In Defense of Columbus

I have, obviously, a great love for exploration, from the navigation feats of the Polynesian mariners to Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps on the moon. Everything about these tales is incredible, from the bravery of the navigators to the fact that any of them survived the amazingly harsh conditions they encountered.

This was being passed around on FB the other day:

13925375_1009347419180339_7303719590160982869_nOh, I know the answer! I know! *waves hand wildly in the air* Pick me! PICK ME!!! *cries* oh god why don’t they ever pick me?

It’s the Taino. Yes, I knew that before he said it. Obscure ethnic groups are one of my things, bro.

Somehow I don’t think “knowing the Taino were the people Columbus encountered” actually gets me to “agreeing with this guy’s political agenda.” This guy probably has lots of nice, not-very-aware students in his classes who’ve never heard of the Taino but still think Columbus was a bad person.

Me? I’d rather study Columbus than the Taino, because Columbus discovered the New World, and they didn’t. (They didn’t discover the Old World, either.) Columbus is one of the single most important people who ever lived because his discoveries completely altered the path of human history.

To be fair, Columbus didn’t act alone–he didn’t invent or build the ships he sailed, build up a fortune and finance his endeavor, invent the compass or astrolabe, nor the printing press that allowed for the distribution of his findings. Had Columbus never lived, sooner or later, someone else would have done the same things he did. Nevertheless, Columbus lived, and he’s the guy who found the Americas.

The Taino might indeed have been the nicest, sweetest people in human history, and Columbus may have been a colossal jerk, but Columbus is still the guy who changed history.

We’ve been discussing lately the accomplishments of Vitus Bering, a Russian-employed Dane who led a massive undertaking across Siberia and got to Alaska before, as far as I can tell, the much nearer Chinese and Japanese had mapped the area. (Though the Japanese did conduct trade with the Spaniards in the Pacific and traveled with them over to Spanish-ruled Mexico back in the 1600s.) This was a tremendous undertaking, which cost a great many lives and rubles.

Nothing like the Age of Exploration happened before, and unless we explore the stars, it likely won’t again.

It is a history worth remembering.

Useful, scarce, and ownable

To have value, a thing must be:

  1. Useful
  2. Scarce
  3. Ownable

Number one needs no elaboration.

Number two ought to be obvious, but for some reason people fail miserably at it. If the supply of something is infinite–or you operate as though it were–then you have no incentive to preserve it. You may simply keep using and using it. Obviously sunlight is “valuable” in the sense that you cannot live without it, but how much would you pay for it? Nothing, for it is infinitely available. Would you conserve sunlight? Of course not. But a scuba diver pays for air and conserves it carefully, for air beneath the waves is dear indeed.

That which people own, they care for. That which they do not own, they frequently destroy. Compare the state of an owned house to a rental to a squat. These are different kinds of ownership–a renter owns a right to live in a house for a while, though not forever; a squatter may be evicted at any time. A patent lets you develop an idea by guaranteeing you the profits from its sales; an employment contract entitle you to another person’s labor or the products of it.

Without ownership, people cannot invest resources. Would you plant crops on a piece of land that might get bulldozed tomorrow to put up an office building? Would you put up an office building if squatters might be allowed to turn it into apartments tomorrow?

I started thinking about all of this in the context of the Taino, Caribbean Indians who were wiped out by the Spaniards about 500 years ago.

(Hey, did you know that we are temporally closer to the American Revolution than the American Revolution was to Columbus?)

The Spaniards basically treated the Indians like an infinite resource: they’d send them into the fields without food or water and beat them if they stopped working until they dropped dead about 36 hours later. Then they’d send out the next batch of Indians, to work until they fell dead.

When they ran out of Indians, they started importing Africans.

The treatment of slaves in Africa look a lot like the treatment of the Taino, except that no one ran out of Africans. At the funeral of King Gezo, King of Dahomey, Africa, “his loving subjects manifested their sorrow by sacrificing eight hundred negroes to his memory.” Efunsetan Aniwura, a Nigerian chieftess, was praised in song:

“The woman, who instils fear in others,
the fearsome one, who slaughters slaves to celebrate Id-el-Kabir.
Efunsetan is one force, Ibadan is another.
The valiant that challenges the Almighty God,
if the most high does not answer her on time,
Efunsetan leaves the earth to go and meet him in Heaven…”

It cost money to bring African slaves to the Caribbean, so they were slightly scarcer than in Africa and treated, correspondingly, slightly better. Not a lot better, but better than the Taino.

Getting worked to death in the fields (or, if you got captured by the Aztecs, getting butchered for dinner), is obviously labor’s worst-case-scenario. This happens when you have:

  1. No state to protect you, and
  2. Skills that are in near infinite supply.

(Thus also the buffalo and the passenger pigeon.)

There is an extremely large supply of humans, whose lives are of infinitely greater value to themselves than to anyone else.

A functional state protects its people from harm; in return, the people owe the state their allegiance. A state that is not owned is worthless–the German people do not “own” their state any more, because they do not have the right to bar others from it–a people that is not protected by their state will soon be dead. (edited) Skilled workers demand better wages than unskilled ones, because fewer people can do their job. Work a skilled employee to death and you might not find a replacement.

Perhaps labor’s best-case-scenario is to have one’s educational expenses covered by a corporation (or society itself) in exchange for a number of years of service to that corporation (or society), in order to produce a small number of highly-skilled people who will be able to command high salaries and good living conditions. An exam or other qualification standards to ensure that inferior workers don’t dilute the profession also helps.

A company cannot afford to invest in training employees if it cannot guarantee a return on its investment–that is, some right of ownership on the employees future labor. Unskilled laborers have little of value to offer on their own in return for education, except the promise of their future labor.

Once the debt is paid, the laborer owns his labor, though he may continue his contract with his company if he so desires.

In the US, doctors and lawyers have it pretty good–well paid and hardly ever worked to death. Entrance to these professions is tightly restricted–only people who have received legal or medical degrees from accredited colleges and passed an exam on the subject are legally allowed to practice. Individuals bear the cost of their initial educations (usually funded based on the promise of future wages paid back to the banks,) but lawyers and doctors then endure many years of on-the-job training–fellowships and residency for doctors, “associate” status for lawyers. At the end of this apprenticeship, lawyers hope to become owners of the company–partners–and doctors, attending physicians.

Wages have stagnated in America since the 60s while owners’ share of profits has increased, most likely because the labor market itself has massively increased due to mass immigration and the entry of women into the workforce. One of the great ironies of our modern age is unions advocating for increased immigration.