Monday, July 27, 2009

Economics of Slavery

Prominent black economist (should I say prominent economist who happens to be black?) Walter Williams debunks the economic benefits of slavery:
Reparations advocates make the foolish unchallenged pronouncement that United States became rich on the backs of free black labor. That's utter nonsense. Slavery has never had a very good record of producing wealth. Think about it. Slavery was all over the South. Buying into the reparations nonsense, you'd have to conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. In fact, the poorest states and regions of our country were places where slavery flourished: Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
Human labor, no matter how cheap, is no match for the productiveness of industrialization. This reminds me of Ron Paul's controversial idea of avoiding the Civil War through the governmental purchase of slaves. The cost of 4 million slaves seems small compared to that of a four year war resulting in the of death of 600,000 at the hands of fellow Americans (not to mention the lasting effects of Reconstruction). After all, the slave trade had already been done away with in 1808 and 3/4 of Southerners didn't even own slaves.

However many more Southerners were certainly financially connected to them. And let's not forget slavery was not the central reason for succession secession. Lincoln originally supported bringing the South back with the promise of keeping their slaves. succession secession happened over states rights, but slavery was the main states rights issue. Either way, economic progress would have surely made slavery useless, eventually.

Note: Williams' piece also has some good points on the complexity of reparations.


  1. That's a very interesting quote.

    Do you think perhaps Ron Paul's idea ignores the cultural underpinnings of the war? The North and South had been in a "cold war" of sorts for years, right? I understand without slavery there would have been no war, but I'm not sure buying the slaves would have eased the tensions between the regions all that much. My understanding is that the South saw the North's abolitionism as a threat to their economy and their way of life - it was personal, in other words. Whether or not it actually would have destroyed their economy, the beliefs were still there, right?

    Ron Paul's point that every other country that has abolished slavery has done so diplomatically is very interesting. I guess I'm wondering if the fact that we we did go to war over it implies there were conditions that were different from other countries - a racial/economic/regional divide that provoked hatred and war.

    I'm confused by your last paragraph. If secession (not to nit pick or anything, but it's "secession," not "succession") happened over states' rights, and slavery was the main states' rights issue, then can you really say it wasn't the central reason for secession? I'm not sure you can separate the two.

    I agree that economic progress would have made slavery fade away eventually, but does this matter? When you have a fundamental violation of human rights taking place, isn't it unjust to wait for the economy to fix it?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  2. By the way, I saw this ad on williams' article:

    I really can't stand and the wing of the Republican party it represents.

  3. I think you're right, there were huge cultural differences between the North and the South. Look at the electoral college map for 1860 compared to the last election.

    I'm not sure if war implies there was something different. I think it implies the players were more radical (both abolitionists and secessionists).

    And I'm not saying it wouldn't have had major implications in their economy, it's just that slavery was a fading technology.

    Slavery was a major reason for the Civil War but it was not the only major reason. The North and South had fundamental differences in what they thought the role of the government was. How much can the federal government trump what the state government says? That question was answered when the federal government beat a coalition of state governments in war.

    Again, I'm not saying we shouldn't have tried to end slavery. But, let's just say, slavery was guaranteed to go out of style in 1880, would you wait 20 years to save half a million lives?

    Yeah I saw that ad too, lame.

  4. I know all about the "fundamental differences" - but I'm saying they're inextricably linked. Slavery, states' rights, culture, creed... I think it's disingenous to say any one of them was more or less of a cause than another. But maybe you agree.

    I think your question is far too contrived to have an important answer. The people at the time had no way to know if/when slavery would end, and we can only really guess as well. I believe the injustice of slavery demanded immediate action on the part of this country. Whether that action should have been political, economic or military seems like an interesting conversation to me.

  5. Just noticed "worthwhile blogs" and "blogs you read" are different categories. Interesting :)


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.