A sugar plantation on the island of Réunion in the late 1800s by Henri Georgi (Wikipedia/Public domain)
A sugar plantation on the island of Réunion in the late 1800s by Henri Georgi (Wikipedia/Public domain)

On Friday, The Economist retracted a book review that went soft on slavery. But the review of Edward Baptist’s book, “The Half Has Never Been Told” wasn’t just racially insensitive, it was soft on evidence, too.

Here’s the uncontroversial part of the review:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Nothing in history (least of all the growth of the largest economy humankind has ever known) has a single explanation. Academics like to overstate their case and need to be reined in a little. Fair enough. But here’s the jawdropping finale that made The Economist apologize for the whole article:

…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Here’s the thing: Behind the terrible last couple of sentences, there are actually some legitimate questions that historians, political scientists and economists have grappled with for a long time: How much American wealth can be traced to slavery? How profitable was forced labor? And when is violence the best way to incentivize workers (and what could stop it)? This isn’t just a historical debate. Coerced labor is happening now: with child labor, the worst sweatshops, army conscription, and the exploitation of migrant workers. So the answers matter.

Fortunately, there’s now some hard data. With the help of economic historian Suresh Naidu, I’ve pulled together a sample of useful articles.

First, when do employers use the lash, and does it work?

  • Violence and pain motivate the people who have really bad options, or who are really easily controlled—like children, the least educated, or illegal immigrants. You see this pattern in child labor during British industrialization, or even in child soldiering in Uganda. From one of us (Blattman), here’s a graph of how long someone stayed with a rebel army in Uganda based on his age of conscription. The paper argues that the people you can threaten and indoctrinate most easily (in this case, kids) stay the longest before then run away.
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  • But adults and people with half decent outside options will tend to escape if you use violence, so slavery and serfdom work best when the overlords control the legal system or can hunt you down. You see this with servants in 19th century Britain or with European feudalism and U.S. slavery. Basically, you can use the lash to increase output, but you have to make those outside options really terrible. You us an informal police state erected to hunt down fugitives, and you arm yourself against slave rebellions. All the maintain the value of your assets — the slaves.
  • When you make it harder for employers to use force, wages go up. You see this in 19th century Puerto Rico coffee growing, or in the Emirates today. Regulations that make it easier for employees to quit or get another job, or punish employees for violence, increase worker wages. Violence is a substitute for pay increases.
  • It’s not unusual to see employers use a mix of rewards and coercion. For instance, in the child soldiering paper, rewards are more likely for the people who can run away, and they’re also useful (with violence) if you’re trying to indoctrinate and brainwash.
  • And when you turn the entire system against them, yes, whipped people work harder. Here’s an unpublished graph one of us (Naidu) created from one U.S. plantation. It shows the correlation between the number of whippings a slave received and her productivity at cotton picking. The lash works.

So a moral of the story is that yes, rewards can be a substitute for violence, but in a coercive labor market, better pay or food is just service to the larger evil plan to enslave more people more profitably.

The record also shows that slaveowners have more than just economic incentives for abuse. In the United States, the law and rights given to slaveowners increased the scope for baser motives. Just as employers can get away with more sexual harassment or hazardous workplace practices when the job market is bad, slaveowners took full advantage of their slaves’ bodies when they wanted to, precisely because the law of the land gave them so many rights and privileges over these “assets”.

Finally, what about the long-term consequences of slavery? Does the United States owe its wealth and prestige to slavery?

On the one hand, absolutely. Take a look at New York. It’s hard to believe it would be the world’s financial capital if for hundreds of years it hadn’t trafficked in slaves coming in from Africa, or the sugar and cotton going out. The fortunes of many of the country’s largest universities, companies, and families were made on slavery — a repugnant fact, even if you think they could have made just as much money doing something else.

On the other hand, we can try to compare places that had more or less slavery in the past, and see whether one is wealthier as a result. In the long run, the answer seems to be that slavery is a drag on growth and equality. For example:


Before you say, “see, we’re no wealthier than if we hadn’t had slavery”, a few thoughts.

  • Just because you didn’t have a huge slave population doesn’t mean you didn’t profit immeasurably from slaves. New York is a great example.
  • Also, most of the effects of slavery are borne by the African-American population, regardless of whether or not they live in the areas that once held many slaves.
  • Slavery also shaped the very basic institutions of America, the ones that make the country so morally and economically triumphant. One of those is THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION. Slaveowners were some of the greatest supporters of political liberty and economic property rights — but only for rich white men. What’s bitterly ironic is that the “great experiment” that was American democracy might not have been possible without slavery.
  • Finally, whether slavery raised U.S. wealth or not is not really the only relevant question for understanding the legacy of slavery. One clear legacy is racial politics. For instance, it seems that racially hostile attitudes get passed down generation to generation in the United States, and so politics are more poisonous where there were slaves.

Is anyone else feeling depressed and hopeless?