19 January 2008

Welfare Efficiency and Morality (1)

Recently I finished reading a book by Paul A. David, et al., entitled Reckoning with Slavery. This book is primarily a scrutiny of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, which was published in 1974. Robert Fogel won the 1993 Economic Nobel Prize, largely as a result of Time on the Cross (which he co-authored with Stanley Engerman). Fogel was honored because he putatively established the superior power of economics to perform historical research; in effect, his book alleged that non-economist historians of slavery, such as Kenneth Stamp, had created a totally false impression of the past because of their reliance on subjective and politically-charged sources.

Time on the Cross addressed the period of slavery in the USA, especially after 1830. Fogel & Engerman argued that, while slavery was morally wrong prima facie, otherwise it was a benign institution. More specifically, they argued that:
  1. Capital invested in slaves/slavery had high rates of economic return; i.e., apart from the personally lucrative returns of individual owners and traders, slavery was claimed by F&E to have produced tremendous material benefit relative to the economic inputs used
  2. Slavery in the antebellum period was a flourishing institution; there was little risk of a severe recession in the slave economy--to say nothing of an "imminent collapse" (as, for example, per J.R. Hummel)
  3. The slave economy was economically efficient, i.e., it was very successful at producing what people wanted, given their scarce incomes.
  4. Slavery contributed to a progressive Southern economy, which was organized along rational and meritocratic lines.
  5. Slavery provided relatively favorable conditions for slaves
These arguments are advanced in very strong forms. Point (3) may sound like a reiteration of (1); in fact, the distinction is largely between comparisons of technical efficiency, which measures output relative to inputs, and economic efficiency, which compares achieved results to potential results, in the light of participants' tastes (more detail here).

Item 5 is deeply disturbing to me and to the authors of Reckoning. First, it's a bit as though F&E had proposed to write a detailed account of the Holocaust without so much as considering the input of Jewish European inmates/victims of the event, on the grounds that survivors' testimony is partial, biased, and acrimonious. Imagine if they proposed instead to rely exclusively on the testimony of SS officers running the camps, using (perhaps) data submitted by legal defense teams at the Nuremburg Tribunals. Second, in the actual event, F&E insist on making sweeping dismissals of the prior impression on the basis of extremely flimsy evidence (namely, a single plantation owner's diary on a single plantation over the course of three years, 1839-1842). The diary of Bennett Barrow is the sole foundation for several astonishingly sweeping and determined contentions made by Time, including the (arithmetically incorrect) claim that "the average slave" was whipped (flogged) only 0.7 times per year.1

A startling feature of F&E is their own copious flogging of the racist allegation; a Google book search reveals that they accuse others of being racist 33 times, or an average of once every 8.18 pages. In some cases the accusation is directed at Ulrich B. Phillips, an early 20th century historian.2 But the allegation is also directed at abolitionists, whom F&E regard with undiluted and undisguised loathing (rather out of place in a book supposedly promising a cool, dispassionate look at the numbers). F&E argue that negative descriptions of slave conditions were degrading to the victims, and the attacks on slavery's technical efficiency was nothing less than an attack on Black labor.3 The internecine conflict over how "racist" certain antebellum interpretations may be, opened up an ideological space for a spectacularly virulent apologia for the most monstrous racist crime of all recorded history.

However, there is actually another realm in which F&E's revision of slave history runs off the rails, and it is one which is of much more urgent concern to contemporary readers. That has to do with their attempt to push the morality of slavery back into the woodwork, and examine it "objectively" as a path of economic development. I'll be addressing that in part 2.
  1. Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch, in "Were slaves imbued with the Protestant Work Ethic?" Chapter II of Reckoning with Slavery (p.57-61) establish that, as always, F&E overestimated the number of slaves Barrow owned, may have underestimated the number of reported floggings (and definitely failed to mention that Barrow used other punishments as well), and got an erroneous figure. In reality, Barrow's plantation not only flogged slaves an average of 1.19 times per worker per year, it flogged at least one slave every four days. As a result, slaves lived under conditions of constant intimidation.
  2. Ulrich B. Phillips (1877-1934) was a fairly prominent historian who performed comparative research of slavery in Jamaica and the Antebellum South (American Negro Slavery, Life and Labor in the Old South). He argued that slavery was not brutal at all, but represented a paternalistic and waning system of economic organization. Phillips' account agrees with the later F&E in saying that slavery was benign (if morally "problematic"), but disagreed that it was technically efficient.
  3. This is really twisted logic: again, analogous to alleging that critics of the Nazi's "ghetto economy" were antisemitic, because they attacked the productivity of Jews forced to labor at piecework in the new ghettos. However, there exists a bizarre quandary over the debate on slavery. Kenneth Stampp was and is the most influential historian on the history of slavery; his book The Peculiar Institution (1956) shocked the nation with its account of a savagely oppressive system. Stanley Elkins' Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Life (1959) extensively likened slavery to the concentration camps.

    This created something of an irrepressible conflict among historians. If Elkins was right, then the African American was descended from a group of people whose personalities were shaped by a totality of barbaric cruelty (inflicted by White masters). Some reasoned that this was too close to Ulrich Phillip's image of the "Sambo," who lacked agency or volition. Elkins himself sought to explain why African Americans [mostly] accepted their lot. For a combination of historical reasons and unlucky timing, Elkins became something of a villain to some Black militants, who were uncomfortable with his claim of residual social pathologies.

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