The economic historian Dr. Robert E. Wright joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the economic disadvantages of slavery and refute the myth that slavery made America richer.
Robert E. Wright: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 38 Transcript
Watch the full interview here.
Chelsea Follett: Joining the podcast today is Dr. Robert E. Wright, an economic historian, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, and, in his own words, an anti-paternalist classical liberal political economist. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, and the University of Virginia. He has authored or co-authored numerous articles for important academic journals, including the American Economic Review, Business History Review, Independent Review, and Southern Economic Review. And he is also the author or editor of over two dozen major book series and edited collections. He’s very prolific. Including the book, The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy. He has served on the board of Historians Against Slavery, an NGO since 2012. How are you, Robert?
Robert E. Wright: I am doing great. How are you? It is so wonderful to be on this podcast. I’m not a huge consumer of podcasts. In fact, I think I have been a guest on more podcasts than I have actually ever listened to, with two exceptions. One is, Macro Musings and the other one is this podcast.
CF: Wow, well, I appreciate your time. So praising your book, James Brewer Stewart, the founder of Historians Against Slavery, said, “This book is a vigorous rejoinder to the oft repeated historical claim that immense profits derived from slavery powered the development of today’s all consuming system of globalized capitalism. When arguing persuasively for the contrary view that slavery produced impoverishment, not affluence. Robert Wright marshalls arguments based on a truly encyclopedic familiarity with slavery systems, the world over in the past, as well as the present. The debate that this book should initiate is very much welcome and timely in the extreme.” And it does feel very timely with things like the 1619 project in the public conversation. This is always a topic that people return to. So, we’ll go through the different parts of the book chapter by chapter. But first, tell me why you decided to write this book and about the book in general.
RW: Well, I decided to write the book because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing coming out of progressive, or I guess we would call them now woke historians. I wrote the bulk of the book in 2015 and 2016, which was prior to the whole 1619 project. But there were scholars who were publishing books that were getting quite a bit of traction because they were Ivy League historians with fancy titles and endowed chairs and whatnot. And they were arguing what the pro-slavery people used to argue in the United States, which is that America would not be rich without slavery. And what they are trying to do is to set up a case for reparations to say, “Hey, look, we are wealthy today, but it’s only because we had slavery in the past and now it’s time that we repay that debt.”
RW: And it is completely wrong and wrong-headed. And as you know, my colleague, now my colleague, Phil Magnus has really been in the weeds with this, showing many of the very specific problems with those books. And with the 1619 project. My book, The Poverty of Slavery is more of a step back, a look not just at the United States, but all systems of enslavement from the prehistoric period up to the present. And I don’t ever find an instance where slavery leads to anything more than profits for slaveholders. It never helps overall economies, and it really can’t for the reasons that I’m sure we’ll get into in more detail shortly. So that’s the gist of the book. The whole idea is to cut off that reparations notion based on some very poorly thought out economic story that slavery leads to economic growth and development.
CF: So the first chapter entitled, “Yet Another Half Untold,” provides a sort of introduction to the book and explains your objectives, your putting to rest this claim that slavery can ever be economically beneficial. And you mentioned a number of times when you heard people make claims like this. How pervasive is this belief that slavery was or can be economically beneficial?
RW: It’s much too pervasive. Once again, I mean, it was thoroughly trounced in the 19th century and only a few racist historians like UB Phillips kept some of it alive for a while, but it pretty much petered out until the new millennium. And then we started to get books like the Ed Baptist book, The Half Untold, that forms the basis for the sort of, tongue in cheek chapter title. [chuckle] Yet Another Half Untold, and that helps me to get into some basic economic concepts like opportunity cost, and of course Bastiat’s window that which is seen and that which is unseen. So the main thrust of the books by, Baptist and, Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson, those Latitude teach at Harvard and, Baptist is at Cornell, and not a whole raft of other scholars that kind of tried to follow in their wake is to concentrate on the profits that slavery produced. So there were some rich slaveholders, and so they say, well, those rich slaveholders drove economic growth in the United States, in Great Britain, because the British, of course, had slave colonies as well.
RW: And this leads to… This horrible generalization that they all like to… This horrible label they all like to bring up, capitalism, which is a term that I personally try to avoid whenever possible, because there’s not really a single agreed upon definition of it. It’s used by different people in different ways. I prefer to look at economic growth and development, both of which, of course, we can measure more or less. But the notion of Baptist and Beckert and Johnson and these other folks was that slavery created capitalism, and capitalism creates wealth. And it’s just a very flawed story. It’s oversimplified, undefined and what I try to do in that first chapter is to point that out, to point out the political objective, which is to make a case for reparations today.
RW: And to try to explain that making reparation… Even if their case is correct, and we owe something to the descendants of slaves. It’s still fraught with all kinds of difficulties, because almost everyone has been descended from at least one slaveholder and at least one slave over the courses of their genealogies. And so sorting that all out is next to impossible and in the end we would just be paying ourselves. [chuckle] And of course, this issue’s coming up again because of what’s going on in California right now. There was a couple of years where reparations were hardly mentioned because everyone was so focused on COVID and mandates and lockdowns and whatnot. But you’re right, it is coming back in force, even though there’s no intellectual justification for it whatsoever, and a lot against it.
CF: So let’s get into the case against it. But before… Well, actually before we get into that, we have to look at the framework that you set out in the book, about the various degrees of liberty. We need to define slavery and talk about this idea you present that slavery is not a simple yes or no condition, but rather there’s a continuum of degrees of slavery, or essentially a score that you could apply to someone with regards to how free they are. Can you tell me about that?
RW: Yeah, I mean, I’m an historian by training, but I’m very analytical compared to most historians. So I like to be able to quantify things to the extent possible. And I like to be very precise in defining terms and that’s why I don’t use the word capitalism except ironically or in a quote, quotation or what have you. And the term slavery is also contested. And I looked at the history of different definitions of the word as far back as we have language all the way up to the present. And just began to keep track of the different ways in which the word was used, and I ended up with 20 questions that could be posed to an individual or could be posed to a historical group.
RW: And the answers to those 20 questions, don’t lead to, “Yeah, you’re a slave,” or, “No, you’re not a slave,” it leads to a scale, a scale of freedom. And so when you start to apply this to individuals or to different historical groups, you can get a pretty good idea of who was more enslaved than others. So a chattel slave in the Antebellum US worked on a gang system, and a cotton field, or in a sugar plantation, score zero on this. So that’s pretty enslaved, right?
CF: You can’t be more enslaved, absolutely.
RW: CEOs and most tenured college professors, at least until recently, fall at the other end of the spectrum, they tend to score 19 or 20. Whereas wage laborers in the 19th century tended to score around 7 or 8, but today they score more around 15 or so. The questions that compose the freedom scale are questions like, do you get paid in cash or some other liquid asset, like stock options or what have you. Because if you don’t then your employer can control you. Like with company script in the 19th and the 20th, first part of the 20th century many workers would get paid in company script that was only good at the company store.
RW: And so obviously that decreases their liberty because they can’t save in a way that would allow them to move to another job, for example. There are questions like if you can marry on the same terms that your employer can, and if you can then that’s fine. But if you can’t then obviously your liberty is a little bit less. So the scale works really well in terms of comparing different workers at different times and trying to figure out why sometimes workers got so peeved off and a lot of times, it was because their freedom score was reduced by the terms of their contract. There was a type of chattel slave in the Antebellum US for example who worked on a task system rather than a gang system in the rice plantations in the lowlands in Georgia and South Carolina.
RW: And their freedom score was more like in the 3 to 4 range because they weren’t under the lash all day being worked in this gang, they were given so many acres of rice patties to tend to, and once they tended to that they were on their own time for the rest of the day. So it was still a dreadful situation as the 3 to 4 score indicates but it was better than the gang worked cotton slave. When emancipation comes, the Southerners, the former slave holders start to have their workers sign contracts that were very prohibitive. And so we didn’t go from a status of pure enslavement to a bunch of CEOs running around, [laughter] to close to pure freedom. Instead slaves maybe started to score a two or former slaves, a two or a three because of how restrictive these labor contracts were.
RW: Well, the rice plantation slaves actually saw the contracts as more restrictive to their freedom than they had been living under enslavery. So they were not at all happy and there was all kinds of unrest in that area in lowland South Carolina immediately following the Civil War. Not because of emancipation, per se but because of emancipation followed by this regime of very strict labor contracts. It also helps us to make distinctions between wage laborers that were under restrictive contracts and what would later be called as free laborers, people who had much more discretion in the terms of their work. So for example, in the 19th century there were many farm girls that ended up in places like Laurel Massachusetts working in textile mills. They were wage laborers. Their lives were highly restricted by the corporations that employed them. So they score more like in the 7 to 8 range on the freedom scale as opposed to 14, 15, 16 that most quote-unquote free laborers later on would enjoy.
CF: And then your third chapter is an overview of slavery, from prehistoric times up to the great emancipations of the 19th century and there’s a lot to discuss there. So let’s start with the deep history of slavery in ancient times. Tell me about slavery in the distant past and that evolution and then we’ll move forward in time.
RW: Well, slavery the big point is that slavery is ubiquitous over time and space. Most societies had some type of person that might not go by the name of a slave that would score very low on the freedom scale that I just described. And even chattel slavery with outright ownership and scores of zero to one were quite common throughout history and throughout the globe. Determining exactly when and where though, especially in the prehistoric period is difficult because you have to interpret the physical record. And so some things like prehistoric chains have been found, made from iron, we’re pretty sure that those folks were enslaved. There’s not a lot of these that have survived but that’s part of the nature of the archeological record, right?
RW: Because you find four or five of these there could have been 40,000, 50,000, hundreds of thousands of them produced back then. And especially with something like iron, because it can rust away or it can be repurposed. So you’re using iron to shackle slaves but it starts to break or rust or what have you. They would then recast that iron into some other product. That is a loss, of course, to the archeological record. We can look at things like sex ratios in existing collections of bones and try to glean something from that. There was a massacre, for example, on what’s now called the Missouri River and what’s now South Dakota that happened in pre-Columbian, prehistoric times.
RW: And the bones showed a wide range of men who were killed and very old females but hardly any females of reproductive age. How could this have been a functioning society with hardly any females of reproductive age? Well, it’s likely that what happened was this raid occurred and this massacre occurred because it was a slave raid, and the raiders wanted reproductive age females. That’s why they’re not represented in the mass grave of that massacre site because they weren’t killed. They were taken and enslaved. I think that slavery probably came about at the same time as the domestication of animals because many of the same technologies are involved. And one aspect of slavery has always been to treat the enslaved as non-human.
RW: And this comes from the fact that this is happening at the same time that we are domesticating or enslaving, if you will goats and cattle and chickens and so on and so forth. Some of the techniques that are used in animal husbandry are also used on slaves like castrating young males. There’s a lot of similarities between the two, but we don’t know for sure. But we do know, as soon as we start to get written records, slaves are ubiquitous and they’re in the written record and there’s nobody saying, “Hey, there’s this new thing here.” [laughter] It’s always in the context of, “Hey, this is common and everyone knows what this is,” going all the way back to the epic of Gilgamesh.
RW: And of course, there’s slaves in the Bible and they’re just all over the written record as soon as it emerges. We’re quite confident that slavery was ubiquitous and had a deep history. Even thousands of years ago when we finally first start recording things and you see them in early accounts, slaves will show up as assets often right next to the livestock and the number of acres of land and all that sort of stuff, we’re quite confident in that. And by the time we start to get into the ancient Greek period, the ancient Roman period, the Roman Empire, slavery’s very well entrenched.
RW: There’s a wide variety of different forms of bonded or unfree labor, like the Helots in some parts of ancient Greece that there’s no modern analog for. They’re kind of surfs. They’re kind of like slaves. It’s like this hybrid thing, and there’s different grades of slaves and of debt peons. And it’s really a diverse ecosystem indicating that it’s something that had been around for a long time, was involving different forms to meet economic and political circumstances in different countries. It’s also widespread in India. It’s widespread in China, in East Asia, Southeast Asia. It’s huge in Africa. Africa, there’s an internal slave trade. There’s slave trade between North Africa and Europe, between East Africa and the various Indian ocean civilizations and Arabia.
RW: There was a every… Everyone’s heard of the Silk Road. There’s also a slave road where human beings are being shipped from one area to another. Slaves are very interesting economically for a number of reasons. And one is that they become more valuable the further and further away from their source that they go and they can also carry themselves there and they can also carry other goods with them. There’s a very strong incentive to seize or buy slaves in one area and then to use them to transport themselves and goods to other areas for sale. And the reason why they’re more valuable, the further away from home they are, is because they become easier and easier to control. They don’t know how to get back home. They don’t know the local language or customs. They stand out as different and hence, if they were to try to escape, they’re more easily identified and then returned to their masters, to their owners.
CF: And the word “slave” itself, it comes from “Slav,” right? Because that’s where…
RW: The English word “slave” comes from “Slav.” Yes. The Latin term “servus” comes… We now use “servant” or “serve.” So in English… Yeah. There’s the… And that’s because Eastern Europe was a major source of slaves. Western Europe was a major source of slaves as well. And not many people appreciate this. I mean, really sophisticated folks like Tom Sowell knows this extremely well, he’s even argued that more western Europeans were enslaved than Africans, at least in the Trans-Atlantic part of that global slaving system. Benjamin Franklin, for example, his last public act was to sort of mock slave holders in the US by pointing to the enslavement of Europeans by Muslims in North Africa. And the Muslims use the same justifications for slavery that the slave holders in the US used.
RW: “They’re not really people, we can convert them to the one true religion, it’s better for them to be slaves with us than to be out on their own in their [laughter] Barbarous land,” and so on, and so forth. Yeah. And then Central and South America, North America pre-contact, there was also slavery, there’s all kinds, traditionally, anthropologists and archeologists didn’t wanna recognize it in the new world. Part of that myth of the noble savages, it’s sometimes called but various American-Indian groups enslaved people with regularity, it’s clearest in the Northwest but even the Eastern Woodlands, ones, Mesoamerican, ones, the inka, they all had forms of bonded labor.
RW: And again it doesn’t look exactly like the chattel slavery with people of a different race laboring out in the fields and whatnot, but they are still very much on the low end of that freedom scale that we discussed earlier. So yeah, slavery is ubiquitous, and it’s going every which direction. Sometimes at the same time. Where you have Vikings who are raiding the English and the Irish coasts, and then taking the slaves and selling them in North Africa. The North Africans are raiding throughout the Mediterranean, and sometimes they even raided up the Thames, in what today is Britain, and took slaves, and… So it’s not a phenomenon of what Western Europeans did to Africans. It’s what humans had been doing to humans over millennia.
CF: Right, so it’s global, it’s been going on since time immemorial. But then tell me about how that evolved into the chattel slavery that we’re all familiar with from the colonial era. Because it’s very important, I think, as a question to understand how this norm that had existed for so long changed. How did we get those great emancipations of the 19th century?
RW: Well, the great emancipations have been overplayed, because we don’t… Especially when you start to think of slavery along a continuum, right? Because we don’t go from slave to free. We go from chattel slave to somebody who has a little bit more freedom, but not a whole heck of a lot. So I already mentioned how some slaves who were relatively free in the old Dixie model actually felt as though they were less free under the new contractual model. There’s all sorts of quasi slaveries that sprang up especially in the South following the Civil War. And some historians like Doug Blackman and David Oshinsky have recaptured a lot of this for us. But basically you would have people using the exception in the 13th Amendment in order to reduce people back towards slavery, back towards being a bonded or a coerced laborer.
RW: So you’d pass a law that said, “Okay, well if you’re a vagrant or you’re quote-unquote, loitering, then you’re subject to a fine and or imprisonment.” Then sheriffs, police officers, constables go out and they find people who don’t have any obvious means of employment, and they arrest them for that. And then they’re brought before a magistrate, and the magistrate says, “You’re guilty of this. You gotta pay a $5 fine.” And the person says, “Well, we don’t have $5.” And the judge is like, “That’s okay, you can work it off.” And then they’re sold, or their debt technically is sold to a plantation owner or to a coal mine. And they effectively become slaves. And in some ways they’re much worse off than the chattel slaves of before the Civil War, because the chattel slaves were worth hundreds and at the end a thousand plus dollars for a prime age male field hand. They were very valuable assets.
RW: So slave holders did not generally abuse them to death, because they’re so valuable. They have a interest in the slaves, continuing to be healthy enough to do the work required on the plantation. So, doctors would be hired to tend to them if they said, “Oh, I’m not feeling very well today.” Oftentimes they were given, time off because the slave holder didn’t wanna risk this pretty valuable asset. In the post bellum period under this convict leasing system that arose the amounts that are paid for men who are already fully grown, the employer didn’t have to put a bunch of resources and years and years into first… And buy for just a few dollars.
RW: Well, they think nothing of working them to death, because why not? You can always go get another one for $5. So they complained about medical, “Too bad, keep working.” They had much stricter punishments for these men. Because again, they didn’t really care if they lived or died. They were just looking for compliant workers, workers who would work hard. And if not, then they’re fine to put them in the ground, because they don’t have very much invested in them. So these modern forms of slavery that came out of the old chattel system in some ways are much, much harsher than the old system. Not to glorify the old system. Anyway, it’s still horrible. But just looking at the self-interest of the slave holder it was vastly different.
RW: What Simon Legree does to Uncle Tom and uncle Tom’s cabin, was pretty unusual. And it’s only after Tom just shows that he’s gonna be utterly recalcitrant. That Legree finally kills him, right? He gives him a lot of slack because Tom’s a very valuable worker. But in the new slaveries that arise, they paid very little for the slaves. And so they’re happy to work them to death if they’re not going to provide those rents that the enslavers want.
CF: And of course, so…
RW: That’s of course, really what this is all about, right? It’s a form of rent seeking, a form of theft.
CF: And of course, some were worked to death under chattel slavery as well, especially in places like the Caribbean. You saw all sorts of different conditions depending on what location you’re looking at, right? We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. Can you tell me about the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and the rise of the anti-slavery movement? Because obviously throughout history there have been sporadic criticisms of slavery. There have been brief bans on trading slaves at different times in history, but how did we get to a point where that legal change stuck?
RW: Well, it sticks well…
CF: But first the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Let’s talk about the rise of the system before we talk about how it…
RW: Yeah. It was not a European invention, because Africa had already been decimated by these different slaving systems. The one where Muslims come down from the north, and they either seize sub-Saharan Africans outright, or they purchased them. They trade for them with other sub-Saharan enslavers. And there’s also this system on the East where sub-Saharan and south African slaves are or Africans are being enslaved and then shipped to India and Southeast Asia and China and so forth. So Europeans don’t invent the… They just come into this system that’s already there, and they start to either go to places that were relatively cloistered previously because just from the sheer distance, the transaction cost, you might say, of these other two systems, or because they start to outbid the other enslavers, the other slave traders.
RW: And so they start to take slaves away to work in the plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil and in North America. Relatively small percentage of them actually end up in North America. Because as we talked about previously, they’re did develop the system in North America where the slaves are valuable, they’re kept healthy enough that not only do they work, they also reproduce, which is fairly unusual in enslaved systems. In the Caribbean systems, for example, they often work people to death the average of like seven years. And those populations are not self reproducing. They’re dependent on the slave trade. They’re dependent on this new stream of enslaved Africans coming in. So that makes it possible once there’s finally the development of any slavery and abolitionist ideas, pretty much… In the earlier period, there were a few groups like in ancient Greece that said this probably isn’t right, but they never really gained traction, but they started to gain traction in the 18th century and the early 19th century in the Anglo world.
RW: And it’s eased by the fact that there is this other source of labor that’s available. And that source are, what are called Indian Coolies or, Chinese Coolies. They’re indentured laborers. So they’re not chattel slaves, or they’re legally not chattel slaves, but they are very low on the freedom scale. So, the places in the British Empire, for example, that have been relying on, African slaves simply switch over to these indentured laborers. So they’re still able to continue more or less business as usual. But people convinced themselves that these folks weren’t slaves because they signed contracts. And, it turns out that they really didn’t give their consent to any of this. They were lied to, they were illiterate, and so the fact that they made their mark on a piece of paper in a language that they don’t even know, is hardly indication we know today of they’re actually giving consent. Also we consider consent today, not just sort of pre-consent where we agree to a contract, but ongoing consent.
RW: Where today we think, “Well, if somebody doesn’t like their employment situation, they should be able to leave it.” And we do make a few exceptions for like movie stars and, professional athletes and so on and so forth. We allow to walk themselves into contracts, but one of the conditions of free labor is that we don’t allow that for the vast majority of the workforce, right? They can leave when they want, so they have to give a continuing consent. But these, early indentured laborers, they were signing up for, 3, 5, 10 years at a time, lied to about the conditions, when they get there they don’t like what’s going on, but there’s nothing they can do about it at that point ’cause they’re 2000 mile sea trip away from home. They don’t know any of the local customs or anything. They stick out like sore thumbs if they try to escape. So, it’s something very close to chattel slavery. And that’s what helped end that formal slavery because these alternatives were available. So, yeah, it’s not a happy story of, “Wulala! Here comes Wilberforce,” and the next thing you know, the British have outlawed slavery and blah, blah, blah. It’s much more complicated nuanced, story than that. Though still progress, right? Just not a big…
CF: That isn’t quite… No. And maybe… Well, an important thing to think about there is not just the change in the practice, which may have been in practice, many people going from a zero to a three, but the change in how people thought about slavery, because throughout most of history, people, for the most part, did not question slavery’s morality. Most people throughout history just sort of accepted that that’s the way things were. And then in the lead up to the Civil War, many people would make arguments that not only was it not bad, some people tried to claim it was actually very good. And there were debates related to that. So can you talk about the change in how people thought about slavery?
RW: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. For most of, human history, recorded history, there’s very little resistance to slavery. It’s thought to be something natural. It’s thought to be a good thing even for the enslaved, because if they were seized in a war for example, which is one of the major ways that people over time have been become enslaved, well, you could have been killed right then and there, so you weren’t killed right then and there. So enslaving you was a good thing. You did a bad thing, right? So there’s always been this element of how do you pay restitution to society for breaking the law? Well, not many societies are just throwing people into cells where they do nothing, they need to be fed and whatnot. Most of the time it’s, “Okay, well, we could put corporal punishment on you, even capital punishment and take your life. But we’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna allow you to live, but you’re gonna have to do what this person tells you to do for the rest of your life.”
RW: “Or if you owe a big debt or any debt and you can’t repay it we could do very nasty things to you, but we’re just going to enslave you instead,” was sort of the mentality. But the enlightenment comes along and we start thinking about liberty and, there are some people who start to interpret the Bible in a way that makes it seem like it’s not… Especially the New Testament doesn’t jive with enslaving others. And, I think that we finally start to come to realize that one person enslaving another, actually hurts everyone economically, hurts them morally too in some way. But that’s a bit slipperier, more slippery of a concept. But, we come to realize that, slavery creates very large negative externalities or pollution, and it’s because people do not want to be enslaved.
RW: And there are some cases of people with like Stockholm Syndrome or sometimes supposedly the victims of the slaughterhouses as they’re called in English, these horrific rape brothels in suburban Paris, where women have to service men 12 hours a day, one right after the other with a six-minute rule in place. They do that for years, and it’s very difficult to come back from that. But in most instances, people who are enslaved still have enough sense of self that they don’t want to be enslaved and they resist. And they resist in myriad ways that reduce the enslaver’s profits, but the enslavers often get subsidies from the government to help them to continue to extract rents from these unfortunate souls.
CF: So that might be a good segue into the fifth chapter. I think over the course of our conversation, you’ve already covered much of the fourth chapter, which is about how slavery in many senses continued after the formal dissolution of it. But the fifth chapter, “that which is seen,” enslavers’ profits. This is about some of those arguments that people made at the time in support of slavery. They claimed it was economically necessary before people started making that realization that it wasn’t. Can you tell me about the enslavers’ profits?
RW: I mean, there were some enslavers who were simply incompetent and they didn’t profit, but there’s a distribution of profits. You can think of it like a normal distribution. And as far as we can tell, the sort of the median profitability is above the median profitability for other endeavors at the same level of risk. So in other words, what would the finance people call that? An alpha? There’s an Alpha, there’s a above risk-adjusted average Return, a rent. An economic rent that the median enslaver is taking, and of course, some of them are wildly profitable out the tail. And some of them were incompetent and actually managed to lose money with slaves somehow. And if you think about it, and I guess this ties into a chapter I wrote in a book from 2010 called Fubarnomics the chapter is called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where I have a model of why firms choose different labor sources, why use slaves versus using family labor versus using wage labor versus using an indentured labor.
RW: So these folks are choosing to use slaves. They’re doing it rationally. They must think that they’re getting some advantage from doing that, and it appears as though they are, or they are today, and they did in the canonical Antebellum South. The problem is, that you can’t go from profitability to being good for the economy. Yeah, and it’s just…
CF: Right. That gets into the next two chapters. Absolutely. Let’s move there.
RW: Yeah. So yes, slavery creates all kinds of negative externalities or pollution. There are costs, they’re borne by society that are not embedded in the market transactions and the price of slaves. And yeah, these are two [chuckle] very long chapters with tons and tons of detail from lots of different places and time periods, but they all show that by resisting their enslavement slaves create control costs, and enslavers often manage to put those control costs on the rest of society because they control the polity or because nobody… The case today that not enough people care enough to stop them from doing it. So there used to be slave patrols, for example in the US, where poor whites had to go out like a militia duty. Had to go out at night and walk around and look for slaves that might be up to no good. There were public armories just for the event of a slave insurrection, so that the militia could be called out or the federal government could be called. There was this massive slave rebellion, for example, in Louisiana in 1811, that hardly anyone talks about for reasons that aren’t clear.
RW: But the federal government had to intercede in that. You have these fugitive slave laws where if slaves managed to escape and they escaped into a free state, a state that no longer countenanced chattel slavery, it was the duty of the citizens of that state to apprehend the run away and return them to the slave owner. There’s this whole legal code that has to come with all its attendant costs and inefficiencies. There’s the fact that slaveholders weren’t… Landlords, somewhat truly as they were labor lords. So they would deplete the fertility of their lands and simply buy more land out West and bring their slaves along with them. Well, that meant that they didn’t have many really long-term ties to particular communities. So they didn’t invest in the churches and the banks and the railroads, and all like they did in the North because they didn’t have an incentive to do that. ‘Cause they’re expecting in 20 years that they’re gonna be moving to fresh lands.
RW: Literacy rates in the South were abysmal, especially compared to the north, because the slaveholders didn’t want there to be non-slave holders who were intelligent and who thought for themselves, because they might start to question this system that the slave holders were creating in order to make slavery as profitable as possible for themselves. So there’s lots and lots of these sorts of instances, not just slave rebellions. There are maroon societies as they’re called that would crop up, where if slaves didn’t have a place to go where they could be free, they would go to wild places and create their own communities and then raid the slave communities. This is huge throughout history and even in the United States, in the early, 19th century.
RW: And so the public resources are put towards that. There are public whipping stations. If you are a dainty southern bell, and your husband’s off on business and you have house slaves who are getting uppity, you can’t very well get out the cat of nine tails yourself and, whip them, right? But there was a public whipping station where you could take your slaves and say, “Please whip the slave on my behalf.” And they’d be whipped. So there’s lots and lots of costs that are being put out on the entire society in order to keep slaves manageable, and that allows slavery to be profitable and extra profitable in sometimes in places.
CF: Right. So…
RW: While hurting the overall economy, yeah.
CF: Right. So it’s not just a form of moral progress, but also a kind of economic progress. And that brings us to the eighth chapter on real abolition. You talk about the various forms of forced labor and levels of slavery that still persist. I’m curious about whether there’s been any progress to note since this book’s release in 2017 on that. And if you can just talk a little bit about some of these issues today with slavery and the threat of a return to slavery through paternalism.
RW: Yeah. So, I guess big picture, the good news is that right now we’re probably at a point in history where the smallest percentage of the human population is enslaved, right? There are 8 billion people now we know, more or less, and because it’s illegal. We don’t have super firm number, but roughly 50 million people are enslaved. So that’s a very tiny percentage of the global population. That’s great news. The 50 million though, might be the highest number of individuals who have ever been enslaved in history, simply because population levels were much, much lower in the past. So that’s not such good news. And just 50 million, regardless of its percentage, is a lot of individual people to be under these circumstances, about half of them are sex slaves. About a quarter of them are domestic slaves.
RW: So they’re being worked in people’s homes, and about a quarter are being worked in agricultural, and generally like Agro… What’s the term for it? Agribusiness, agri-industrial, like making turpentine, for example. So they’re out in secluded areas, and they are creating a product, a manufactured product, but they’re not making spaceships or things like that. It’s, not a good idea to try to enslave people to do fancy technological stuff as Hitler discovered in the Second World War. So, we’re in a position where, there are lots of people to help, but it’s not like the negative externalities being created by slavery today are as immense as they were in the antebellum United States. But they’re still not insignificant especially given that many of these slaves are also used to degrade the environment.
RW: Many of the people burning down the rainforests in Brazil are enslaved. Many of the people destroying, mangrove forests in South Asia are enslaved. Because enslaving others works well with other criminal activity. It’s already a crime to enslave others. Why not throw destruction of natural resources in, on top of that. Why not throw drugs and arms, gun smuggling in on top of that. So we’ve seen the development of organized crime syndicates throughout the world that engage in what’s sometimes called the Big Three, guns, girls, and drugs. So, it’s a constant struggle. The pandemic did not help. It looks like that there were some people who were enslaved when the lockdowns occurred were killed or allowed to die because they couldn’t generate the economic value and they weren’t worth keeping around. Especially when people started to realize that it was gonna be more than two weeks to flatten the curve sort of thing. You just don’t wanna release your slaves because then they’re witnesses potentially, against you.
RW: And, also many people became increasingly fragile during the course of the pandemic and the lockdowns and the mandates and so forth, they lost income and they become more vulnerable to enslavement and it doesn’t look like the last few years have been very good. But I think technology might be able to help. Technology in the past has certainly helped to get over that long transition from chattel slaves to debt peons and indentured servants and whatnot more towards wage labor and free labor. For example machines pick cotton now we don’t have human beings bending over fields in Oklahoma and the area outside of Lubbock, Texas picking cotton. Machines do it. So machines could also help in certain aspects of modern slavery and sex trafficking, again, about half of which is the sex industry. So…
CF: What about the threat? I’ve heard you talk about the threat of a return to slavery, because again, it’s very unusual historically for there to be widespread agreement that slavery is bad. And thank goodness we all now outside of a couple of groups like the Islamic State pretty much agree that it’s bad. What would be the threat of a reversal on that, of a change back towards slavery?
RW: Any major economic disruption could easily bring it back. And I doubt that the word slave would be used at least at first. Just like in the past they’d come up with some euphemism for it. And we know now how plastic or pliable words have become, right? Who knows what label could be given to them, but if you watch any sort of sci-fi dystopian, apocalyptic story, like the zombie thing, there’s always slavery that’s being redone in one form or another. Unless you have a government that supports life liberty and property and can protect that, then people go back to the old trade or raid thought all of the time, right? ‘Cause right now most of us still just default to trade. We wanna work together, find our mutually beneficial interests and exchange. But we could very easily slip back into a situation where if you see another person you’re not thinking, “What can I exchange with them for mutually beneficial gain. It might be simply, how do I bonk this person on the head and take control of either their stuff or maybe the person themselves.”
CF: And you’ve talked about also thinking again of slavery as a kind of a continuum. You’ve talked about the rise of paternalistic thinking and how that relates to this issue.
RW: Yeah. There was some interesting experimental research being done by some students of Alvin Roth before the pandemic that showed at least in Germany that paternalism is rife in people’s thinking. And they did it by presumably having an experiment about eating bugs and they’d have… People would say, “Well, yeah, what would your reservation price be to eat that disgusting thing right there?” And people would give their answers and whatnot. But what they really wanted to test was if people were willing to say that other people can’t eat the bug and they found like 90% of people were willing to do that, wanted to do that, wanted to say, “I don’t think that anyone should be allowed to eat this bug for less than $500 or 500 euro,” I guess, ’cause it’s Germany.
RW: They repeated the experiment with interest rates basically saying, “Okay, you can get 5 euro tomorrow for partaking in this experiment or you can get 50 euro in a year, which do you prefer?” And of course most educated people are gonna say, “Well, gimme 50… ” at least back be when interest rates were low. “Yeah, gimme 50 in a year.” But the real experiment was, do you want to make other people do the same choice that you’ve made? And again, like 90% of the people in these studies in Germany were saying, “Yes, I don’t think anyone should be allowed to take the 5 euro tomorrow, ’cause obviously you should take the 50 euro in a year,” and so what I was hoping was to see more of these sorts of… So we can’t do them historically obviously but to see more of these sorts of scientific economic experiments being done in different cultures to see if this is a German thing or if this is a human thing or the extent to which it is dependent upon educational systems or if it’s something inherent in humanity where we want to think that we know what’s better for other people, which of course was a main justification for slavery and could become again. You are not capable of making decisions yourself, so I will make those decisions for you and you are gonna be better off for it, which of course is a lot of what government does as well.
CF: Well, I think there’s still obviously a long way to go, but I think there’s little doubt that the abolition of legal slavery has constituted one of humanity’s greatest moral achievements. It’s definitely worth talking about for the Human Progress Podcast and the ongoing struggle against slavery is one of the greatest moral imperatives. You’re doing important work there, and your research has also shown that this dramatic global change in norms around slavery is not just a moral victory but is also crucial to human prosperity. So thank you again for speaking with me on this podcast and I hope everyone listening will check out your book, again it’s The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy, and your other work on this topic.