Two more summer reading books explore aspects of oppression that are too easily overlooked – and pushed under the rug.
The first is a new book by Ben Campbell, Richmond's Unhealed History (2012, Brandylane Publishers). This is one of the best economic history books I've ever read—and is addressed to a wider audience of Americans, not simply residents of this city. After all, America's colonial experience set the narrative for the founding of our country and its most painful episode, the Civil War. Understanding this history is important for creating meaning from our past and exploring our paths for the future.
Campbell weaves a fascinating narrative of colonial conquest of native Americans followed by the African slave trade, topped with a nuanced analysis of economic policies of segregation that sadly can be felt to this day. The book uses striking original sources.
One account that caught my eye was this report from Charles Dickens, who visited Richmond in 1842. He lamented the morally debilitating effects of slavery on the slave owner:
"But the darkness – not of skin, but mind -- which meets the stranger's eye at every turn; the brutalizing and blotting out of all fairer characters traced by Nature's hand; immeasurably outdo his worst belief. I left the last of them behind me... and went on my way with a grateful heart that I was not doomed to live where slavery was, and had never had my senses blunted to its wrongs and horrors in a slave-rocked cradle" (page 107).
Living in an oppressive society can degrade your morals -- certainly a topic that Adam Smith was interested in. There is a notion that oppression ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Campbell's book is a reminding light that more has happened—and continues to happen—in terms of elites manipulating leavers of economic opportunity.
The second book is by Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (The New Press, 2001) which came out more than a decade ago. I've read snippets of it before but never had the pleasure of reading from start to finish.
Folbre makes the case that economies have always relied upon an invisible workforce, whose incentives varied but were many times characterized by "love, obligation, and reciprocity" (p. vii). Women have disproportionately been a part of this invisible workforce, not always out of choice. In many cases cultural, political and economic barriers prevented women from engaging in paid commerce.
The rise of economic opportunities for women is a mixed blessing: many of the care-giving roles previously occupied by women are not being taken up by men, so as a society we are more and more commercializing care relationships.
The result could, in theory, be better or worse: but Folbre asks us to consider: would you rather be cared for by someone whose sole motive is money or someone who is guided also by love or affection? Not all forces for economic action arise from pecuniary considerations and other motives can at times be more powerful. Folbre thus criticizes economists for being excessively focused on money as a measure of human welfare.
[Minor quibble: Folbre sets up Adam Smith as a straw man whose invisible "hand" she can then tear down. In particular she is wrong on a main point: Smith does not say the moral sentiments are "given" or "constant." Far from it! They are developed or cultivated over one's lifetime. A virtuous person is on a path, and the moral imagination can be stimulated by the arts and by experience or dulled by a stifling work. So, while it is tempting to attack Smith (so as to push this book's title), Smith's analysis runs far deeper than many realize.]