08 September 2014

Economics of slavery

There's a canard I've seen come up disconcertingly often from a certain kind of conservative who will mount a defense of the antebellum South, claiming that American chattel slavery was not as bad as people imagine. Of course slavery is wrong, they say, but severe mistreatment of slaves was actually very rare if for no other reason than that it doesn't make sense that slaveowners would mistreat slaves who were valuable assets.

I've long been puzzled by why people seem to feel compelled to offer this unpersuasive defense of one of the least defensible practices in history. But now it has been made clear to me.

Recently The Economist magazine reviewed Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The review contained this memorable turn of phrase:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.

#NotAllSlaveOwners were bad! This is ripe for the obvious reasons, and produced a well-deserved outcry.

Baptist himself responded, explaining not just what The Economist was wrong about, but making a persuasive explanation of why it is important.

Had the Economist actually engaged the book’s arguments, the reviewer would have had to confront the scary fact that the unrestrained domination of market forces can sometimes amplify existing forms of oppression into something more horrific. No wonder the Economist abandoned its long-standing intellectual commitments in favor of sloppy old paternalism on Sept. 4, because if it hadn’t, Mr./Ms. Anonymous might have had to admit that market fundamentalism doesn’t always provide the best solution for every economic or social problem.


If you're interested in the details, Billmon expands on Baptist's economic logic, Matthew Yglesias at Vox discusses how the industrial revolution depended on slavery in the South, and Baptist comments on the pervasiveness of White doubt about the horrors of slavery.

And while we are here, this is a good time to mention that emerging scholarship shows that slavery was integral to the origins of core techniques of market capitalism like accounting and management, as well as to the economic development of the free North, with discomforting echoes in contemporary economics.


Joseph Max said...

Isn't it fascinating how such horrific practices drive technological development! IBM created modern automated tabulation and pioneered the use of punch cards to serve the Nazi's record keeping of the Final Solution.

Doug Muder said...

Another canard was that slavery was about to die out on its own anyway, so it wasn't necessary to fight a war over it. People who think that should read Douglas Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, which I summarized in "Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor".

J'Carlin said...

Indefensible? Certainly. Worse than the alternative in the mills of the North? Or for that matter fast food joints in 2014? One can certainly make an argument that the latter is indefensibler. Grammar be damned.
Show up when called, or don't show up at all. Famously: "Show up on Sunday or don't show up on Monday. If you or your baby are sick, there are ten waiting for your job. At least the slave owner had an investment in his laborers. That, according to Jefferson, was a 4% return, in addition to the services provided.

Certainly in both systems there were/are enlightened "employers" who found/find value in not exploiting the laborers, but I have yet to hear persuasive defense of free market capitalism from a humanist POV.