable with the North's
> commercial and manufacturing efficiency, at some specific ratio of
> cotton to manufactures.  Further, that the South's economy would have
> been no more benefited by freedom than the North's.  Both points will
> take some arguing.

No, I do not.  I merely need to argue that the South was in the right
line of business for the South (given its resources, etc) to be in,
and that slavery was more efficient for the South than free workers
were.  For the first, comparison with the North strongly suggests that
other lines of business would not have been as profitable as cotton
for the South.  You've made comments that I take as general agreement
with that.  Then the question becomes whether slavery was an efficient
way of producing cotton.  I've produced a number of lines of reasoning
(the economic valuation of slaves, the lack of successful plantations
without slaves, the simplicity of the work) which suggest that slavery
was, indeed, efficient.

Yes, I also compared the South with the North in terms of economic
efficiency.  The fact that the South was more efficient than the North
suggests that it would be extraordinary if the South would be more
efficient than the North if it adopted Northern methods.  You've
pointed out the value of being on the best cotton producing land in a
time when cotton was a valuable thing to produce.  I accept that fact
as significant.  Therefore the question

> Nor will you see me quote any actual data, because there isn't any
> respectable data, one way or the other.  The South didn't try freedom
> (for the slaves) until it was forced to, the capital stock was
> seriously diminished by war damage, and the post-war economy was
> warped by the so-called Reconstruction and "carpet-bagging Yankees".
> Ie, the ante-/post-bellum comparison is even more broken than the
> North/South one.

I've pointed this fact out as well.  Note, however, that I've seen
claims that the majority of war damage was not damage from the war,
but neglect because the men who should have been looking after that
land were at war.  Furthermore you've neglected to point out that an
immediate consequence of freedom was that a third of the blacks simply
refused to work - a fact which greatly diminished the productivity of
the region.

> My argument is simply that under the hypothesis of political
> feasibility for the transition, the physical conditions of production
> in the antebellum South under freedom would be the same as under
> slavery (which is a tautology), and the economic conditions would be
> improved according the usual arguments favoring free economies (which
> as far as I know you accept---with qualifications, of course!)  Anyway,
>  *I* accept those arguments as basically valid, including this case.

Since I'm not sure what those arguments are, I don't know whether I accept them.

[...]
>     Ben> IMO, willingness to go to war over perceptions of someone
>     Ben> else's freedom has more to do with the effects of propaganda
>     Ben> than anything else.
>
> I don't recall using the words "go to war."  Good Lord, are you
> confusing me with Tom??!?

No.  You said that people have demonstrated that they care about
freedom.  In the context of the current conversation, the most obvious
way that they've demonstrated this was by being willing to go to war
over it.  Hence my leap of thought.

>     Ben> I thought you were trying to use economics to define what is
>     Ben> moral.
>
> My dear Ben!  You should know that to a modern economist, "de gustibus
> non est disputandum."  Morals are just God's tastes,[1] and even less
> disputable by economic methods than the tastes of mortals.

That is what I'd have hoped...

>     >> Of course you know to what subject Adam Smith's chair was
>     >> dedicated.  It's certainly appropriate that the somewhat arid
>     >> subject of modern economics be given a different name, yet some
>     >> of us practicing economists aspire to be worthy to return to
>     >> such a chair someday.
>
>     Ben> Perhaps you DO want to define morality after all...
>
> I grant that there are serious, sophisticated attempts to clarify the
> meaning of morality via economic theory (cf. the works of Amartya
> Sen).  I am not qualified to explain that school of thought, and I
> haven't contributed to it.

Those attempts are not exactly new.  (/me whispers "utilitarianism")

> So, "define," no.  Contribute to the application of some assumed
> definition to reality, yes.  Heaven knows, this world needs all the
> application it can get.

I would prefer it if more people in this world were reality-based, but
that is a flamewar for another day.

> Footnotes:
> [1]  For all you agnostics, deists, atheists, and/or Satanists, who
> are lacking a sense of humor, that's a metaphor, OK?

Was that specifically directed at me [1]? :-)

Cheers,
Ben

Footnotes:
[1] I am an atheist, and often have trouble realizing when people are joking.