Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition

I’ve just finished reading a 1980 book Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, which mostly quotes US slave owners from the mid 1800s writing on how to manage slaves. I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it. (Suggestions?)

This book has made me rethink where the main harms from slavery may lie. I said before that slaves were most harmed during and soon after capture, and that high interest rates could induce owners to work slaves to an early death. But neither of these apply in the US South, where the main harm had seemed to me to be from using threats of pain to induce more work on simple jobs.

However, this book gives the impression that most threats of pain were not actually directed at making slaves work harder. Slaves did work long hours, but then so did most poor European workers around that time. Slave owners didn’t actually demand that much more work from those capable of more work, instead tending to demand similar hours and effort from all slaves of a similar age, gender, and health.

What seems instead to have caused more pain to US south slaves was the vast number of rules that owners imposed, most of which had little direct connection to key problems like shirking at work, stealing, or running away. Rules varied quite a bit from owner to owner, but there were rules on where and when one could travel, times to rise and sleep, who could marry and live with who, who could talk to who when, when and how to wash bodies and houses, what clothes to wear when, who can cook, who can eat what foods, who goes to what sorts of churches when, and so on. Typical rules for slaves had much in common with typical “upstanding behavior” rules widely imposed by parents on their children, and by schools and armies on students and soldiers: eat well, rise early, keep clean, say your prayers, don’t drink, stay nearby, talk respectfully, don’t fraternize with the wrong people, etc.

With so many rules that varied so much, a standard argument against letting slaves visit neighboring plantations was that they’d less accept local rules if they learned of more lenient rules nearby. And while some owners emphasized enforcing rules via scoldings, fines, or reduction of privileges, most often violations were punished with beatings.

Another big cause of pain seems to have been agency failures with overseers, i.e., those who directly managed the slaves on behalf of the slave owners. Owners of just a few slaves oversaw them directly, and many other owners insisted on personally approving any punishments. However still others gave full discretion to overseers and refused to listen to slave complaints.

Few overseers had a direct financial stake in farm profitability, and many owners understood that such stakes would tempt overseers, who changed jobs often, to overwork slaves in the short run at the expense of long run profitability. Even so, short run harvest gains were usually easier for owners to see than long run harm to slaves, tempting overseers to sacrifice the former for the latter. And even if most overseers were kept well in line, a small fraction who used their discretion to beat and rape could impose high levels of net harm.

US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments, and the main harms to such slaves seems to parallel the main libertarian complaints about all governments. A libertarian perspective sees the following pattern: once one group is empowered to run the lives of others, they tend to over-confidently over-manage them, adding too many rules that vary too much, rules enforced with expensive punishments. And such governments tend to give their agents too much discretion, which such agents use too often to indulge personal whims and biases. Think abusive police and an excess prison population today. Such patterns might be explained by an unconscious human habit of dominance via paternalism; while dominant groups tend to justify their rules in terms of helping, they are actually more trying to display their dominance.

Now one might instead argue that the usual “good behavior” rules imposed by parents, schools, militaries, and slave owners are actually helpful on average, turning lazy good-for-nothings into upright citizens. And in practice formal rule systems are so limited that agent discretion is needed to actually get good results. And strong punishments are needed to make it work. Spare the rod, and spoil the child, conscript, or slave. From this perspective, US south slave must have led decent lives overall, and we should be glad that improving tech is making it easier for modern governments to get involved in more details of our lives.

Looking to the future, if totalitarian management of individual lives is actually efficient, a more competitive future world would see more of it, leading widely to effective if not official slavery. Mostly for our own good. (This fear was common early in the industrial revolution.) But if the libertarians are right, and most dominant groups tend to make too many overly-harsh rules at the expense of efficiency, then a more competitive future world would see less such paternalism, including fewer slave-like lives.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Daniel Carrier

    The argument could be made that the reason we force people to follow rules for that is that we evolved to do this with our children because it’s important for child-rearing, and we follow these instincts with the slaves as well. I don’t buy it, but I feel like it’s worth pointing out.

    The problem isn’t just overly harsh rules that make efficiency fall. It’s also overly harsh rules that don’t affect efficiency, or even improve it slightly, but at a great expense to the well-being of slaves.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

    I tend to think modern militaries are extremely efficient, so these rules (in a military context) are probably good *from the military’s point of view*. But it also seems that few people are eager to be subject to military discipline unless they believe they’re getting something of greater value in return. So perhaps it would be good for more people to be able to chose to be subject to something like military discipline, as part of trade, but bad for them to be subject to it involuntarily.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      So you think such discipline is only good overall for a small fraction of people, even if it succeeds in making most people productive, at least in military contexts?

      • HQP

        “Productive” for whom?

      • Sanity

        Indeed.

    • Sanity

      Yes it may make militaries more efficient, but of course militaries are in zero-sum conflict with other militaries, so one military’s efficiency is another military’s harm.

      Overall, human civilization seems more like a parasitic entity that causes great moral harms and little moral value, so that any net increase in overall efficiency should be seen as a moral net harm. Of course, this is doubly true for efficiency that is extracted by imposing more direct harm on victims, as described in this post.

      The future may well see more of this, if competitiveness increases, but perhaps we can increase x-risks to make it less likely that such a future comes into existence altogether. That would by far be the most moral thing to accomplish in anticipation of potential future horrors. Vote for candidates that are more likely to engage in nuclear war, and no on.

    • JW Ogden

      Talking to former soldiers and people who work for the military, has made me think that militaries are very inefficient.

      • Riothamus

        Efficiency is relative. The modern professional military is extremely efficient compared to the pre-modern military. Virtually none of us die of pestilence on campaign, for example. Invasions cause less collateral damage to the invaded country, and launching an invasion is less often financially ruinous to the aggressor.

        It is worth keeping in mind that the purpose of the military is to maintain effectiveness in extremely adverse circumstances. Efficiency only applies insofar as it means “effectiveness over time.”

        I would be very interested to see a tabula rasa treatment of an efficiency-based foreign policy organization, though.

    • Malcmac

      “I tend to think modern militaries are extremely efficient”

      They really, really are not. Speak to anyone who has served (regular, not reservists) and you’ll be told very quickly how hilariously inefficient military bureaucracy and organization is.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I think Robin’s assessment is the first time I’ve ever heard the military termed “efficient.”

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it. (Suggestions?)

    The Other Victorians, and especially the book it references, My Secret Life.

  • matt6666

    https://amzn.com/0807054534

    This book might be on interest.

  • Unanimous

    You might like to browse through any online newspaper archive. I too find it interesting to read contemporary accounts of events.

    Reporters write for an audience, so even if they aren’t a representative group, their writing reflects common views.

  • glenstein

    Apologies if this is obvious to the point of being unhelpful, but when I think of people speaking of their own circumstances in their own words, Working by Studs Terkel pops in my head.

    It may not necessarily be a strange world, but you definitely see the voices of individuals coming through the text.

  • Sanity

    “And strong punishments are needed to make it work. Spare the rod, and spoil the child, conscript, or slave. From this perspective, US south slave must have led decent lives overall, and we should be glad that improving tech is making it easier for modern governments to get involved in the details of our lives.”

    Robin Hanson is such a disgusting sociopath; I hope one day he gets the suffering he so desperately wishes on others. The violence people like him deserve is not even compatible with the laws of physics.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      You’re ignoring “from this perspective,” a perspective he goes on to reject.

    • Alfred Differ

      I was wondering how long it would take to misinterpret that passage. It took longer than I expected.
      Being able to understand a perspective from inside someone else’s head is a sign of one’s humanity, not one’s lack of it.

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    > I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it.
    My suggestion: Xenophons Anabasis.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabasis_(Xenophon)
    I also had this feeling when reading these at the same time reasonable and fantastic description – in their own words – of real life of free soldiers and the obstacles in a hostile world.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    You somehow forget that slaveowners writing about their practices are engaged in signaling. At the least, their accounts should be balanced against those of the slaves. I’ve never heard the complaint from former slaves that they resented the numerous regulations foremost.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Slaves resented being beaten, and the many rules seem to be the main cause.

  • Dick Scuze

    they’d less accept local rules if they learned of more lenient rules nearby

    Just like members of the owner’s household might complain if they learned that even slaves enjoy more freedom than they do. Enforcing rules on slaves may have been more about upholding rules within the owner’s community than about benefits to the slaves.

  • Parson James

    It’s slavery. Why is this any surprise?

  • Markus

    As I understand it, many of the abolitionists were not motivated solely by concerns about Africans and even shared their contemporaries’ views about the relative merits of dark-skinned people. However, they realized the being a slaveholder entails power over others that leads to corruption of the powerful. The genome of African-Americans is a reflection of this.

  • Charlie O’Connor

    In your book you try to side-step the consciousness debate of ems. But I don’t think you can completely side-step that debate. At the very least you are assuming ems are treated as if they have agency. If ems are treated as if they are just an algorithm (like I treat Siri or Google Maps), then this analysis is beside the point.

  • Philon

    “[W]hile dominant groups tend to justify their rules in terms of helping, they are actually more trying to display their dominance.” This is an apothegm to be cherished!