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Jun 1, 1975

Fogel & Engerman, “Time on the Cross”

Manne surveys one of the most important—though highly flawed—works on the history of New World slavery.

This is a book for many readers, not the least those of us who enjoy seeing the validity and persuasiveness of rigorous economic theory justified and proved in unexpected ways. For, while Time on the Cross debunks and disproves almost the entire set of myths and invented beliefs about the history of American black slavery, it is also quite significant for its proof of the power of economic logic.

A brief review of the principal concerns of the work includes, to mention a few of the more salient issues, such (still) popular beliefs as the systematic, brutal mistreatment of slaves; their relegation to the most menial, onerous, and dangerous jobs; indiscriminate tearing apart of slave family units; the unprofitability of the slave-plantation system; sexual abuses by white slave owners of female slaves; and the existence of “breeding farms” to mass produce slaves for the market. In the authors’ words, “it is widely assumed that the plantation regime under which most slaves lived was so cruel, the exploitation so severe, the repression so complete, that blacks were thoroughly demoralized by it. In this view, blacks were virtually cultural ciphers until they obtained their freedom in 1865.”

The evidence, however, is very much to the contrary. Twenty-five percent of male slaves were managers, craftsmen, or semiskilled workers; the treatment of slaves was precisely what any economist would assume (and should long ago have been suggesting) for a valuable piece of capital equipment, i.e., solicitous concern not to injure or abuse the asset while maintaining it in good working order; families and close family ties were strongly encouraged and preserved; and the stories of sexual abuse can only be described as a rather obscene form of pure propaganda.

The energy value of the diet of the slave population was, on average, 10 percent higher than that of all United States whites; they lived overwhelmingly in single-family dwellings; they received, for their day, above average medical care and clothing; and less than 2 percent of all sales of slaves represented anything other than the breaking up of plantation establishments.

These then are some of the principal propositions advanced by Fogel and Engerman that have caused emotional arguments, abusive name-calling, a few pushes and shoves, and other unkindly things to occur in the “scholarly discussions” of this seminal work. Many conventional historians who neither understand nor appreciate objective economic studies have felt personally betrayed by interloping economists (whether they were also historians or not) who threatened their intellectual security. The professional apologists for the intransigence of black economic recovery are dismayed at the loss of the principal foundation for their “sociological” rationalizations, and just about everyone (including me) has more or less reservations about the statistical techniques of the new breed of historians called “cliometricians.”

I include myself in the last group because it seems to me that in many respects the work would have been stronger, not weaker, had the authors relied more on offers of nonstatistical economic proof of many of their propositions. For while I must admit that I often delight in (and generally only trust) statistical studies consistent with what I view as sound economic theory, in this case the authors apparently intentionally chose to avoid most nonempirical proofs. A nice opportunity was lost to teach historians some basic economic theory. Certainly, however, that is a sign of the times, and the market works as much for economic styles as for styles of dress. De gustibus, perhaps? At any rate, the hard data and the econometric details are all relegated to a second volume, which is not being directly reviewed here.

The absence of a more a priori approach to their subject may, however, have prevented the authors from noting some intensely interesting points about their own findings. For example, the authors conclude that “the average net rate of the expropriation of slave income [was] about 10%.” Imagine, only a 10 percent tax rate on income; and that was slavery! But let me not be misunderstood; few of us would trade our 72 percent marginal rates and those rights we still retain for a 10 percent rate and the life of an ante-bellum black slave. But what is clear from the book, without the authors ever articulating the point, is that if state governments had not strictly enforced rules against such contracts, slaves could have purchased their own freedom in fairly short order. There is no obvious reason to believe that such contracts would not have been frequently entered into, since slaves could and frequently did simply work harder or longer to earn extra pay at the free-market price. Thus they could have increased the present wealth position of their owners while gaining their own freedom. Government interference with voluntary agreements that slaves and slave-owners would otherwise have entered into seems to have been a fundamental basis for the perpetuation of the odious slave system. But the story has come down to us through traditional intellectual channels with the capitalist owners as villains and the state not credited with playing more than a minor policing role in the whole mess.

Fogel and Engerman for their part seem a bit too quick (with less evidence or logic than they muster elsewhere) to conclude that the problem with both abolitionist and pro-slavery writers alike was that they suffered a deep and abiding sense of black racial inferiority. That this belief was endemic in the nineteenth century is hardly news, but perhaps the authors attribute relatively too much causal force to this belief and too little to the effects of government intervention.

One of the most fascinating points we learn about slavery is one that has recently been made about modern prison societies as well (again predictable by a priori economics). Rarely is anyone completely enslaved or made a “complete” prisoner. The costs of doing so are usually too high for the “policers.” Prisoners are in a position, by virtue of promises to behave in a certain manner, to negotiate “laws” or agreements with their guards in exchange for some leniency. And so it was with slaves and their masters. As economics would imply, to the extent that these policing costs can more cheaply be privatized or internalized, as with slave owners or prison guards, the harshness of the restraint system will be lessened. The greater harshness generally accorded prisoners today compared to antebellum slaves is merely additional evidence that government operation of any system makes it more costly to internalize costs and therefore to reach more optimal arrangements. Who would have thought that we could add to that great truth, “the market will provide,” an epilogue: “even something for slaves”?

The authors are at their weakest when they attempt to explain the failure of blacks or whites to organize and administer large-scale, profitable, non-slave farms after the Civil War. Having demonstrated that the plantation, gang-labor, slave system was profitable, they offer us no very convincing reason why the market should have failed to function just as efficiently to produce agricultural commodities profitably on a voluntary basis. The authors seem almost content with the conclusionary statement that economies of scale could only be achieved with slave labor and that “free labor was a very poor substitute for slave labor.” This would seem to be inconsistent with their findings of the amount of expropriation of slave income by owners, and would suggest that they were using, at best, a misleading measure that omitted a significant additional cost of slavery as measured by its victims.

Again, however, there is an alternative explanation consistent with the authors’ statistical findings and based on a point merely alluded to without much emphasis. There are strong hints of interventionist state laws that can explain the apparent anomaly. First, as the authors note, the alternative to slavery in the ante-bellum North and South was not freedom in any full libertarian sense of the term, but rather a “quasi-freedom,” where governmental restrictions on activities abounded and where governmental protection of blacks from civil harm was almost non-existent. Thus the slave system may have been economically successful compared to its post-slavery counterpart not because the slave system was inherently more productive, as the authors suggest, but rather because state governments simply would not provide the necessary conditions of freedom under which ex-slaves might have flourished at least as well as they had under private ownership of themselves by others. Again we see the moral that might be drawn from this work: if you have to be a slave, it is probably better to be the slave of an individual than of a State.

Time on the Cross is rich in intellectually stimulating fare for libertarians and non-libertarians alike. It is a truly significant piece of scholarship appearing at a most propitious moment, for it may be a good time for all of us to be learning more about the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Time on the Cross gives any thoughtful person cause to consider whether we are not all now being herded into the sort of impoverishing “quasi-free” system that blacks faced in 1865. The picture is not a pretty one from any angle. Reviewed by Henry G. Manne / History (304 pages) / LR Price $4.95