Home > Uncategorized > Paternalism, Slavery, and Experimental Economics

By Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy and Historians Against Slavery Treasurer


Dr. Robert Wright

As Anna Mae Duane and many others have shown, enslavers attempt to infantilize the enslaved to render them more amenable to working hard for almost nothing in return. Unruly slaves are unprofitable and, as shown time and again throughout history, downright dangerous, so if actual children cannot be enslaved the prudent enslaver, past and present, will try to render his adult slaves more childlike and hence controllable.

Recent experiments by economists Sandro Ambuehl, Douglas Bernheim, and Axel Ockenfels reveal a deeper layer. Many people, they prove, are “projective paternalists” willing, and perhaps even eager, to substitute their will for the will of other adults. While the underlying causes of projective paternalism are not yet clear, it appears deeply entrenched, especially when the projector believes that s/he is mentally superior to the others. This helps to explain the ubiquity of slavery over time and place and warns antislavery activists that modern slavery may have psychological roots as deep as its economic ones.

For two centuries, modern economists were content with thought and natural experiments, basically just observing and modeling the real world and looking for instances where some exogenous shock (some change from outside of a given model) affected one group but not another. What happened in North and South Korea, as well as in East and West Germany, following the Second World War were such natural laboratories and strengthened convictions that economic freedom is not just associated with economic growth but actually causes it.

About half a century ago, however, some economists realized that modeling and natural experimentation could get them only so far. Eager to supplant historians as the monarchs of the social sciences, they began to conduct true social scientific experiments, replete with randomly assigned control and treatment groups. They hit many bumps along the road, including discovering the need to reward participants adequately, lest the subjects exert insufficient interest in a given experiment’s outcome and thus blunt its real world applicability. Over time, though, experimentalists developed ingenious ways to parse the decision-making processes of actual human beings in realistic ways.

After all, researchers cannot simply approach people, ask what they really think about slavery, and expect truthful answers in return. Racists and abolitions will be forthright but most people will “go Mr. Mackey,” the lanky guidance counselor from South Park, and say something like “slavery is bad, mmmkay,” because that is what they think the researchers want to hear. So experimental economists have to get a bit sneaky and design experiments in ways that induce people to reveal their true preferences.

That is what Ambuehl and his associates, which sometimes includes 2012 Nobel winner Al Roth, have done in a series of experiments that show that many people are willing to restrict the choices of others, to infantilize them by ignoring their preferences, even their expressly stated ones. In one such experiment, paternalists would not allow others to consume edible insects unless the other people received at least $50 because that is how much the paternalists themselves would want before they would consume such disgusting little critters, even though some people actually pay to eat the bugs, which after all are food in some cultures.

In another experiment, subjects forced other people to accept larger but later monetary payments. Importantly, the experimental design allowed the researchers to conclude that the subjects were engaging in projective paternalism. In other words, they believed (well, technically they behaved as if they believed) that the imposition of their will was in the best interest of the other people. That should sound eerily familiar to any serious student of slavery, especially when combined with other experiments that show that people behave even more paternalistically when they believe they are mentally superior to others (as most people do).

A critic might protest that forcing people to accept a bigger payment later is a far cry from slavery. But is it? Do not enslavers regularly promise the enslaved a delayed remuneration, in the form of manumission or a place in Heaven, even when the enslaved would prefer a smaller, sooner payment, like a decent wage? Moreover, unlike enslavers, the projective paternalists in the experiment did not profit monetarily from imposing their will on others. They denied freedom free of charge, out of the belief that they knew what was best, just like good old mom and dad.

Of course none of this should be taken to exonerate enslavers, who willingly destroy lives and damage economies for their own monetary and psychological emolument. It does suggest, however, that paternalism is deeply engrained. Hopefully, further experimentation will reveal the extent to which projective paternalism, the urge to infantilize and enslave, is genetic and the extent to which it is learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other agents of socialization. Only then can we start to think about possible policy interventions that might help to unchain some of the 40 million human beings currently held in bondage throughout the globe.

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