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#TWET...Slavery & Racism

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Incentives matter, sure. But isn't there a limit to what institutional analysis can (and ought) explain? That's what lingering in my mind after listening to this week's EconTalk episode with everybody's favorite guest, Mike Munger of Duke University. How and why did the attitudes of white Southerners change over time in the pre-Civil War era? This week's episode is uncomfortable to listen to in many respects, and Munger admits that his research for the paper the episode is based on gave him nightmares. But I think it's important...Let's see if you agree.

Munger posits that it's too facile to look back on American slaveholders and call them evil. As he said himself on twitter, "Slaveowners may have been 'evil.' But you likely would have been evil, too. I expect I would have.." Roberts pushes back; sometimes, things are just wrong, he says. Was slavery upheld for so long in the American south because of the incentives facing slaveowners? Or did they really believe in the sort of familial, paternalistic order on which they tended to justify the continuation of slavery? And if so, how were they able to convince themselves of such beliefs? Both Munger and Roberts note that there was opposition to slavery, even in the South. The discussion raises really interesting questions about how ideologies are formed and subsequently maintained. Even though emergent, they may still be repugnant. But is Munger really claiming that the justificatory ideology underpinning slavery was emergent? Or was it initially crafted in response to incentives, then perpetuated as an accepted set of norms? It's a lot to think about...




COMMENTS (12 to date)
Jim Lear writes:

Munger does a great job of following the money and explains the economic incentives behind the militant protection of slavery. Our understanding of the cause for so much suffering in the world would expand if this type of analysis were applied more frequently. What were the economic incentives of the Nazis? What were the economic incentives of the Stalinists, industrialists that exploited their workers, etc? Surely we will find in every case of horrible abuse an economic incentive combined with the power of government.

JK Brown writes:

Gen. Sherman relates this discussion, well after the war, in his memoirs. He was at the time the new superintendent of what is now LSU, at the time a military academy. Shortly after this dinner party, Sherman left his position due to secession returning to his native Ohio before being called back to active duty in the US Army.

As Sherman relates, slaves in the South were wealth and considered the only manner to continue the agriculture of the plantation belt. Not unfounded as sugar production even in the highly mechanized modern era is only viable in the US with government subsidies.

Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol I

pg 177
Then said [Governor of Louisiana] Moore : " Give us your own views of daily life you see it here and throughout the South."

I answered in effect that the people of Louisiana were hardly responsible for slavery, as they had inherited it ; that I found two distinct conditions of slavery, domestic and field hands. The domestic slaves, employed by the families, were probably better treated than any slaves on earth; but the condition of the field-hands was different, depending more on the temper and disposition of their masters and overseers than were those employed about the house;" and I went on to say that, "were I a citizen of Louisiana, and a member of the Legislature, I would deem it wise to bring the legal condition of the slaves more near the status of human beings under all Christian and civilized governments. In the first place, I argued that, in sales of slaves made by the State, I would forbid the separation of families, letting the father, mother, and children, be sold together to one person, instead of each to the highest bidder. And, again, I would advise the repeal of the statute which enacted a severe penalty for even the owner to teach his slave to read and write, because that actually qualified properly and took away a part of its value ; illustrating the assertion by the case of Henry Sampson, who had been the slave of Colonel Chambers, of Rapides Parish, who had gone to California as the servant of an officer of the army, and who was afterward employed by me in the bank at San Francisco. At first he could not write or read, and I could only afford to pay him one hundred dollars a month ; but he was taught to read and write by Reilley, our bank-teller, when his services became worth two hundred and fifty dollars a month, which enabled him to buy his own freedom and that of his brother and his family."

What I said was listened to by all with the most profound attention ; and, when I was through, some one (I think it was Hr. Hyams) struck the table with his fist, making the glasses jingle, and said, " By God, he is right I " and at once he took up the debate, which went on, for an hour or more, on both sides with ability and fairness. Of course, I was glad to be thus relieved, because at the time all men in Louisiana were dreadfully excited on questions affecting their slaves, who constituted the bulk of their wealth, and without whom they honestly believed that sugar, cotton and rice, could not possibly be cultivated.

Mark Bahner writes:

I've long maintained that if the North had a few good economists, the Civil War could have been avoided.

The solution would have been, right after Fort Sumter was attacked, to offer to pay the owners of less than a handful of slaves way over the market rate for them. And offer to pay the large slave owners virtually nothing per slave.

That would have turned those who didn't own slaves or owned few slaves (the overwhelming majority of people in the South) against the large slave owners.

Thomas B writes:

Given the number of people who periodically call for the reintroduction of the draft (military slavery) I'd say there are quite a few people who don't realize how easily they could accept slavery, if it were commonplace.

Indeed, family law, with its requirement to make payments based on ability to earn (i.e., on human capital) is a modern, partially sanitized variety of slavery. Not only is it widely accepted, but opposition to it is widely perceived as morally suspect.

JK Brown writes:

Thomas B,

This youtube video has a Brit, Lindybeige, making a point on historical perspective. He uses villeinage rather than slavery, but his point is valid.

His thought experiment does demonstrate a modern condition most of us do not realize that is likely to be seen just as startling by future commenters on this time.

Ak Mike writes:

Thomas B - agree with you about the draft, but about family law (ie, child support obligations) you have it backward. No other liability is limited by ability to pay - so fathers (usually) who owe child support obligations are given special consideration, since their obligation to pay is not more than a percentage of their income, rather than an amount that could be quite a bit more based on the needs of the family.

If you think monetary obligations are a form of slavery, you are departing from most normal views. And yes, most people agree that parents should contribute to the costs of raising their children.

Thomas B writes:

Ak Mike,

I guess I'm coming at it from the opposite point of view: no other liability grows without bound, based on ability to pay, except equity ownership.

It is generally agreed - and I agree - that parents should contribute to the costs of raising their children.

I do not agree, though, that they should go beyond that. Many men face support obligations that go far beyond any reasonable cost of raising a child. In many countries, the obligation is capped, and although many U.S. jurisdictions have language that allows judges to cap child support, I am not aware of any jurisdiction that normally does so - hence the occasional $20,000/month "child support" award.

What's more, even given the "special consideration" for men of more limited income, the DoJ has acknowledged for years that by far the most common reason for non-payment of child support is literal inability to pay at the awarded level.

No, in general I don't think monetary obligations are a form of slavery: other liabilities are eliminated through bankruptcy, if they should prove too much; we have debtors' prison for no other form of monetary obligation; and the only form of payment that grows with earning ability, without limit and with a duty to maximize earnings, is equity ownership of human property, something we otherwise do not permit.

If family law had a cap, or were implemented as a tax on actual income rather than based on ability to pay (regardless of any other consideration), I'd have a lot less argument with it. But it has neither feature.

John Thacker writes:
As Sherman relates, slaves in the South were wealth and considered the only manner to continue the agriculture of the plantation belt. Not unfounded as sugar production even in the highly mechanized modern era is only viable in the US with government subsidies.

This statement seems far too strong. It is certainly true that government subsidies increase the amount of production, and the current quantity would not be produced without subsidies, but it seems incorrect to claim that absent subsidies there would be no product. For one comparison, look at the tobacco crop in the US after the tobacco quota program was ended. Production is much lower with the end of subsidies, but still certainly present.

It is, I think, generally a mistake to say that "X has flourished with government subsidies" and then conclude that "X would be unviable without government subsidies." Australia and New Zealand also have experiences cutting their agricultural supports and thriving.

(Also note that roughly half of the US sugar production is from sugar beets, not in the plantation belt. It's quite possible that a lack of government subsidies would disproportionately affect beets rather than cane.)

Jim Glass writes:

"Slaveowners may have been 'evil.' But you likely would have been evil, too. I expect I would have.." Roberts pushes back; sometimes, things are just wrong, he says. Was slavery upheld for so long in the American south because of the incentives facing slaveowners? Or did they really believe in the sort of familial, paternalistic order...
~~~~

*Everybody* really believes they are morally virtuous, always. Why would slave owners of the 1850s not, when slavery had been a social norm world-wide back through all time, not least in the Bible. The South certainly considered itself a good Christian society.

A loving mother caught in the worst vortex of WWII wrote to her soldier oldest son at a distant front...

"Our world is perishing and with it goes everything beautiful, admirable, noble, and good that I have known in my life. The world which will succeed is not worth living in and for this reason I have brought the children here too. They are too good for the life that will come after us ... Harald, my dear — I give you the best that life has taught me: be true — true to yourself, true to mankind, true to your country — in every respect whatsoever."

- Magda Goebbels, writing from the Führerbunker shortly before poisoning her younger children and committing suicide. (edited only very slightly.)

Beautiful words, no? We'd certainly applaud them if they were written by a mother in her last hours as a the Nazis were closing in on her, instead of by a Nazi. But the Nazi mom can think them too.

Eighty years ago Dale Carnegie cited then-current research on prison populations to explain that everybody believes they are morally right, no matter how vile they are in the eyes of the rest of the world. Nothing's refuted him since. Worth remembering when we are feeling morally superior ourselves.

JK Brown writes:

I listened to the episode last night. I was disappointed that Munger had a few presumptions about slavery that obstructed clarity. For one, he leaped back near 1500 years to Roman slavery for his reference for defeated war slaves and Greek slavery for caste slavery.

Munger intimated that the child inheriting the condition of the parent was unusual. This is belied by the fact that higher status group such as villeins passed their condition on to children and in the 1388 Statute of Richard restricted laborers to their hundred and required a child (son) to follow his fathers trade after age 12. So, the transfer of condition to progeny as happened with African slaves in America was not that surprising. It also was not something new as there is a 17th century law from Maryland, I believe, that an Englishwoman who marred a slave took his condition and so would her children. Upon divorce, she would regain her free condition, but the children belonged to the father's owner. As for more modern examples of slave taking, we can look to the Norsemen who took slaves in their Viking raids. Dublin was founded as a Viking slave trading center.

As for the attitudinal change to a paternalistic one, that to has historic precedent as anyone would regarding at least those slaves that worked as domestics. It might also have been driven by the very assertion of the nation's founding, i.e., if all men are created equal, then slaves must require special care. Not unlike the special care given to minors and until just a century ago, women. The 1908 Munger v Oregon court decision justifies treating women as wards of the state and ruling it constitutional to limit their hours of work in a laundry. A restriction the decision acknowledges would not be constitutional as a limitation of the liberty of men. Of course, subsequently, even the men, at least those unskilled have had their liberty to contract curtailed by labor laws such as minimum wage laws.

If you wish to have separate instance of the paternalistic drive, it would be valuable to examine the manner in which the poor, the unskilled and others have had their liberty to control the "property" of their time and labor usurped.

Consider the state of liberty just a century ago compared to that of today.

For instance, it is a primary principle that an English free man of full age, under no disability, may control his person and his personal activities. He can work six, or four, or eight, or ten, or twelve, or twenty-four, or no hours a day if he choose, and any attempt to control him is impossible under the simplest principle of Anglo-Saxon liberty.

Yet there is possibly a majority of the members of the labor unions who would wish to control him in this particular today; and will take for an example that under the police power the state has been permitted to control him in matters affecting the public health or safety, as, for instance, in the running of railway trains, or, in Utah, in labor in the mines. But freedom of contract in this connection results generally from personal liberty itself; although it results also from the right to property; that is to say, a man's wages (or his trade, for matter of that) is his property, and the right of property is of no practical use if you cannot have the right to make contracts concerning it.

The only matter more important doubtless in the laborer's eye than the length of time he shall work is the amount of wages he shall receive. Now we may say at the start that in the English-speaking world there has been practically no attempt to regulate the amount of wages. We found such legislation in medieval England, and we also found that it was abandoned with general consent. But of late years in these socialistic days (using again socialistic in its proper sense of that which controls personal liberty for the interest of the community or state) it is surprisingly showing its head once more.

-Popular Law-making: A Study of the Origin, History, and Present Tendencies of Law-making by Statute, Frederic Jesup Stimson (1910)

jw writes:

JK Brown,

An excellent last point. The 40 hour work week that unionization wrought was never more than a facade. The only limitation was that a person couldn't work for a single company for more than 40 hours per week without being paid overtime. When overtime wasn't available, people worked multiple jobs (or diverted wives from child rearing to breadwinners) to cover their expenses.

Obama has institutionalized this via ACA. Now, companies use software to minimize hours per week to less than 29 to keep their expenses (and customer prices) down. This is not an unintended consequence, as it was easily predicted, but a calculated, callous political tradeoff to sell a fiction.

As I have stated before, every regulation is by definition a reduction in liberty. It is up to the voters to decide when this crosses the line to de facto slavery.

Brian Holtz writes:

Mark Bahner: maybe the North had economists who understood the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_one_price :-)

However, it might have been possible to implement something approximating your clever proposal using the per-household slave counts from the 1860 census: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Census_Slave_Schedules

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