Is it OK to Use the R Word?
By Pierre Lemieux
A reader of a recent post of mine blamed me for using the R word: “redneck.” (His comment was not published because he was a new commenter and we could not confirm his email address.) What I call “redneck” is close to Merriam-Webster’s definition, minus the pejorative connotation:
1. sometimes disparaging: a white member of the Southern rural laboring class
2. often disparaging: a person whose behavior and opinions are similar to those attributed to rednecks
I use “redneckitude” as a much-needed neologism for the typical redneck’s behavior, opinions, character, and preferences (to use an economic term). Jim Bovard tells me that the neologism “might be tolerable” until a better one is found. On the model of “wokeness,” perhaps “redneckess” would be better?
The featured image of this post represents how redneckitude is seen by the intellectual establishment and part of popular and political culture. Jim Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats (Simon & Schuster, 1997) helps understand how the redneck concept now extends to any lower-class, white, gun-toting, God-loving but sin-committing, flag-waving but often non-voting, rural individual. Rednecks exist in Vermont and Maine too. The redneck is also self-reliant, although this may have changed in the mounting socialist culture. He is certainly not a standard-bearer for the 18th-century Enlightenment.
The major point of the economics of redneckitude is that, as a social scientist, the economist is not morally judgmental. Rednecks have preferences and make choices according to these preferences. These choices have social consequences (including “economic” consequences in the narrow sense) that are of scientific interest for the understanding of society. And note that, like in other sciences, words used in economics are just labels that may carry historical meaning but are mainly useful for analytical purposes.
This methodological approach explains the historical tolerance of economists for eccentric preferences and lifestyles. For this reason, I don’t consider the R word as pejorative. I even share some preferences with rednecks. I might have titled the present post “In Defense of Redneckitude.”
In New York Times article (“A Profession With an Egalitarian Core”, March 16, 2013), Tyler Cowen pointed out many historical instances of the economists’ tolerance, including:
In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people’s natural equality. …
Professors Levy and Peart coined the phrase “analytical egalitarianism” to describe the underpinnings of this tradition. For example, Adam Smith cited birth and fortune, as opposed to intrinsically different capabilities, as the primary reasons for differences in social rank. And the classical economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill promoted equal legal and institutional rights for women long before such views were fashionable.
This tolerance has limits that, in the classical-liberal or libertarian perspective, correspond to the point where some individuals coercively ban the preferences of other individuals. In this perspective, all forms of apartheid or government discrimination are beyond the pale of tolerance. There is a significant difference between harboring esthetic or lifestyle beliefs on the one hand and, on the other hand, wanting to impose those on others.
For example, many rednecks may have had or perhaps still have racist personal preferences, which would be as acceptable (although not commendable) as the contemporary wokes’ anti-white opinions are (although not commendable); but the desire to impose such preferences through the coercive power of the state is antithetical to tolerance and thus unacceptable. No surprise that economists have generally been opposed to slavery and, as shown by David Levy and Sandra Peart, this opposition earned economics the pejorative label of “dismal science” by conservative Thomas Carlyle (see Levy and Peart’s “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part 1. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century,” Econlib, January 22, 2001).
Another sort of limit to most economists’ tolerance relates to the development of children. Considering children as future sovereign individuals who should not be robbed of their future choices and opportunities may suggest more complex classical-liberal values (James Buchanan’s, for example) but such reflections would take us too far from this short post.