The slavery debate: A note from the sidelines

Tags: Engerman, Economics of Slavery, Economic Studies, New York, Political Economy, status quo ante bellum, Duke University, John Meyer, Martin Bronfenbrenner, Slavery Debate, free agriculture, EXPLORATIONS IN ECONOMIC HISTORY, Ante-Bellum, Gavin Wright, American Economic Review, benign nature, Fogel-Engerman, relative efficiency, relative productivity, sleight of hand, Economic History, European Economic History, Ante-Bellum South, Agriculture, Journal of Political Economy, AnteBellum South
Content: EXPLORATIONS IN Economic History 18, 304-308 (1981) The Slavery Debate: A Note from the Sidelines STEFANO FENOALTEA* DUKE UNIVERSITY The grovesof academe,asthe inhabitantsknow, area malarialjungle infestedby snakes,snipers,andbooby traps; only rarely does scientific argumentascendfrom guerrillaoperationsto globalconflict in the classic style. Our own discipline is much blessed:the ongoingGreat War betweenthe CentralEmpires of FogelandEngermanandthe Allied Powers of neareverybodyelseis a model of thekind, long-lasting,wide-ranging, and splendidly expensivein men and materiel.' But in the heat and din of battle, the problemsof tactics are all-absorbing,andstrategicconsiderationseasily lost sight of. How easyit is to win the battle but lose the war, or win the war but lose the peace!Might not the notesof a neutral observerfrom anothertheaterhelp even the combatantsto reflect upon their war aims? In a sense,the slavery issueis asold as the "new" economichistory, which is just now coming of age.*The early questionsof slavery'sprofitability and viability have been set aside: viability despite high slave prices was establishedby the observationthat the latter were demand pricesratherthan supplyprices$privateprofitability is takenfor granted, since there is little evidenceto the contrary (andequally little evidence for it, given that neither expectedearningsnor ex ante discount rates can be observed);4and social profitability is too complex a questionto be usefully approachedby cliometric modeling.' The issuescentral to * I wish to thank Hugh Aitken, Martin Bronfenbrenner, Stephen DeCanio, Robert Gallman, Richard Hydell, John Meyer, and Gavin Wright for their comments, without attributing to them the views expressed here. ' See especially Fogel and Engerman (1974), David et al. (1976), Fogel and Engerman Jl977), David and Temin (1979), Haskell (1979), Schaefer and Schmitz (1979), Wright (1979), and Fogel and Engerman (1980). ' Conrad and Meyer (1958). 3 Yasuba (l%l). ' The basic issue here is whether slave-owners were profit maximizers. The standard test has been to see whether slave prices were justified by slave earnings and interest rates; if not, that would be evidence that planters accepted a substandard rate of return, or 304 0014-4983/81/030304-05$02,00/O Copyright 0 1961 by Academic Press. Inc. Nl ri&ts of reproduction in any form reserved.
THESLAVERYDEBATE
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Time on the Cross, and to the subsequentdebate,are relatively new ones: the "efficiency of slavery" on the onehand,and the natureof the slave-managemenst ystem on the other. What is striking is the peculiar combination of positions adoptedon theseissuesby the participantsin the debate,which suggeststhat eachgroupis busily underminingits own argument. The first (but not the main) messageof Time on the Crossis that slave agriculture was more efficient than free agriculture. Now "efficiency" is not a neutral word: efficiency is good, inefficiency is bad, anda more efficient systembetterthan alessefficientone.WhatFogelandEngerman actually did, of course,was to measurethe ratio of output to a weighted sum of inputs in slave and free agriculture, and comparetheseratio~.~ The prudent interpretation of differencesin such ratios is that they are dueto poor measurement,and especiallyto incompletemeasurementof the relevant inputs: the students of aggregatetechnical change,who pioneeredsuch measures(in an intertemporal,ratherthan intersectoral, context), concluded that the difference in measuredproductivity was bestcalled "the measureof our ignorance."' A cautiousscholarobtaining Fogel and Engerman'sresult might thus haveconcludedthat the inputs into the slave sector's production function had been less completely specifiedthanthoseinto the non-slavesector's: in essence,that we know less about slave agriculture than aboutfree agriculture. Not a dramatic conclusion, perhaps,but eye-catchingenoughto the cognoscenti. It is plausible to assumethat the critical mismeasurementis in the labor input, since it is relatively difGcult to measure,and in any case more heavily weightedthan the other inputs combined. If the measured productivity differential survives the refinement of the labor measure from a crude number-of-peoplefigure to a less indirect number-of-man hours figure (as it appearsto do), in turn, it is plausibleto attribute the residualto the (still unmeasured)differencein the intensity of eachlabor hour.* Simply put, the evidencesuggeststhat slavesworked harderthan
(equivalently) valued slaves as consumption goods as well as productive assets. The empirical block to such a test, as noted, is that the relevant earnings and interest rates are the expected future ones, and not the currently observed ones. There is yet a deeper problem: if planters did not maximize profits out of humanitarian feelings about how hard their slaves should be worked, the slaves' current earnings would not be maximized; but those earnings could stiIl be norndy capitalized into slave prices. The slaves' price-ear&s ratio may thus be entirely beside the point. J The cliometricians who have paid sophisticated attention to this point-summarized, if one will, in the distinction between Economic Growth and economic development-do not appeator dispose of analytical tools superior to those of ordinary historians. See especially Wright (1978); also, for example, Genovese (1%5). 6 Fogel and Engerman (1974), vol. 2, p. 131 ff. 7 Abrarnowitz (1956), p. 11; Domar (1%2), p. 599. For a radically nihilistic view, see McClelland (1978). p. 375. B Fogel and Engerman (1980), pp. 686,688.
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free men. This result may have been novel to those-if there ever were any-who genuinely believed the racist hokum about shiftless niggers and all that; at least to an Italian, who would say "lavorare come un negro" where English-speakers say "work like a dog," it is almost spectacularly platitudinous. Moreover, the picture that emerges from the attribution of the measurement error to the labor input is one that substantially confirms the traditional view that Southern agriculture used human effort where Northern agriculture used capital and improvements; and it is precisely this "backwardness," this failure to substitute capital for labor, that the nontechnical observer seems to identify with inefficiency. In short, it would appear, efficiency in its narrow textbook sense is neither here nor there; what Fogel and Engerman call the relative efficiency of Southern agriculture is simply what was previously called its relative inefficiency, and the apparent novelty of Time on the Cross on this particular issue reduces essentially to a play on words.' The truly novel argument made by Time on the Cross is that the superior "efficiency" of slavery-the superior intensity of slave labor, if, at the limit, it is only that-was attributable not to the threat (and use) of the lash but to humane treatment, moral suasion, and promises of rewards. The most important message of the work, certainly the basis for its public notoriety, is that slavery was relatively benign: slave-breeding, harsh material conditions, interference with family life, whippings, exploitation, debauchings are either insignificant or outright "myths." Whatever the ultimate reasons for this interpretation-perhaps the desire to bring even slavery into that Elysian neoclassical world in which people interact only to their mutual benefit, perhaps the dangerous presumption that it is the destiny of cliometrics to correct the blunders of traditional historians, perhaps even the siren-song of the spectacular-two things seem clear. The first is that it is not warranted by the evidence: it convinced no one beyond a few early, impressionable reviewers, and the close criticism of David, Gutman, Sutch, and Temin has effectively disposed of it.`* The second is that it is, from Fogel and Engerman's own point of view, a remarkably unpromising, not to say self-defeating, basis on which to explain the superior "efficiency" of slave agriculture. The slave-owner has no advantage over the employer of free men in his ability to offer, and elicit effort by means of, ordinary rewards; but only
9 As I have argued elsewhere (Fenoaltea, 1973), the controversy surrounding Fogel's earlier assessment of the importance of American railways turns on a similar sleight of hand (in this case, the substitution of "necessity" for "sufficiency"). What is most curious, in all this, is the prevailing willingness supinely to accept the argument on the misleading terms that underlie the proposed (counterintuitive, and false) reinterpretation of history. I0 David et al. (1976). While noncliometricians also contributed to the debate, the fundamental criticism of Time on the Cross came, as it perhaps had to come, from within the guild.
THE SLAVERY DEBATE
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slaves can be driven with the whip." If slaveswere more productive thanfree labor, is it not presumablybecausethey were threatenedrather than cajoled, becauseslavery was terrible rather than benign? Here, then, is the central curiosum of the slavery debate. The best evidence that slavery was harsh and terror-driven is the superior "efficiency" of slavery; the best evidencethat slavery was mild and benevolent would be that slavesworked no harder than free men. Time on the Cross arguesthat slavery was benign,and advancesthe productivity argument that underminesthat view; Reckoning with Slavery arguesthat slavery was harsh,and attacks the productivity argumentthat supports that view. Might it not behoove both groups to pause and reconsidertheir scientific objectives?`2My own suggestion(asthe reader has inferred from my use of indicatives and conditionals)is that David et al. should make their standon the nature of the slave-system,where their casethat it was indeedinhuman andinhumaneseemsunassailable, and embrace the Fogel-Engerman argument that slaves were "more efficient" (worked harder) than free labor. The latter result seemsrelatively robust, for all their argumentsto the contrary;`3and, to repeat, it is a powerful weaponin their own handsif only they chooseto adopt it. With equal consistency,Fogel andEngermancould embracethe criticisms of their relative efficiency findings, and make their stand on the benign nature of slavery-or, with I think far greaterempirical justifi- cation, vice versa. If they were to maintain their findings on relative productivity, where their cliometric contribution seemsgreatest(and, please,abandonthe biasedandmisleadingterm "efficiency"), andrecant the interpretationof slavery advancedin Time on the Cross (or at least consent not to repeat it, without admission of guilt),14all could agree
" The inability of the plantations to survive Emancipation on a wage-labor basis indicates that their productivity depended on the merciless driving of the slave gangs, rather than on conventional economies of scale; see also Fogel and Engerman (1980), pp. 677-679, 682, 686. By the same token, the "rewards" for which slaves labored were typically relief from lash-driven field work and the like; for a broader discussion of such incentive systems, and the limits to their profitability, see Fenoaltea (1980). " Scientific objectives are not the only ones, of course, and others may be at the root of the animus that mars Reckoning wirh Slavery. The eagerness to find fault with everything in Time on the Cross not only reproduces, as in a mirror, the inconsistencies of that work; it also leads to a basically negative critique, insensitive to the need to offer a coherent picture to replace the one under attack. Wright's contribution to the volume is here the laudable exception; and other authors may have made their positive contribution elsewhere, e.g., Ransom and Sutch (1977). I3 Fogel and Engerman (1980). " There is some evidence that they may be,leaning in this direction: note the focus of Fogel and Engerman (1977, 1980), and the growing stress on the gang and hard work as the source of the slaves' superior productivity (also Haskell, 1979). On the other hand, Fogel and Engerman still seem determined to convince us that their measures establish the superior eficiency of slavery, and actually claim a consensus on this point (1980, p. 672).
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that slaves were harshly driven, and (therefore) worked come negri. A classic conflict would come to an equally classic end: a return to the status quo ante bellum. A good time was had by all, and a Thucydides, or an Aristophanes, could write it up for posterity. REFERENCES Abramowitz, M. (1956), "Resource and Output Trends in the United States Since 1870." American Economic Review 46, S-23. Conrad, A. H., and Meyer, J. R. (1958), "The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South." Journal of Political Economy 66, 95-130. David, P. A., Gutman, H. G., Sutch, R., Temin, P., and Wright, G. (1976), Reckoning with Slavery. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. David, P. A., and Temin, P. (1979), "Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Ante-Bellum South: Comment." American Economic Review 69, 213-218. Domar, E. D. (1%2), "On Total Productivity and AlI That." Journal of Political Economy 70, 597-608. Fenoaltea, S. (1973), "The Discipline and They: Notes on Counterfactual Methodology and the `New' Economic History," Journal of European Economic History 2,729-746. Fenoaltea, S. (1980), "Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective: A Model." Presented at the Cliometrics Conference, Chicago. Fogel, R. W., and Engerman, S. L. (1974), Time on the Cross. Boston: Little, Brown. Fogel, R. W., and Engerman, S. L. (1977) "Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Ante-Bellum South." American Economic Review 67, 275-296. Fogel, R. W., and Engerman, S. L. (1980), "Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Ante-Bellum South: Reply." American Economic Review 70, 672-690. Genovese, E. D. (1%5), The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the economy and society of the SlAve South. New York: Pantheon. Haskell, T. L. (1979), "Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the AnteBellum South: A Reply to Fogel and Engerman." American Economic Review 69, 206-207. McClelland, P. D. (1978), "Cliometrics versus institutional history." In P. Uselding (Ed.), Research in Economic History. Greenwich, Conn.: Jai Press. Vol. 3. Ransom, R. L., and Sutch, R. (1977), One Kind of Freedom: The economic consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press. Schaefer, D. F., and Schmitz, M. D. (1979) "The Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture: A Comment." American Economic Review 69, 208-212. Wright, G. (1978), The Political Economy of the Cotton South. New York: Norton. Wright, G. (1979), "The Efficiency of Slavery: Another Interpretation." American Economic Review 69, 219-226. Yasuba, Y. (l%l), "The Profitability and Viability of Plantation Slavery in fhe UNITED STATES." The Economic Studies Quarterly 12, 60-67.

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