Monday, October 08, 2007

Realism and Idealism

I forget who tipped me to this post, but it's a very interesting discussion of the suppression of the international slave trade in the 1800's. From the conclusion:

"The suppression of the transatlantic slave trade, and the role of law and the courts in its undoing, is a remarkable story about the complex relationship between political power and moral ideas. Most people who study international relations are realists of one sort or another, and in conventional realist wisdom states act to support intangible and idealistic goals like human rights only when those actions are relatively costless: whatever their rhetoric, nations choose money and power over their ideals.

Suppressing the slave trade was, however, extremely costly. By one modern estimate, Britain’s effort cost an average of nearly two percent of its national annual income for each year between 1807 and 1867, and the direct costs of its yearly efforts between 1816 and 1862 were roughly equal to the annual profits it had received from the trade between 1761 and 1807. Not only was it costly, but it required a very long national attention span. The resources expended on suppression required the continued commitment of successive governments over a period of decades.

...the weight of the evidence suggests that Britain pursued the abolition of the slave trade because most people in Britain thought it was the right thing to do."

Any student of government has to weigh the relative value of a legal mandate versus winning the hearts and minds. This piece comes down on the side of legal mandates.

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