Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Great Slavery Debate: Was Slavery Profitable?

Note: There are many who say that the economics of slavery were not very profitable, Thomas Sowell notably, and I would say they are wrong. However, it is important to distinguish (as I will attempt) between plantation slavery economics and the greater commerce value/impact of the triangular trade.

There are two high schools (Part 1 today), and one graduate school (Part 2 coming), of thought on the degree to which this country owes its fortunes to slavery, and by inference to Black ancestry. It is this notion of who benefited and who is owed, intertwined with current dysfunction, which sits as a big bugaboo to progress.

The Atlantic Slave Trade was a profitable component of triangular commerce of that day, but by itself not world changing. In fact, slavery has often been the spoil of a society that was good at something else, mainly war. Having other people to do your loathsome work has been a luxury for the already rich. The Atlantic Slave Trade was a final burst where pure labor was of pivotal importance to a more sophisticated system of commerce, mostly involving sugar and Europe’s sweet tooth for its by-products.

In the labor-starved Americas, slavery is what made the triangular system happen, on the front end. Thereby, it deserves a disproportion of the credit for the very profitable distilled-spirits and textiles on the back end. On the other hand, while plantation slavery made those owners rich, those same owners were not directly responsible for this country’s economic fortune. The overhead required to administer slaves within a system of zero incentive, was high. As a sidebar, had slaves been able to work in parallel to purchase their freedom, the US might have avoided a devastating war with itself.

The Wall Street banks and insurance companies in the north were a different story than the plantations. The slave trade business gave this country a critical foundation in establishing the commerce and banking infrastructure that world leadership would require. The names of those companies and their impact are undeniable – JP Morgan, Chase, Lehman Bros., Aetna, New York Life, to name a few.

So, in answer to whether slavery was profitable, the answer is both no and yes, but much more yes – as it was the lubricant for the most profitable European commerce transactions of the day. This is true even though American plantations were inefficient in their brutal waste and high overhead cost.

Up Next: Part 2 (Graduate School). Just because slavery was profitable does not mean that slaves, or their ancestors, have a rightful claim. The details and context of the day, both legal and ethical, must be applied.

James C. Collier

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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that most all finacial profits gained in the South as a result of slavery was all lost in or directly after the Civil War. The South that wasn't burned down was finacially broke.

Kentucky Packrat said...

I would argue that cheap labor in any market distorts the market. I've heard before that some slaves would even make fun of the Irish, because at least the slaves had to be fed; in the South the Irish wouldn't even get enough to eat occasionally.

Wealth is the product of labor; you underbid labor, you don't have wealth.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, Mr Collier, this just isn't much of an argument. No substance. And your characterization of "a devastating war with itself" is a bit anachronistic. You might as well say the Mexican-American war was "a war with itself" since Texas and California are now part of the USA.

Anyway, the question of whether "slavery was profitable" is a red herring anyway. The more interesting questions are whether the descendants of slaves are better off today than they would have been if their ancestors had been left in Africa, and whether America today would be better or worse off if no black slaves had been brought here. The answers to those questions will tell you who should be grateful for slavery, and who should be angry about it.

James C. Collier said...

Anon 9:22, you are proof that intelligently cobbling together words and saying something worth reading can be very far apart. You may be right about me, but I'll keep at it for now. Your 'interesting' question applies to anyone that ever existed who made a decision, or had one made for them, and lived to see the result. Wow!

Anonymous said...

I didn't say anything about you Mr Collier. I come here because I usually find your posts interesting and well-reasoned, but I don't think you offer a very strong argument in this post.

Your last sentence is a bit unclear, but I'll try to respond. I got the impression that one of the purposes of this series was to examine the nature of black grievances about slavery. The usual argument tends to assume an alternate reality where blacks in the Americas were never enslaved, but ignores the historical reality that slavery was the only reason blacks were brought to the Americas in the first place. An American black who wishes slavery never happened is wishing himself out of existence, or back to Africa at the very least.

James C. Collier said...

Anon 10:24, Your intellectual arrogance is sickening. It is insulting to offer that Blacks should be glad that their ancestors were kidnapped, and suffered bondage, because this country turned out to be a great place, for later generations. To offer that I exist due to slavery and therefore should look upon it positively is the twisted logic of a selfish mind. The end in no way justifies the means. The fact that I look upon the suffering of my ancestors and express my appreciation by taking advantage of the opportunities before me represents a show of thanks and respect, but can never recast the deeds of those days. Many poor Jews came to America via flight from Hitler's War machine, so they should be thankful because the progeny of those that survived may drive nice cars, and live in nice houses? Sick.

Anonymous said...

How could any scholar argue slavery was not profitable. The enormous size of the slavery-sugar-shipping complex that developed in the 17th-early 19th century proves huge fortunes could be made. The industrial revolution and early capitalism was financed by the triangle trade. The panic of 1857 was used as proof by the slave-holder that the southern economic superior to the north's manufacturing.

I usually take time to read Sowell work, his analysis is almost always worthwile, but this is insane. He needs some fresh air.

Chris SaveKTRU

James C. Collier said...

"...it would be difficult to make the more general case that slavery advanced the economic level of those societies in which it existed on a mass scale." Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture (1994).

Jonathan said...

Anon, the even more interesting question is, what would America be like today if blacks had been allowed to come here voluntarily in pursuit of the American dream, like everyone else was?

America would have been infinitely better off if no slaves had been brought here. And America would have been reasonably better off if the federal government had not completely bungled the post-war, Reconstruction era by being too cowardly and stupid to 1) protect the rights of black citizens, and 2) to give assistance to emancipated blacks to integrate more effectively into American society, firstly in the form of land grants and other means to promote the building of wealth and economic stability. The government completely and totally FAILED to see through the logical next steps necessary after emancipation occurred.

Hell, Frederick Douglas and other black leaders like him should have been given cabinet level positions to oversee the effort. THAT would have been a real step.

Jonathan said...

Secondly Anon, slavery is NOT profitable, or is much less profitable than voluntary labor supplied by people who are motivated by their own self interest to survive and thrive.

Land ownership is profitable. Being able to grow and produce massive quantities of commodities and export them is profitable. Or to lease the land out to those who will make it profitable.

Slavery provided the manpower, yes. But inefficiently and cruely to boot. The industrial revolution provided machine power, a hundred times more efficient and cost effective.

For every slave there was a citizen out of a job. And for every slave earning NOTHING, there was another lost opportunity for wages to be disseminated out into the larger economy to grow the community.

The U.S. was stupid for ever allowing slavery in America in the first place. And all during the 19th century, abolitionists warned and warned repeatedly about the consequences of it. And they were ignored. And here we are today. Living with it.

Anonymous said...

"what would America be like today if blacks had been allowed to come here voluntarily in pursuit of the American dream, like everyone else was?"

This is not a "what if" scenario. The only thing that kept blacks from coming to America "voluntarily in pursuit of the American dream" was their inability to build and operate transatlantic vessels. Or maybe, as you suggest, they were waiting for white people to give them permission?

Jonathan said...

To the Anonymous poster immediately above:

Nonsense. Blacks would have found a way to get to the new world voluntarily, just like anyone else did. Just like Africans do now.

Do you think every Pilgrim built his own transatlantic ship? Quit being ridiculous and think things through before you speak.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, Europeans built ships to carry their countrymen to the New World. Africans did not. They did not find a way to get to the New World voluntarily. You are again resting on the presumption that they would have but didn't because whites didn't give them permission.

Jonathan said...

Wow Anonymous, you sure seem to want to split hairs over this issue.

I merely ask a question, "What if blacks had been allowed to come here voluntarily..." instead of in the bellies of slave ships. What is your objection to that thought? When did I say or imply that we didn't give them permission to immigrate, or that we WOULDN'T have?

Why would Africans have to build ships to come here? Why couldn't they just buy a ticket like anyone else did at a port and get on a ship? Why would they have to necessarily build one? Not every European built a ship to come to America. You're being silly.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this discussion. As an Econ grad I thought there has been studies that question the profitability of slavery when a cost of labor is imputed. Also,as one commentator touched on, slavery in America existed in various forms and degrees. Millions of Euro immigrant were virtual slaves to companies. The Irish who were imported to Ohio were virtual slaves and suffered horrible conditions. The Chinese and Asians who were imported illegally to build the Western railroads were slaves. Immigrants, legal and illegal were also subject it violent discrimination. Slavery is wrong regardless of skin color. So, I wonder whether it was worth 618,000 American lives in the Civil War. Is it possible that industrialization and mechanization would have replaced demand for slave labor. Could more have been done to hasten innovation in industry for that purpose ?

Anonymous said...

The profits that traders and plantation owners made from the slave trade and slave labour could be large. Such profits were not necessarily put back into the business. Instead, many chose to spend their money on home comforts and invested in property. By the mid 1700s, many people who lived in Bristol who were involved in the slave trade or who owned (but did not live on) Caribbean plantations moved out of the central area of Bristol. They moved to areas such as Clifton that were considered then to be ‘leafy suburbs’.

http://discoveringbristol.org.uk/slavery/routes/america-to-bristol/profits/