Monday, January 19, 2009

Douglass and Stowe

I just finished reading through Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was somewhat of a disappointment, but interesting. Right before it, I'd read through Douglass' Slave Narrative, which is excellent, and definitely should be read by all. The two were definitely good to be read together. They provide a sobering reminder of the intransigence of ideas that are both immoral and ineffective. That such an immoral practice as slavery could happen and continue for so long, Douglass does try to explain, by saying that it is a corrupting institution, that if even a good person holds slaves, they will tend to be corrupted by it. Stowe sees the power that being a slaveholder gives as being really the most corrupting aspect, and I tend to agree.

But the ineffectiveness of slavery also deserves comment. Here, I simply mean that slavery was an unproductive way of organizing labor. The economic disparity between the American North and South provides the best illustration of this. the South and North went from roughly economically equally well off around 1790, to the North being far wealthier by 1860. Explanations have been given by historians for this disparity, but the major difference between the North and South is the obvious primary reason: the South had slaves, the North didn't. Other differences result from this fundamental difference.

There are numerous reasons why slave labor is economically considerably less productive than free labor, and the two books give us a number of examples. Firstly, slave owners prevented their slaves from being educated. Perhaps a prudent policy if they didn't want slaves to run away, but this could've only improved the productivity of their slaves, making them more skilled, especially if you have a slave like Frederick Douglass, who was smart enough that he would be far more valuable as a skilled laborer than an unskilled laborer. Secondly, slave owners actually discouraged labor saving innovations. These would have allowed slave owners to produce far more, in the same amount of time with fewer hands, which would considerably increase profits. But slave owners discouraged slaves from innovating because they assumed the slaves were being lazy. Thirdly, slaves had little incentive to work hard. The laziness of slaves is a constant complaint among slave owners. Free laborers work hard because they have the incentive of making more money or advancing themselves, but there is little prospect for advancement for slaves. Thus, the only incentive to work hard is to avoid punishment, which is a weaker incentive, especially if overseers and owners meted out punishment arbitrarily (which they frequently did) or meted it out too often (which can make the slave think it is inevitable and thus not try hard to avoid it). And there are other reasons besides these three why slavery was considerably less efficient.

The question is, if slavery is both inefficient and immoral, why did it hold on? I think part of it is the pleasure of power, as I have already mentioned. The other is ignorance of the wealth that freedom would bring. Douglass describes how surprised he was to find that in the North, there were many wealthy individuals without slaves. He had assumed, from his experience in the South, that the only way a person could be wealthy is by owning slaves. Only the wealthier Southerners owned slaves. Douglass also found to his surprise that people up North that were relatively poor for Northerners, were actually better off than even most Southern slave holders. If Southern slave holders had realized that by moving North, liberating all their slaves, and hiring them back as paid employees they could actually make more money, it's doubtful they would have so zealously tried to hold onto their privilege of slave holding. But, like the young Douglass, with only experience of wealthy persons owning slaves, Southerners were led to conclude that robbing them of their slaves would merely impoverish the Southern aristocracy.

Ultimately, they didn't really have enough information to make a good comparison to life with slaves and life without. And it may be this which ultimately explains the intransigence of ineffective ideas. Even when tried out, ideas aren't properly compared to alternatives and thus seem adequate enough.

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