Self-Control Is Slavery

I’ve been pondering 3 related points.  1) Self-Control Is Culture-Control:

It seems to me that … the key change after farming [was] an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations. … This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.

2) Fogel & Engerman’s economic classic analysis of US slavery:

Plantation agriculture based upon slave labor … may have been significantly more efficient than family farming. … The typical slave field-hand may have been more productive than a free, white field-hand. … Slavery was not incompatible with industrial production. … Slave-labor farms were 28 percent more productive than southern free-labor farms and 40 percent more productive than northern free-labor farms. …

Plantation operators strove for a disciplined, specialized and coordinated labor force. Labor was organized into something like the assembly line operations in industry. This involved “driving” the slaves’ efforts to maintain a pace of production. The “drivers” or foremen were slaves themselves. …

Plantations had a much higher rate of labor force participation, two thirds, as compared with a free population, one third. This was achieved by finding productive pursuits for the young and the elderly and maintaining nurseries so that slave women could work.

3) The latest AER on designing work to aid self-control:

The Industrial Revolution involved workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing; from working on their own to working with others in factories; and from flexible work-hours to rigid work-days. … Some work-place arrangements may make self-control problems more severe, while others may ameliorate them. … The firm … can use regular compensation to … make the returns to effort more immediate. Firms can also create disproportionate penalties for certain types of low efforts … so as to create sharp self-control incentives. … Conforming to an externally set pace, however, can decrease these self-control costs. … Workers planting rice-fields often find it helpful to synchronize movements to music or to beats. In industrial production, the assembly line may serve a similar purpose. … An intrinsic competitive drive may make the momentary self exert more effort when surrounded by hard-working coworkers. Young boys run races faster when running alongside another boy than when running alone. …

[Farming] creates difficult self-control problems. First, it involves long time horizons — farmers must tend their land constantly for months before reaping benefits at harvest. These lags can generate suboptimal effort in early stages of production. Financially, farmers may also fail to save enough money out of lumpy harvest payments to make efficient investments during the production cycle, further affecting labor supply returns and output. Second, agriculture often involves self-employment or very small firms. As a result, there are rarely firms or large employers to mitigate the self-control problem. Tasks cannot be structured, compensation altered, or work intensity regulated. Finally, agrarian production by nature is also geographically dispersed, which makes colocation of workers difficult. … This can help explain the observation that work hours appear to be low in modern-day subsistence agriculture. …

In the workshop system, workers rented floor space or machinery in factories, received pure piece rates for output … Clark presents evidence that workers under the workshop system had very unsteady attendance and hours, spent a lot of time socializing at work, and concentrated effort in the latter half of the week leading up to paydays. Clark argues that this led firms to transition to the factory discipline system to solve self-control problems.

OK, now let’s put it all together.  Apparently, factory-like methods that greatly increase farming productivity have long been feasible.  (First known factory: Venice Arsenal, 1104.)  Yet it took slaves to actually implemented such methods in farming. Even after ten thousand years of Malthusian competition, a farming method that could support a much larger population per land area did not displace other methods.  (And if factory-fortified foraging was possible, the timescale problem gets much worse.)

The introduction of farming was associated with important new elements, like religion, that encouraged more “self-control,” i.e. sensitivity to social norms.  However, those additions were not sufficient to achieve factory-like farming — most humans had too little self-control to make themselves behave that way, and too strong an anti-dominance norm to let rulers enforce such behavior.

This dramatically illustrates the huge self-control innovations that came with industry. School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first.  In contrast, industry workers had enough self/culture-control to act as only slaves would before – working long hours in harsh alien environments, and showing up on time and doing what they were told.

So what made industry workers so much more willing to increase their self-control, relative to farmers?  One guess: the productivity gains from worker self-control were far larger in industry than in farming. Instead of a 50% gain, it might have been a factor of two or more. Self-controlled workers and societies gained a big enough productivity advantage to compensate for lost pride.

Humans are an increasingly self-domesticated species. Foragers could cooperate in non-kin groups of unprecedented size, farmers could enforce norms to induce many behaviors unnatural for foragers, and the schooled humans of industry would willingly obey like enslaved farmers. Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Buck Farmer

    Fascinating strain of thought here, Robin. I find it a very useful frame-work for understanding the corporation that I work/live within today.

    Can you put together an omnibus post linking all your work and references on this set of conjectures? I’d like to spend some time mulling it all together, and see if I can’t come up with some plausible models to describe aggregate behaviors.

  • Indy

    If Self-Control is Slavery, then is Impulse-Control-Deficit Freedom?

    Nope. Control is a means to an end. The Slavery / Freedom distinction rests on the question is “whose ends?”, and not “by what means?”.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Overcoming Bias : Self-Control Is Slavery --

  • William Barghest

    If slavery is self-control and self-control is wealth, then slavery buys freedom.

    But more seriously, aren’t people in the wealthy countries becoming more disorderly (dress, sexuality, work-force participation, crime rates) than they were 50 to 100 years ago?

  • anon

    Is there any evidence that “factory-like” large estates were generally more productive than family smallholdings before industrialization? Your link only addresses tropical and subtropical slave plantations, which were very labor intensive and might have other peculiarities.

  • Curt Adams

    I agree with your overall argument, but I think the title is excessively controversial. As Indy points out, self-control isn’t slavery, even if it provides similar efficiency benefits. I’d also point out the current organizational systems you’re talking about aren’t actually self-control; they are a replacement for self-control which, as you point out in the piecework example, is not sufficient for high efficiency production. I’d write a title like “Socialized Control Replaces Slavery”.

    An interesting point in favor of your idea that modern socialization replaced slavery is that slavery went from essentially universal in 1800 to essentially gone in 1900. That’s a big change and it’s somewhat surprising it was so widespread. Also, England led in both fields.

    On a side note: I suspect the Song Chinese had factories before 1104.

  • Dan

    Maybe factory work was also more stimulating than farming. Stimulation makes self-control more easy.

    A related thought: People with ADHD have poor self-control and are not good farmers:

  • This is interesting, but something isn’t quite right. Your other posts on foraging cultures indicated they were very sensitive to social pressures–pressures that are largely alien to us. This thesis needs tweaking.

  • Steven Schreiber

    I wonder about that. To a degree it looks like we’ve just been exchanging social control for work control. Along the same periods where workers were increasingly reliable, society was losing its reliability. At this point we have both the most liberal and most productive societies we’ve ever had.

    I wonder if there is an absolute cap on the amount of social control you can assert over people. If you want to make them more controlled workers, you have to start loosening up elsewhere.

    Of course, it could just be that industry generally benefits from a loss of social cohesion because it reduces the number of non-work obligations.

  • anon, you think the US south is “subtropical”?

    Curt, fair enough on the title.

    Dan, surely some kinds of stimulation make self-control harder.

    Chris, what sorts of alien forager social pressures did you have in mind?

  • anon2

    Robin, why don’t you ever use reply links? Why is this a high status behavior?

    • Robin does do that – sometimes.

      • anon2

        I know, but I’m more interested in why collective responding is a high-status behavior. Because it *does* seem high-status, intuitively, doesn’t it? Since Robin is the master of explaining why people do things, I thought he might be able to explain why he does this.

    • Konkvistador

      I assumed it was because it is faster to do this if one has in mind responses to many people.

    • Noumenon

      I do think if you got Robin to use reply links you would get fewer replies — four trips through the system instead of one, plus people would just be more inclined to argue in a thread devoted to them, so commenting would be less pleasant for him. When I see a blogger who replies to everyone who comments I think it’s weird, but Robin can reply to a lot of people this way and not look like he’s hovering over his comment thread.

  • Someone else made that point earlier, and Robin replied here. He gave himself a “status audit” on his behavior here.

    • I honestly thought I had clicked the “Reply” link when writing that!

  • For what it’s worth, Adam Smith opposed slavery on practical grounds. He argued, albeit from the flawed Labor Theory of Value, that slavery was impractical because a slave-owner could extract from a slave the minimum amount of labor required to avoid punishment. A free worker, by contrast, with their property rights protected, would have greater incentive to work harder, since they would be able to retain the fruits of their labor.

    • I don’t think it’s worth much without the consensus evidence of hundreds of years of social science research subsequent to Adam Smith.

  • Tom Adams

    In the New World, the self-sustaining system of slavery you describe did not arise till the slave trade was made illegal. It was cheaper to buy slaves and work them to death than it was to breed them.

    There is the matter of slave rebellions.

    • ad

      IIRC, slave imports into the US and the British Empire were illegal from 1807. The US, Barbados, and several other slave colonies had ceased to import slaves before that date. Barbados was a net exporter.

      This in spite of the fact that the great majority of imported slaves were men, who tended not to bear many children.

      The life expectancy of a newly landed slave in the Caribean was ~ 20 years – four times that of a newly arrived european.

      (It is in Philip Curtin somewhere, but I don’t have the exact references.)

  • Seth, free workers could work more if they really wanted to work hard, but they usually don’t.

    Tom, yes previous slave owners didn’t have enough self-control to invest long-term in growing slaves.

  • Fascinating post.
    I wonder to what degree mandatory military service, assigning status to sports or types of sports, and criminalizing/medicalizing lack of self-control plays into this.

    For example, indentured servitude seems to me to be a self-control bridge to get more productive labor out of the worst resource managers in a population.

  • William L.

    It seems that “self control” is used here in a slippery way – it seems to be defined as the implantation of societies norms in lieu of your own IN ADDITION to the enforcement of the norms deemed most dear to your self.

    I somehow think that the latter not the former is self control. Whether you adhere to societies norms is your own choice irrespective of the consequences of that choice and the persuasiveness if those consequences. The adherence to your choice equates to self control.

    Thus an anarchist may have self-control if he can adhere to his own choices, and a prisoner may have no self control if he cannot.

    Obviously enough you can corrupt a person’s choices through lies (in all forms). Here is where debate is formed and the need distinguish wisdom from intelligence. Assuming religion is corrupting or turns subsumes a persons choices with the choices of another is assuming quite alot in defining what a religion is or what it stands for. Moreover it assumes that presence or absence of a formalized religion denies a personalized use of what may equate to a religion.

  • This is Michel Foucault’s thesis given a more positive spin. As you might expect, I come closer to his assessment of the situation than to yours. Rather than reach new heights of conditioned self-control in the future, I hope automation frees us from drudgery.

    • db

      until we are enslaved by our robot overloards

      • For what purpose? We would have nothing practical to offer them.

      • They could consume us for raw resources.

  • Philo

    “Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.” It does seem that this will be the direction of evolution, so long as evolution continues. Our “natural,” “near-mode” behavior was adaptive to conditions that no longer exist, and it was only imperfectly adaptive–far from optimal–even there. “Controlling ourselves” (“self-control”) is overriding those natural impulses in our own interests. Natural selection, because it is adaptive, should produce descendants for whom these natural impulses are less unruly.

  • Self-control is but a label in search of a mechanism. What kind of mechanism could it be if it can vary from one social regime to another?

    In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued that the super-ego arrived with agriculture and, in his theory, the superego has self-control functions. Of course, “superego” is just another label for some mechanism we don’t understand. But, at least it points to a mechanism. The task now is to figure out how that mechanism works. That’s not going to be so easy & I rather doubt that it’s going to show up on an fMRIs — though, of course, we’ve got endless learned prattle about how the frontal cortex exercises executive control over our activities.

  • Gene Callahan

    I’ve sometimes thought that if Aristotle was shown the modern factory worker, he would not have thought, “Ah, so my thesis that slavery is necessary is wrong,” but, “Ah, you’ve devised an ingenious new form of slavery.”

  • Pingback: In Mala Fide()

  • brendan_r

    Seems likely that many features that predate industry changed the payoff to self control, too. For example, a population can be kept stable by food, disease, violence, or social stuff like late marriage and infanticide. Which constraint operates most strongly at a particular time and place affects the payoff to all sorts of human characteristics including self control. In violence ridden low pop density areas worker productivity has historically reached absurd proportions, like 60 lbs of banana per hour in parts of Peru in late 19th century (greg clark). China for much of the last 1,000 years has been the complete opposite.

    The payoff to self-control must have varied regionally long before industry, which explains why, out in the real world, it sure looks like self-domestication is easier for some groups than others.