Econ 210c, Spring 2002, Reading Notes for February 6

Brad DeLong

The first article for this week, David Galenson's, is a look at the other form of unfree labor in early America--so-called "indentured servitude". As many as half of the non-slaves who made it to the British North American colonies before the Revolutionary War did so as indentured servants--persons bound to service or labor for a fixed number of years. Yet as the North American economy expanded, indenture dropped off. Slavery did not. And why slavery did not is a key question that has to be answered.

The second article, Fleisig's, takes up the hard question of just why it is that the economy of the American south looks "modern" in some ways--large farms, the overwhelming production of cash crops, large-scale long-distance movements of products to market, et cetera, et cetera--and yet failed in the very touchstone of a modern economy: industrialization. I don't think that Fleisig's labor constraint argument is fully convincing. Nevertheless, his article serves as a good jumping-off point from which to discuss the peculiar (or is it peculiar?) non-industrialization of the American south. After all, if gang labor is possible and profitable in the cotton fields, isn't it possible and profitable as well in the cotton mills? Figuring out why not is a very important issue.

The rest of the articles come from the great Time on the Cross intellectual wars. One way to think about them is that there is always, in talking about slavery, some dominant metaphor lying behind anyone's analysis. In old-time Southern paternalist apologetics, slavery was like a family relationship. In Orlando Patterson's view, slavery was like life in a concentration camp: slavery as social death. In Fogel and Engerman's view, slavery was like... a business... a peculiar business, because usually some of the people working in the business own their own labor power and sell it to the employer, but slavery is different in that the value of the endowment of slaves is less than zero: they have negative human capital. Now analyzing slavery as an implicit market relationship in which some of those meeting in the market to exchange factors of production have negative human capital allows you to see some things very clearly. But you miss other things completely. And it is the things that Fogel and Engerman miss that get Wright and David and Temin extremely angry, and Fogel and Engerman angry in response.

The important point to look for (in my view, at least) is the question of how southern slavery manages to survive and be profitable. Fogel and Engerman have a simple answer: economies of scale in production that more than offset the diseconomies that arise because a slave is not the proprietor of his or her own person. What are Wright's and David's and Temin's answers? And to what degree is it a good thing for an economic system to be "efficient"?