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Book Review

"The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History" by Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer

  • Chicago
  • Aldine
  • 1964

In The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History, Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer attempt to refute the prevalent idea in the history of American slavery that the institution of slavery had reached its economic limits — that the system had grown cumbersome, inefficient, and unsustainable economically and inevitably would have collapsed upon itself if not for the Civil War’s forced political implications. They pose the hypothesis that American slavery in the antebellum South was at least as profitable and economically tenable as alternative enterprises at the time, and thus, that economic inefficiency or lack of growth was not an impetus for abolition. The authors endorse the notion that “economic forces often may work toward the continuation of a slave system, so that the elimination of slavery may depend upon the adoption of harsh political measures,” and contend that the American experience is indicative of this view.

Conrad and Meyer set out to support their arguments by measuring the profitability of slave operations in the American South as they pertain to modern capitalist theory. Essentially, they relate “inputs of Negro slaves (and the materials required to maintain the slaves) to the production of southern staple crops, particularly cotton,” and attempt to describe and quantify the economic implications of the practice of slave breeding in the southern regions. Put simply, they treat the institution of slavery just as any other capital investment, and slaves merely as inanimate capital, in order to explain slavery in purely economic terms.

The authors use several economic aspects of slavery to prove their argument, among which is the longevity of slaves. They contend that African-Americans — both slaves and freedmen — had life expectation rates at least comparable to their white counterparts. The argument is rather weak and speculative; the authors themselves admit the scarcity of adequate longevity data and even raise questions as to the quality of the estimates they draw inferences from. Because the data is inconsistent with later estimates of lower life expectancy rates for African-Americans, they argue here mostly on a practical basis that African-Americans would have received better care under slavery because of economic interest to their masters. However questionable, based on the available data, Conrad and Meyer argue that the longevity of slaves — or lack thereof — as “capital investment” was not a significant burden to the institution of slavery.

The authors are extensive in their analysis of capital investment in plantation operations and fluctuation of interest rates as they compare to their northern — largely industrial and commercial — counterparts. They provide persuasive evidence that likened southerners’ and northerners’ expected rates of returns on their investments. Based on the economic opportunities of the American North, Conrad and Meyer make a logically sound argument that if capital were hypothetically withdrawn from southern slave operations and put into alternative ventures, returns would not be beyond the range of expected returns from slave operations. An in-depth analysis of the input of African-American slaves and their incurred expenses, as well as of the annual returns they brought, provides one of the authors’ principal conclusions — “that slavery was apparently about as remunerative as alternative employments to which slave capital might have been put…as long as slaves could be expeditiously and economically transferred from one sector to another.” Thus, Conrad and Meyer conclude that slavery was indeed a profitable enterprise, but raise the question commonly posed of slave systems — the structure slavery was built upon appears to have been economically viable, but was there a unified system that could efficiently transfer slaves in order to ensure profit and adequate efficiency?

The Economics of Slavery offers a multitude of evidence to support the idea that the slave population could not only reproduce itself, but that mechanisms capable of transferring labor to expanding areas — a necessity for the enterprise to be profitable — existed. The authors exhibit several manuscripts that show that, in contrast to previous historic slave systems such as those on the Caribbean sugar islands or in ancient Rome which failed to sustain themselves internally, a specialized system of “slave breeding” existed in the antebellum South. Sources indicate a pattern of slave export and emigration (with masters) from the less productive Old South — the southern seaboard and border states — to the highly productive southwestern regions.

Conrad and Meyer provide evidence that slave populations grew only slightly less than whites (and at higher rates than free blacks), indicating relatively firmly that the slave population was capable of providing a steady supply of labor for the South’s plantation economy. Furthermore, the authors show slave export and emigration patterns indicative of a highly specialized and efficient system “in which the settlers on the naturally superior western lands were able to bid slave labor away from general farming and to make wholesale abandonment of the older areas unnecessary.”

Conrad and Meyer conclude that this perceived “breeding system” provided an economic system which provided profitability on both productive and unproductive lands in return for participation in the slave system. Since the slave populations adequately reproduced themselves and supposedly lived long enough on average to provide adequate returns on investments, profits from slavery were not destructive or inhibitive to growth in the antebellum South. The authors speculate, therefore, that abolition in the American experience required severe political action to dislodge such an economically sound system.

They go on to explain the American South’s lack of economic diversity and industrialization in order to rebut past arguments that slavery was unfavorable to growth. Based on the mass employment of slaves in several economic sectors aside from agriculture — cotton manufacturing, coal mines, lumber operations, railroads — the authors claim that the failure on the American South’s part to achieve economic diversification “appears to have been a problem of entrepreneurship rather than of the difficulties of training slaves.”

Essentially, Conrad and Meyer contend that the institution of slavery and the capitalization of the slave labor force did not work against development in the American South despite the fact that it inevitably stagnated any movement towards diversification and thus, industrialization. Could it be only a “problem of entrepreneurship” if cotton speculation — and thus, the slave issue — dominated the economic arena? From the picture that Conrad and Meyer have painted of the antebellum South’s economy, the institution of slavery was very much responsible for the heavy dependence on a single export — cotton — to the point that even foodstuffs had to be imported: “The lack of diversification, to the extent of a failure even to provide basic supplies, made necessary the import of much food and virtually all manufactured articles from the North.” Having admitted that the slave economy weakened any push for diversification and industrialization, the authors seem to lack an adequate explanation as to why it would have little to do with the antebellum South’s lack of economic growth outside of the agricultural — primarily cotton — sector.

They appear to simplify the issue into a dichotomous question — either the institution was profitable or it deterred development — when in reality, both statements may be perfectly true. While Conrad and Meyer assign responsibility for lack of economic diversity to the failure of the South to employ entrepreneurship, it seems entirely likely that economic diversity and industrialization — and perhaps even the foundations of industrial capitalism — could not be achieved in a system dominated by an institution so profitable that any movement towards diversification was unlikely.

Still, the authors make a compelling case that inhibition of industrialization did not necessarily equate to inhibition of growth or a failure to provide a high standard of living. Thus, despite the controversial nature of their explanation of southern economic stagnation, they do provide sufficient evidence to say that the slave system of the antebellum South was surely profitable and sustainable for the planter class. Thus, they do offer a logical explanation for their contention that “economic forces often may work toward the continuation of a slave system, so that the elimination of slavery may depend upon the adoption of harsh political measures” — in the American case, mass emancipation and civil war.

The approach of the authors to the question of the viability of American slavery raises questions as to the value of their assessment. Essentially, Conrad and Meyer attempt to isolate the institution of slavery and its implications to the economic realm, a task that seems inherently contrary to fact. Slavery has been shown by countless sources and testimonies to be intimately intertwined in both the social and economic aspects of all societies in which it exists. The authors fail to adequately address the consequences of norms and institutional restraints on development that result from social pressures, such as the anti-industrial principles of the planter class, the fear of the danger of educating slaves, or pressures for “seigneurial” — feudal — consumption displays, on Southern ability to accumulate capital and to provide a sufficient home market. There are a multitude of social factors with significant economic effects that the authors have failed to address in their attempt to view slavery in solely economic terms.

Having addressed the initial problem of their approach to the question of slavery’s viability and of their oversimplification of the effects of social forces on the institution of slavery, Conrad and Meyer’s assessment of the economic tenability of slavery is certainly of value. In general, Conrad and Meyer sufficiently refute the prevalent viewpoint that the end of slavery was rooted in economic inefficiency, and that, in fact, slavery in the antebellum South was an institution so profitable that abolition required “harsh political measures,” in order to dislodge its economically sound structure. A historical view of the economic implications of the slave system is significant in assessing the impetus for abolition movements in America, especially at a time when history books across the globe indicate the supposedly blatant inefficiency of the southern slave economy as a primary drive for abolition. The Economics of Slavery reinforces the notion that American abolition was the result not of economic inefficiency on the part of slavery, but of revolutionary social movements and changes to societal norms.

Notes

  1. Conrad, Alfred H. and Meyer, John R. The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

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