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Monday, April 27, 2009

Pontifications on the Extended Order - Part 5: The Economics of Slavery

Slavery ended in the United States in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment. The narrative can do nothing but make you proud of humanity. Courageous members of the underground railroad. Secret networks organizing the slaves to escape north. A war partly fought for their freedom. Just about everybody except those evil southern slave owners came to realize the evil that slavery is.

Nice story, but I'm skeptical. Why did the populace suddenly come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong when it had been practiced for tens of millennia?

As I've written in previous Pontifications, humans are nasty and brutish and some of them are short (or something like that). In addition, almost everything can be explained by power, and power alone. The history of slavery in America, in my opinion, is no exception.

I suspect that the heroes of the underground railroad were scorned much like PETA animal rights terrorists are today. They were likely considered lunatic extremists. Consider if in 50 years, animals actually do get full rights, then the PETA extremists of today will be remembered as visionary heroes!

So why then? What changed the power equation? First, consider that southern black slaves may have on average done better than their free northern counterparts:
Fogel and Engerman argue that slaves in the American South lived better than did many industrial workers in the North. Fogel based this analysis largely on plantation records and claimed that slaves worked less, were better fed [...] A survey of economic historians concludes that ... 23% "agreed" and 35% "agreed with provisos" with their argument that "the material (rather than psychological) conditions of the lives of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers in the decades before the Civil War."
Ultimately, I think that people are much better exploiting themselves than being exploited by others, and the free northern black, caring for himself, ultimately provided much better value per dollar which made the north more powerful. Even more importantly, rapid industrialization required flexibility of labor, and slavery is the most inflexible form of labor possible. The South was being held back economically by slavery. That is why it happened then.

Note that Fogel points out that the economics of agricultural based on slavery was more efficient than without it. Even if true, it doesn't change the fact that western civilization was in the midst of transitioning from an agrarian to industrial society. What mattered was not the efficiency of farms, but the efficiency of industry. The North, with only free men, excelled at industry and was therefore becoming ever more powerful relative to the South.

So then our morals evolved to catch up with the reality on the ground which was caused by power.

In the next pontification, I'll look at the fall of the European empires. The power equation changed, that's why the British left, not because they suddenly felt bad for the oppressed.


erp said...

You old cynic you. Does this mean Lincoln was not a saint?

Harry Eagar said...

You suspect, eh? You don't have to suspect. You can study death rates. I have.

I read Fogel and Engerman when 'Time on the Cross' came out, 40 years ago.

I don't get what you say about power. Power was long content to let the South do as it wanted. It wasn't a change in relative power, it was something else.

Power also can hardly explain why the Danes banned the slave trade in 1807 or why the British made slavery illegal in its colonies in 1837 after having made it (judge-made law) illegal at home nearly a hundred years earlier.

Bret said...

The economic efficiency (power) argument is actually supported by your examples of the Danes and British. Both were industrializing and becoming trading powers while reducing their reliance on Agriculture during those times so the usefulness of slaves dropped.

Hey Skipper said...

Except for politics, perception is not reality.

The slave owning class perceived that slave labor was essential to production.

Instead, the reality was an arbitrary pricing of labor well below (not zero, there were still food and shelter costs) its market rate. In effect, slave labor amounted to a complete negation of supply and demand.

Supply and demand, though, is not merely a good idea, it is the law.

Such a negation inevitably leads to a mis-allocation of resources.

Serfdom in Europe was scarcely any different from slavery.

Both no longer exist (outside the Islamic world, anyway) for precisely the same reason: the perception that they are necessary, vs. the reality that they are inferior.

I think there are two reasons for the relatively rapid shift in attitudes towards slavery: the Enlightenment, and Eli Whitney.

The first made the requisite attitude towards Africans increasingly difficult to maintain; the second torpedoed the slavery induced over reliance on labor.

Note: Stalin also relied on slavery. Didn't work for him, either.

Bret said...

"The first made the requisite attitude towards Africans increasingly difficult to maintain; the second torpedoed the slavery induced over reliance on labor."

Yes. I think the second (Eli Whitney like innovations and changes in the economy causing the mis-pricing of slave labor) was the leading cause. Indeed, I think the Enlightenment itself was influenced by the second.

Hey Skipper said...

I think the Enlightenment itself was influenced by the second.I think the Enlightenment started first, and it was a consequence of the Reformation.

Once under way though, the Enlightenment and technological change became mutually reinforcing.

Harry Eagar said...

Except that the guns delivered by Whitney were more expensive and took longer to make than by traditional methods. See Hounshell's 'From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932.'

(And didn't have interchangeable parts, either.)

I chuckled at Bret's image of gangs of African slaves milking Danish cows. The places where Danes owned slaves were not rapidly industrializing in 1807, and they are not industrialized yet.

That is also largely true of the places where Britons owned slaves in 1837.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Enlightenment and technological change became mutually reinforcing."

Indeed. I actually think of them as being the same thing.

Harry Eagar wrote: "Except that the guns delivered by Whitney..."

I think Hey Skipper was referring to the Cotton Gin portion of Whitney's career.

Harry Eagar said...

If he was, then he needs to explain why slavery in the US expanded mightily after the invention of the gin. The gin is credited by economic historians with making the opening of the Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi were the Southwest in those days) to cotton farming.

One reason that southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention in '87 were willing to go along with the elimination of the slave trade in '07 was that in '87 it appeared that slavery was dying out on its own.

It was already nearly extinct in the northern colonies, and because tobacco cultivation was declining (due to worn out fields and no fertilizer) in the Middle Colonies, there were more slaves than anybody had much use for.

These were expensive to maintain but troublesome to manumit.

The demand for slaves in the Black Belt suddenly turned Virginia slaves from liabilities to capital assets.

But I took him to be referring to assembly line production using interchangeable parts -- something Whitney claimed to have developed but did not.

Bret said...


I'll go with your explanation of Hey Skipper's reference to Whitney, unless and until Hey Skipper wishes to clarify.

Hey Skipper said...

My reference to Whitney pertained to the cotton gin.

I remember being taught in school that it was the beginning of the end for cotton-based chattel slavery.

However, based upon Harry's comment, I looked it into it last night. Consequently, I must admit that my taken-for-granted observation may well be wrong.

More correctly, I should have said that the Enlightenment led to an increasing, secular, antipathy towards slavery.

Simultaneously, technological change yielded means of production that were superior in every way to those whose resources were mis-allocated because of the distorted pricing of one factor of production.

Harry Eagar said...

In a broader sense than the gin, I'd agree with Skipper that the replacement of human muscle labor by steam and levers worked against the continuance of slavery.

Even if inefficient, slavery could still pay even when it took 2 slaves to do the work of 1 free laborer -- as long as it cost less to maintain 2 slaves, as it often did. (Not to mention that you could reap a capital gain -- with 0% tax -- by selling the slave's children, which was not a bennie for employers of free labor.

But if a steam engine could replace 100 free laborers, then it could maybe replace 200 slaves.

(I'm not taking sides about whether, in fact, American slavery was more or less profitable than American free labor. But slaves typically did as little labor for the master as they could get away with.)

Slavery has disappeared even from places that no one would call Enlightened, and it did not disappear from places, like Germany, that were at the forefront of the Englightenment.

A lot of stuff was going on when slavery began to be questioned seriously and widely for the first time: dramatic changes in the uses to which labor was put; fundamental rethinking of man's place in society; profound doubts about how to justify the political organization of societies and states.

One not mentioned in any histories I know of but one I think was probably important was the fact that at the same time men like Locke and Sewell were questioning the ordering of society, a lot of publicity was being given to the despot Muley in Morocco, whose scandalous treatment of slaves got the attention of Englishmen because a lot of his slaves were English.

It was becoming harder to categorize slaves as 'them.'