The government of Virginia just removed the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, erected in Richmond during the Jim Crow era. Contrary to today’s ruling intelligentsia and government, their precursors were not perfect.
But let’s be serious: Jim Crow governments were certainly despicable. So was the federal government, which long promoted policies that favored discrimination. So would be a pure woke government who would simply discriminate against new hated groups, discrimination being the central business of the unconstrained Leviathan. (See also my post “Jim Crow: More Racist than the Railroads,” Econlog, December 18, 2020.)
This being said, one should not applaud governments removing monuments that happen to go against current ideological fads. The removal of a statue, even by the same government who set it up or maintained it, looks a bit too much like burning books, which the Enlightenment and classical liberalism fought. (On this general point, see “Left-wing Activists Are Using Old Tactics in a Mew Assault on Liberalism,” in last week’s issue of The Economist.)
Battles over statues erected or maintained by governments remind us that most of what the state does is not the production of public goods in the standard economic sense—even if we could perhaps consider the general remembrance of history as a public good.
History is what it has been and we cannot change it. We should endeavor to learn from it, not to hide it as if the current rulers were finally the noble savages that past utopians dreamed of. If the maintenance (or, for that matter, the removal) of a historical statue costs too much, perhaps the government could simply auction it off. Woke billionaires and foundations who want to hide it could also bid, thereby learning something about free markets.(26 COMMENTS)