Some people don’t know the difference between a blessing and a curse.
The legacy of slavery in America is once again becoming a hotly discussed topic. The New York Times has launched The 1619 Project, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves brought to the colony of Virginia. The project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” One of the lead essays informs us that “in order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” And over at Vox, an interview with historian Edward E. Baptist teaches us that slavery was a remarkably modern and efficient business practice, which helped the U.S. transform from a colonial economy into “the second biggest industrial power in the world.”
There are rhetorical and ideological concerns on both sides of this sensitive topic. The case for systematic reparations collapses, for example, if it turned out that slavery was an inefficient system that made blacks and whites—with a few notable exceptions—poorer. On the other hand, if the vision of The 1619 Project is correct, and modern America was built on slavery, then it would be silly for MAGA-wearing patriots to try to downplay the peculiar institution as an unfortunate footnote in the story of liberty.
In the present post, I am not going to weigh the historical evidence. For critiques of the “New History of Capitalism” (with its alleged reliance on slavery), see this article from Olmstead and Rhode, or this essay by Phil Magness.
Instead, I want to clarify the logical framework to show what it would mean to actually argue or demonstrate that slavery was an economically efficient method of production, which not only enriched those directly involved in the slave trade and labor sites, but also showered material benefits on the rest of (free) society at large. As we will see, in his Vox interview the historian Baptist doesn’t even attempt to make such a case.
Once we clarify the actual issue, it should be clear that slavery is like war: Yes, a few privileged elites can benefit financially from it, but it’s not “good for the economy.” Slavery, like war, is a destructive institution that reduces the welfare of most people in society, though a few beneficiaries can profit from the insidious system and thus have an incentive to sing its blessings.Robert P. Murphy, “The Left Argues Slavery Was an Economic Blessing. Here’s Why They Are Wrong.”
Just as Christians should not be warmongers, Christians are also expected to be pro-liberty.
You know, “imitating Christ” and all that.
American Christians should try it sometime. You’d be surprised about the scale of rewards, in time and on earth, that await the obedient Christian society.
The irony here is that you’d think the leftist opponents of slavery would be glad to hear my analysis. They are in the awkward position of explaining how beneficial slavery is to everybody else. So if they are right, then it’s only moral qualms that prevent a majority in a given region from enslaving the minority.
In contrast, I agree with the worldview of Ludwig von Mises. When making the case for classical liberalism, Mises didn’t need to appeal to altruism. No, he argued that slavery was an inefficient system:
The abolition of slavery and serfdom is to be attributed neither to the teachings of theologians and moralists nor to weakness or generosity on the part of the masters. There were among the teachers of religion and ethics as many eloquent defenders of bondage as opponents. Servile labor disappeared because it could not stand the competition of free labor; its unprofitability sealed its doom in the market economy. (Human Action, p. 625)Robert P. Murphy, “The Left Argues Slavery Was an Economic Blessing. Here’s Why They Are Wrong.”
There ain’t no profits in evil. God simply didn’t rig up the world to run that way, long term.
Short term? Yes, evil can win.
Christ really was successfully murdered by evil people; the innocent really are killed by Marxists and Fascists and Abortionists. The Armenian Christians really were exterminated by the Turkish Muslims, and Chinese women were indeed raped, mutilated and killed by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Those kind of ‘victories’, Christians should be careful to shun. Better to do what is right, lose short-term, and be able to look God in the face (so to speak) when you meet Him in His Throne room.
(Fortunately, as history pushes forward, it becomes more and more easy to do what is right and win – short-term and long-term, while the times you have to lose short-term while doing what is right grow rarer and rarer.)
Indeed, you see a tacit recognition of this brute fact in the discussions of the Civil War. For example, a popular talking point is that “by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.” Now the reason they have to put “per capita” in there, is that the South presumably did not have more millionaires than the North.
More generally, it’s just taken for granted that the North was richer than the South, and that’s why it was able to blockade and invade it during the (inaptly named) Civil War. If slavery makes your nation such a powerhouse, why didn’t the South conquer the North?
Slavery was a monstrously unfair and immoral institution, but it was also inefficient, compared to a system based on free labor. Although I understand the rhetorical context of these arguments in regards to reparations and pride in U.S. history, it’s very dangerous to be making the case that enslaving others is the path to national greatness.
To return to Mises, he argued that the only way to end war was to get average citizens to realize that they were made poorer by conquest, even if their militaries won on the battlefield. In a similar manner, both in the interest of economic accuracy and long-run peace, academics should be teaching the masses that slavery benefits an elite few at the expense of everyone else, not just the slaves.Robert P. Murphy, “The Left Argues Slavery Was an Economic Blessing. Here’s Why They Are Wrong.”
God blesses – in time and on earth – those who stand with Him.
And God damns – in time and on earth – those who stand against Him.
In the slowest and most brutal way possible, Conservative American Christians learned that chattel slavery is hated by God. And again, in the slowest and most expensive way possible (short of an actual racial war, which God forbade), Conservative American Christians learned that Black Americans – Christian or not – should receive equal standing and equal justice before the law.
I wonder how long it will take before Conservative American Christians will decide that endless, expensive wars are a curse, not a benefit. If God is merciful, it will be when the money is dry and the Pentagon’s budget is raised to the ground, and the money used to feed Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare.
If God decided to be just rather than merciful…
…let’s not talk about that.
(Praying for God’s mercy, even though we deserve and have fully earned His justice.)