Slavery Dynamics

Slavery Dynamics:

Overcoming Bias has an interesting article on the economic dynamics of American slavery. It reminds me of a recent EconTalk episode with Munger, who talks about how the intellectual culture of the south created incredibly clever pro-slavery arguments. Not that they are moral, or correct, but that they are clever enough that if you were born into that society they would be convincing. Presumably this is in contrast to most portrayals of the time, which involve almost comically evil folks.

Munger quotes a book called Cannibals All, which I had previously partially read. The book takes a sort of Marxist approach to slavery, claiming that given how awful working poor conditions are for wage-slaves, slavery is actually a good deal. The author’s reasoning is that the slave owner actually has an incentive to keep the slave healthy and safe, whereas the capitalist doesn’t own any particular worker and has no such incentive. Yet with his capital he has a residual claim on slave labor from all of the working poor.

It’s no wonder Munger was arguing these arguments are… surprisingly good. Not good good, but about as good as any modern PhD Sociology thesis (that is, pretty bad). But they sound good. And while sounding good often has no correlation with reality, it’s often enough.

It’s strange that there is tons of literature on American slavery, some of it by brilliant minds, most of it painting a different picture than what we were taught. Probably what happens is clever well read scholars devote a lifetime towards studying slavery, and come to shared conclusions. The problem is most people don’t have the ability or time to study all those texts. Cutting the texts down is dangerous, as a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The clever solution is to select a few core and simple texts on slavery that lead the reader to a one dimensional version of the slavery scholars final conclusions.  You can see the same thing in The Holocaust. The side effect of this is that those simple and selected texts are then mistake for the reality. So when someone starts digging a little into old books, and they spot inconsistencies, exaggerations, and exclusions, they immediately doubt the entire conclusion. Even though the conclusion is usually still generally right.

The problem is that these topics and conclusions become sacred, and are used as a shared signal for our morality. In Germany it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. So when someone starts digging into small inconsistencies or questioning the past it’s viewed very negatively. Even though you would have to be delusional to actually deny the Holocaust or claim American slavery was in any way not a horror show.

So what seems to happen is every time someone makes a claim everyone goes along with it, since you can’t question the sacred.

And that sucks. Because while it might convince some people to care more, it also becomes a really inconsistent documentation of history that gives far too much credibility to groups who use conspiracy theories for their own ideological reasons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *