Last week, a debate was initiated via an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that relates to the clash between historians and economists over the topic of slavery. The debate seems acrimonious given the article and at the reading of a special issue of the Journal of Economic History regarding the Half has never been told by Edward Baptist, its hard to conclude otherwise. Pseudoerasmus published comments on the issue in a series of posts and a Trumpian twitterstorm (although the quality is far from being Trumpian). I find myself largely in agreement with him in response to the historians, but there are some pêle-mêle points that I felt I needed to add.
On Historians Versus Economists
To be honest, when I took my first classes in economic history, it seemed clear that there were important points that were agreed upon in the literature on slavery. The first was that the accounting profitability of slavery was not the same as the economic profitability (think opportunity cost here) of slavery. Thus, it was possible that (concentrating on the US here) the peculiar institution could more or less thrive regardless of the social costs it imposed (i.e. slavery is a tax on leisure which also increases the expropriation rate from slaves, and non-slaveowners often had to shoulder the cost of enforcing the institution). This argument is not at all new; in fact it is basically a public choice argument that Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger could have signed on to without skipping a heartbeat (see Sheilagh Ogilvie – one of my favorite economist who does history in equality with Jane Humphries). The second point of agreement is that no one agreed on how to measure the productivity of slavery in the United States and the distribution of its costs and gains. The second point has been a very deep methodological debate which related to the method of measuring productivity (CES vs Translog TFP – stuff that would make your head blow and which also lead to the self-invitation of the Cambridge Capital Controversy to the debate). The quality of the data has been at the centre-stage as well, and datasets on slave prices, attributes, tasks and many other variables are still being collected (see notably the breathtaking work of Rhode and Olmsted here and here).
Thus, I will admit to being unimpressed by the use of oral histories to contest that literature. In addition, the absence of theory in Baptist’s work yields an underwhelming argument. Oral histories are super-duper important. The work of Jane Humphries on child labor is a case in point of the need to use oral histories. She very carefully used the tales told by children who worked during the industrial revolution to document how labor markets for children worked. The story she told was nuanced, carefully argued and supported by other primary evidence. This is economic history at its best – a merger of cliometrician and historian. In fact, while this is an evaluation that is subjective, the best economists are also historians and vice-versa. The reason for that is the mix of theory with multiple forms of evidence. But they key is to have a theory to guide the analysis.
Unexpectedly for some, the best exposition of this argument comes from Ludwig von Mises in his unknown book Theory and History. I was made aware of that book in a discussion with Chris Coyne of George Mason University and I proceeded to reading it. I was surprised how many similarities there were between the Mises who wrote that book and the Douglass Norths and the Robert Fogels of this world. The core argument of Theory and History is that axiomatic statements can be applied to historical events. The goal of historians and economic historians is to sort which theory applies. For example, the theory of signaling and the theory of asymmetric information are both axiomatically true. Without the need for evidence, we know that they must exist. The question of an economic historian becomes to ask “did it matter”? Both theories can compete to offset each other: if signaling is cheap, then asymmetric information can be solved; if it is not, asymmetric information is a problem. Or both may be irrelevant to a given historical development. To explain which two axiomatic statements apply to the event (and in what dosage), you need data (quantitative and qualitative). Thus, Theory and History actually proposes the use of econometrics and statistical methods because it does not try to predict as much as it tries to a) sort which axiomatic statements applied; b) the relative strengths of competing forces; c) the counterfactual scenario.
Without theory, all you have is Baptist’s descriptions which tell us very little and can, incidentally, be distorted by he who recounts the tales he read.
On the Culture of Peasants/Slaves/Slaveowners
When I started my PhD dissertation Canadian economic history, the most annoying thing I saw was the claim that the French-Canadians had “different mentalities” or “more conservative outlooks”. This was basically the way of calling them stupid. This has recently evolved to say that they “maximized goals other than wealth”. Regardless, this was basically: the French-Canadian was not culturally suited for economic development.
But culture is not a fixed variable, it is not an exogenous variable. Culture is basically the coherent framework built by individuals who share certain features to “cut out” the noise. Everyday, we are bombarded with tons of pieces of information and there is no way that the human brain can process them all. Thus, we have a framework – culture (ideology does the same thing) – which tells us what is relevant and what is irrelevant and what interpretation to give to relevant information.
People can cling to old beliefs for a long time, but only if there is no cost to them. I can persist in terrible farming practices if I am not made aware of the proper valuation of the opportunity I am foregoing. For example, British farmers who arrived in Quebec in the 19th century tended to use oxen as they did in England for tilling the soil. They had probably been taught to do that by their parents who learnt it from their grandparents because it was part of the farming culture of England. The behavior was culturally inherited. However, when they saw that the French-Canadians were using horses and that horses – in the Canadian hinterland – got the job done better, they shifted. The culture changed at the sight of how important was the foregone opportunity by continuing to use oxen. Where the British and the French co-existed, both were equally good farmers. Where they could not observe each other, they were all sub-optimal farmers. Seeing the other methods forced changes in culture.
The same applies to slaveowners and slaves! Slaveowners were a more or less tightly knit group that frequented similar circles and were constantly on the lookout to increase productivity. If some master had noticed that he could increase production by whipping more slaves, why would he not adopt this method? Why would he leave 100$ bill on the street? Why did the masters growing cotton in South Carolina not adopt the method of whipping adopted by growers in Louisiana? Without a theory of how culture changes (and what purposes it serves beyond the simplistic Marxist power structure argument), there is no answer to this question. With the work of Rhode and Olmstead, there is an answer: the type of cotton that had higher yields was not suited for growing everywhere! In this case, we are applying my comment from the section above on Historians versus Economists. There are competing theories of explaining increasing output: either some slave masters were unable to observe the other slave masters and adopt the torture methods they had (which would need to be the case for Baptist to be right) or there were biological limitations to growing the better crops in some areas (Rhode and Olmstead).
Two competing theories (they are not mutually exclusive though) that can be tested with data and they set a counterfactual. That is why you need theory to make good history.
One last thing: slave owners were not capitalists
This is probably the most childish thing to come out of works like those of Baptist: to assert that because slaves were capital assets, that the owners were capitalists. That is true if you want to adhere to the inconsistent (and self-contradicting) Marxist approach to capital. In fact, as Phil Magness pointed out to me, slave owners were not free market types. They were very much anti-capitalists. Slavery apologists like Fitzhugh and Carlyle were even more anti-capitalists than that. It’s not because you own capital that you are a capitalist unless you adhere to Marxist theory.
But, capital is just a production input. Its value depends on what it can produce. As Jeffrey Hummel pointed out, there is a deadweight loss from slavery: enforcement costs, the overproduction of cotton because slavery is basically a tax on leisure and the implicit taxation of the output produced by slaves. All three of these factors would have slowed down economic growth in the south. Thus, as capital assets, slaves were relatively inefficient.