Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Gordon Tullock on the Economics of Slavery

Gordon Tullock was a phenomenally precise and well-articulated economist. Since his untimely passing I have spent a few idle hours perusing some of his lesser-known works. A review of two books entitles 'The Economics of Slavery' is a true gem and showcases his excellent grasp of history. Tullock offers commentary on the phenomenon known as manumission, which should strike any slave-based society as the slaves themselves are apt to know better how to take care of themselves and how to work productively than are the slaveholders. Thus, slaves should rent themselves and work where their talents are used best, paying some fraction of their wages to the slaveholder and keeping the rest. Eventually, they might be able to buy themselves. Why was this not common practice?

Quoth Tullock (p. 11):
"The basic reason for the failure of this type of “sale” of the slave to himself in the guise of manumission to develop in the ante-bellum South would appear to be the stringent and steadily growing legal restrictions on manumission. There was also considerable social pressure against manumission, and in the last years before the Civil War a reaction to abolitionist propaganda developed into strong arguments that slavery was somehow a superior form of civilization. The explanation for these developments is fairly simple. The individual slaveholder would have been better off if he could have made a deal with his slaves to sell them their freedom, Large numbers of free negroes, however, would have endangered the “property rights” of the slaveholders in those that were still fully or partially owned. Thus the slaveholders had a motive collectively to favor laws against manumission in spite of the fact that each one would have benefitedfrom permission to manumit his own slave if he were the only one given such permission. The long run outcome of this tension between the individual and collective interests of the slave owners cannot now be known. From 1806 when importation of slaves was forbidden to 1860 was only 54 years, or considerably less than the threescore years and ten which the Bible gives as a normal life span. In economic terms this was not long enough to bring the system even near to full equilibrium. If we add on the numerous sociological factors, adjustment would have been even more delayed. Thus the possibility that slavery would have eliminated itself remains an open one."

 As they say, "read the whole thing". In fact, why not read all of his things.

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