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.

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