Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Paul Craig Roberts & Economic Freedom

I used to have a very high opinion of Paul Craig Roberts. A few days back, Professor Volokh took Roberts to task for a fairly bizarre comparison of economic freedom in modern America, and the antebellum slave owning South. I have reserved any statement until now, but I am just astonished that Roberts would make some of the statements that he has made--they show a rather fundamental misunderstanding of the antebellum South and slavery. Feel free to see Roberts' response here, and then my criticisms.

1. In colonial and antebellum America, slaves could buy their freedom, but only with the acquiescence of their masters. All property held by a slave was legally owned by the master. At any time, a master could confiscate any money that a slave had saved up, and the slave had no legal recourse. No agreement that a master made with a slave was legally binding (although there were rare cases where this worked to the benefit of the slave). Slaves owned nothing except by the tolerance of the master.

2. Especially after 1822, most slave states prohibited masters from freeing their slaves without approval of the state legislature. The only way for a master to free a slave was to take him to another state, or sell him to another person (a subterfuge sometimes used to make a slave free without actually violating the law). The reasons were fear of masters dumping aged slaves onto the county poorhouse, and especially after Turner's Rebellion, the "bad example" that free blacks might provide to the slaves--that slavery was not a natural state for slaves. So much for economic liberty in the antebellum South! The state governments did not even believe in private property rights enough to allow a master to free his own property.

3. After 1740, many colonies prohibited teaching slaves to write; the slave states continued these laws, adding prohibitions on teaching slaves to read after Turner's Rebellion in 1831. These laws were clearly not always followed, but they are another reminder that the slave states did not believe in private property rights--they did not allow masters to educate their property.

4. Roberts made one of these statements that is very common in libertarian circles:
Economically, mistreatment of slaves makes no sense. Capitalists normally do not destroy their own investments or poison their workforce against them. It would require an empirical study to determine whether more people have suffered at the hands of the IRS or at the hands of 19th century slave owners.
Economically, Roberts is right--it would make no sense. No rational person would destroy a 2-3 year old used car today (th equivalent value of a prime field hand back then) out of anger or spite. But here's the difference: none of us spend much time worrying that our car is going to murder us during the night, or respond with violence when we abuse it one time too many.

I am disappointed that Roberts seems unaware of Adam Smith's comments about slavery's inefficiency, because the only labor you get out of a slave, above and beyond his own subsistence, must be beaten out of him. There is no shortage of photographs showing the scars left by whipping slaves. Historians studying slavery have a for long time documented how inefficient slavery was; it would appear that masters held slaves at least as much for the sense of power and control as for the economic advantages.

5. Roberts makes another statement about slavery that is partly technically correct, but misleading and incomplete:
Southerners did not enslave blacks. The institution pre-existed and came from Africa itself.
This is as least an arguable point. Slavery was certainly common in Africa (as it was almost everywhere in the world), and blacks were brought to the New World as slaves--but at least in the first few years of Virginia, they were not considered slaves once they left the ship, but indentured servants. The institution of slavery developed gradually in the American colonies, not reaching its full form until fairly late in the 17th century.

Southerners certainly did enslave blacks--those children born to slave women--and in some cases, to white women who had children by black men, free or slave--were enslaved. Slave owners did not buy those children as slaves; they enslaved children born free.

Slaves were brought to the US South because there was fertile land and no labor force.
Also wrong. There was a labor force here. The Indians weren't terribly interested in working as farm laborers, and even when enslaved, tended to disappear back into the forest. There were also many white laborers doing similar work in the early days of Virginia and Maryland. One of several theories that attempts to explain the rise of slavery as a racial institution argues that the Great Fire of 1666 in London so dramatically raised labor rates in England--even long distances from London--that it made it difficult for planters to attract white laborers to do the hard and often deadly work of tobacco planting in the malarial lands around Chesapeake Bay.
Southerners were born into the institution just as were slaves. Slavery was an economic institution independent of racism. Its days were numbered, because it is not as efficient as free contracted labor and population growth was creating a labor market. I make no apology for slavery, not even for the kind the US has today.
It is true that many historians believe that slavery was dying when our Constitution was written--and was revived by the invention of the cotton gin in response to the patent system the new Constitution provided for--but historians are still debating whether slavery was dying or growing in the 1850s. The real money to be made from slavery was not from the employment of slaves, but from the sale of them. This, plus the often destructive agricultural practices associated with cotton growing, suggests that slavery would only die if it had nowhere to expand. Slave owners were unsurprisingly heavily involved in efforts to expand the United States, including fomenting the Mexican War, and proposals to annex Cuba.

Slavery in America could have been independent of racism. It wasn't. From the beginning of the 18th century onward, there was a presumption in the slave colonies that if you were black, you were a slave. The burden of proof was on the free black to prove that he was free. Loss of your manumission papers often meant being sold into slavery.

I will make Roberts a deal: let him sign over his rights in order to experience being a field hand on a Louisiana sugar plantation, or an Alabama cotton plantation, for a week. During that time, we will sell his wife and children to another plantation 300 miles away, or perhaps we'll do another fairly common practice: direct his wife to have sex with the chief breeding slave, the one that the master thinks will produce better products for sale. (After all, being smart isn't a premium when breeding livestock, and masters were often no more considerate concerning slaves.) When Roberts protests, we'll give him 30 lashes, until the blood is pouring down his back. If he is still giving the master lip, we'll punch a hole through his tongue (although this will make him very fashionable on campus).

Oh yes, let me mention, only one slave state made it a crime for a master to rape his slaves, and that was Mississippi. If the slave was under 12. And even that law didn't get passed until 1859.

Roberts can then decide which he would prefer: that or the slavery of being in one of the higher marginal tax brackets (an experience that I have had, and that I did not enjoy).

There might be some way for Roberts to make the point he is trying to make--that we are enslaved by the IRS. But perhaps having stumbled badly on this, he can compare our tax system to the Holocaust.

If you want to know more, read my book Black Demographic Data, 1790-1860: A Sourcebook (Greenwood Press, 1997).

UPDATE: A reader tells me that the 1859 Mississippi slave rape law only applied to blacks--that white masters were still free to rape their slaves. I am relying on an account in Deborah Gray White's Ar'n't I a Woman?. I have no reason to trust one account over the other. My goal here is to make sure that you are aware that there is some dispute about this--although neither version says anything good about the slave states:
The case is George (a Slave) v. State, 37 Miss. 316 (1859). There is a note at the end of the case that states the legislature, in 1860, had changed the law to make rape or sexual assault by a "negro or mulatto on a female negro or mulatto, under twelve years of age" punishable by death or whipping. There appears to have already been a law on the books making it illegal to rape or assault a child under ten but regular statutary laws would not have applied to a slave child, even in the case of protecting her. A case cited within George, Minor v State, is very informative on this. I think Adrienne Davis has discussed this case in some of her legal scholarship.

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