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The Poverty of Slavery | Podcast Highlights

Blog Post | Rights & Freedoms

The Poverty of Slavery | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews economic historian Robert E. Wright about the history of slavery and the damage it does to society.

Listen to the full podcast episode here.
Below is an abridged transcript featuring some highlights from the interview.

Tell me why you wrote this book and about the book in general.

I decided to write the book because progressive historians have revived a pro-slavery argument from the past: that America would not be rich without slavery. They are trying to set up a case for reparations by saying, “Hey, look, we are wealthy today, but it’s because we had slavery in the past, and now it’s time that we repay that debt.” It is completely wrong. My bookThe Poverty of Slavery, looks not just at the United States but at all systems of enslavement from the prehistoric period up to the present, and I don’t ever find an instance where slavery leads to anything more than profits for slaveholders. It never helps overall economies.

Tell me about slavery in the distant past, and then we’ll move forward in time.

The big point is that slavery is ubiquitous over time and space. Most societies had some type of person that would score very low on the freedom scale. And even chattel slavery with outright ownership was common throughout history.

Determining exactly when and where slavery occurred, especially in the prehistoric period, is difficult because you must interpret the physical record, things like prehistoric chains or collections of bones. There was a massacre, for example, on what’s now called the Missouri River that happened in pre-Columbian times. Archeologists found many bones from males and very old females but hardly any from females of reproductive age. This means the massacre was likely part of a slave raid and the raiders abducted the reproductive-age females.

We do know that, as soon as we get written records, slaves are ubiquitous, and nobody is saying, “Hey, there’s this new thing.” It’s always in the context of, “This is common, and everyone knows what this is.” It’s widespread across Europe, Asia, Africa, and even the pre-Colombian Americas. So, slavery is not just what Western Europeans did to Africans. It’s what humans have been doing to humans over millennia.

Can you tell me about the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and the anti-slavery movement?

Europeans didn’t bring the slave trade to Africa. Muslims were already coming down from the north and seizing sub-Saharan Africans or purchasing them from local enslavers. And there was also a system in the East where sub-Saharan and south African slaves were shipped to India and Southeast Asia. Europeans entered this system, outbid the existing slave traders, and sold the slaves to plantations in the Americas.

In terms of the anti-slavery movement, there were some groups and individuals who opposed slavery historically, but they never really gained traction until the 18th and early 19th centuries in the Anglo world.

The transition away from slave labor was eased by the fact that there was another source of labor available: Indian and Chinese coolies. They were indentured laborers, not chattel slaves, but still very low on the freedom scale. So, the places in the British Empire, for example, that relied on African slaves simply switched to these indentured laborers. People convinced themselves that these folks weren’t slaves because they signed contracts, but they were lied to about the conditions, they were illiterate, and they were signing up for 3, 5, or even 10 years of labor 2000 miles away from their homes. Making a mark on a piece of paper in a language they didn’t know hardly indicated their consent.

So, abolition is a nuanced story, but it was still progress.

One important thing is the change in how people thought about slavery. Throughout most of history, people mostly didn’t question slavery’s morality. They just accepted the way things were.

Yes, for most of recorded history, there was very little resistance to slavery. It was thought to be natural or even a good thing for the enslaved. If they were seized in a war or arrested for a crime, for example, they could have been executed, so enslavement was seen as the better option.

You said earlier that, economically speaking, slavery never resulted in “anything more than profits for slaveholders.” Can you elaborate on that?

As far as we can tell, the median profitability of slaveholding was greater than that of other endeavors at the same level of risk. However, that doesn’t mean it was good for the economy. Slavery creates all kinds of negative externalities or costs that are borne by society.

Basically, by resisting their enslavement, slaves create control costs, and enslavers often manage to put those costs on the rest of society. There used to be slave patrols in the U.S. and public armories just in case of a slave insurrection. You had fugitive slave laws where free states had to return runaway slaves to their owners. There’s a whole legal code with all its attendant costs and inefficiencies. Maroon societies would crop up, where escaped slaves would settle in wild places and then raid the slave communities. There were public whipping stations where people could take their slaves and say, “Please whip the slave on my behalf.”

There was also the fact that slaveholders often depleted the quality of their lands and then simply moved West and brought their slaves along with them. They wouldn’t invest in local businesses and infrastructure because they expected to leave in 20 years. Literacy rates in the South were also abysmal because slaveholders didn’t want non-slaveholders to become educated and question the system that the slaveholders had created.

So, slaveholders imposed many costs on society, making slavery extra profitable while hurting the overall economy.

What about modern slavery? How big of a problem is slavery today?

The good news is that we’re at a point in history where the smallest percentage of the human population is enslaved. There are 8 billion people alive today, and roughly 50 million are slaves. That’s a very tiny percentage of the global population. However, that’s also the largest number of individuals who have ever been enslaved at a single point in history, simply because population levels were much lower in the past. That’s a lot of suffering. About half of them are sex slaves, about a quarter are domestic slaves in people’s homes, and another quarter are being worked in agribusiness.

So, there are lots of people to help, but the negative externalities created by slavery today are not as immense as they were in the antebellum United States. But they’re not insignificant either. Since slavery is already a crime, enslavers often engage in other criminal activities like degrading the natural environment or trafficking in drugs and weapons.

I think technology might be able to help. Technology in the past helped us get through that long transition from chattel slaves to indentured servants to wage and free labor. We don’t need humans to pick cotton anymore since machines do it. Likewise, machines could help reduce the demand for sex slavery and domestic labor.

Blog Post | Economics

Capitalism, the Keystone of Modern Prosperity

Despite the rise of anti-capitalism across the political spectrum, Johan Norberg sheds important light on the benefits and major advances brought about by capitalism.

This article was originally published at Contrepoints on 11/1/2023.

Good news for fans of bipartisanship: even in today’s hypercharged political environment, an increasing number of people on both sides of the aisle agree on something! Unfortunately, it’s a notion that, if incorrect, could undermine the policies and institutions that form the very foundation of the modern world. The newfound area of agreement is the idea that capitalism, globalization, and free markets have failed.

Indeed many of the ideas expressed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their magnum opusThe Communist Manifesto, are gaining ground. Obsession with class warfare now transcends political tribes, dominating both the halls of deep blue academia and the lyrics of the chart-topping anthem of the “new right,” Rich Men North of Richmond. A swelling bipartisan chorus of voices dismiss laissez-faire economics as out-of-date. The complexities of the modern world, they claim, require robust government action to support domestic industries, repatriate risk-ridden globalized supply chains, and protect domestic markets from the vicissitudes of international competition.

Recent polling shows that only around 21 percent of Americans hold a very positive view of capitalism, dropping to just 11 percent among those under age 30. Mounting skepticism toward capitalism is not restricted to the United States; from Latin America to Europe, anticapitalism is all the rage. For example, a majority of French adults, 62 percent, express a negative view of capitalism.

In this age of growing derision toward the system of free enterprise, there is a man who stands athwart the anticapitalist zeitgeist declaring, “The global free market will save the world.” Who is this individual who dares to express such an unfashionable view? “No one is particularly keen on globalization now,” observed journalist Po Tidholm on Swedish Public Radio in 2020, “except possibly Johan Norberg.”

Norberg, a Swedish author and historian of ideas and a colleague of mine at the Cato Institute, wears the accusation with pride, quoting it at the start of his latest book, The Capitalist Manifesto. Given the current intellectual climate, the timing of the U.S. release of the book could not be better.

He was not the first to come up with the title; prior Capitalist Manifesto authors include Robert Kiyosaki, Andrew Bernstein, Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler. As Norberg notes, there is only one Communist Manifesto, but there are many capitalist manifestos—appropriately, as capitalism allows for a diversity of thought.

Norberg’s prior books include In Defense of Global Capitalism, which, as its title suggests, mounted a defense of free enterprise—against the system’s vocal leftist critics. But in the two decades since that book’s publication, expressing hatred of capitalism has become a bipartisan pastime in vogue among populists on both the left and right alike. In light of this trend, The Capitalist Manifesto presents an updated, sorely needed, and eloquent restatement of the principles of free market.

The book addresses the most frequent criticisms leveled against markets today and generally seeks to rehabilitate capitalism’s image in the mind of the skeptical modern reader. As business magnate Elon Musk put it in a recent post, “This book is an excellent explanation of why capitalism is not just successful, but morally right.”

How can Norberg, Musk, or indeed anyone remain enthusiastic about a system that so many people spanning the political spectrum now agree has been a failure? Examining the last couple of decades, the book acknowledges they have been filled with shocks, wars, and failures. Examining the problems of the last 20 years, including financial crises, violence in the Middle East, an industrial-scale war in Europe, various other disasters, and of course a global pandemic, Norberg never shies away from recognizing the bad. But, the last 20 years, he argues, despite so many devastating catastrophes, have nonetheless been the best years in all of human history.

How is that possible? Step back and examine the trendlines. A third of all wealth ever created was created over these last two decades alone. Over the last 20 years, during every minute of complaining about how global capitalism has wrecked the world, over 90 people climbed out of destitution. Child mortality has fallen so dramatically that the number of annual child deaths is down by millions compared to a decade ago even as the total population has grown.

The greatest progress occurred in the countries that most integrated into the global economy. Why is that? The miraculous problem-solving capacity of human beings that allows us to improve our conditions—if given the freedom to do so. Hence countries in the economically freest quartile enjoy more than twice the average per capita income of less free countries.

Capitalism’s haters fail to recognize modern prosperity’s origins. Norberg characterizes well-off anticapitalist thinkers such as Thomas Piketty this way: “taking pride in ignoring what’s going on down there, in garages, in shops and factories, and how that might relate to the fact he lives in history’s richest civilization.”

But, the anticapitalist might protest, modern abundance rests atop a proverbial house of cards. Surely the pandemic revealed the unacceptable fragility of globalized markets?

Yet pandemic shortages proved short-lived as entrepreneurs found ways to adjust the manufacturing process to changing conditions. In many cases, companies with more complex supply chains actually adjusted faster than those with less complex supply chains, because they had more options and found alternative suppliers or manufacturers who weren’t under lockdown. Concentrations of supply chains, Norberg warns, in fact pose a greater risk of disruption than diversified ones, due to their total reliance on a smaller number of suppliers–having all their eggs in one basket. Domestically produced goods were often more likely to see shortages than imported ones; recall that it was international trade that alleviated the United States’ baby formula shortage when policymakers lifted import restrictions in response to the crisis.

The book defends capitalism from charges that it simply represents theft and exploitation, pointing out that it in fact embodies the opposite of those things: enrichment and freedom of choice. Replacing markets with a system of more centralized government control concentrates decision-making power in the hands of a small elite.

Substituting the collective wisdom produced by billions of people with the preferences of a few bureaucrats whose own money isn’t on the line tends to spell disaster. Norberg cites numerous examples including Quaero, the stillborn dream of a government-backed search engine from 2005. Quaero was intended to outcompete Google. Despite the best efforts of numerous European politicians and bureaucrats, and despite the French and German governments wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on the project, Quaero collapsed within a year. Its implosion demonstrates what happens, again and again, when decision makers are divorced from the reality of market signals and financial consequences.

With abundant data and memorable examples, Norberg shows the historical ignorance of the new vogue for anticapitalism. He unmasks it as nothing new at all, but something wizened and old that has reared its ugly head again. Tariffs, industrial policy, repatriation, and price-setting have repeatedly failed. Will policymakers on the left and right alike heed Norberg’s warning, or will humanity relearn the lesson the hard way?

The Communist Manifesto ends with the words, “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Instead of a call for violent revolution, The Capitalist Manifesto ends with a plea for the peaceful preservation of the system of global capitalism endangered by unwise policies: “We pro-capitalists of the world have nothing to lose but our chains, tariff barriers, building regulations and confiscatory taxes. We have a world to win.”

The Washington Post | Housing

Alexandria Ends Single-Family-Only Zoning

“Alexandria lawmakers voted unanimously early Wednesday to eliminate single-family-only zoning in this Northern Virginia city, a functionally limited but symbolic and controversial move that opens the door for the construction of buildings with as many as four units in any residential neighborhood.”

From The Washington Post.

Blog Post | Infrastructure & Transportation

The Race to the Sky: How Competition Pushes Humanity Forward

Cities could still be growing quickly upward, but regulations are limiting their growth.

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.”

—Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

The story of how the Empire State Building came to dominate Manhattan’s skyline—defeating 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building for the title of the tallest building in the world—is an illustration of the power of competition and innovation.

In 1929, the successful businessman George Ohrstrom hired architect H. Craig Severance to design 40 Wall Street. Severance was a well-known architect in New York City and together with William van Alen had built amazing constructions, such as the Bainbridge Building on W. 57th Street and the Prudence Building at 331 Madison Avenue. Van Alen was an innovator and a revolutionary who often challenged the classical and Renaissance styles that had influenced most American cities since the beginning of the 20th century. He often ran into problems with clients who rejected his modern styles. Severance, worried about losing clients, decided that he no longer needed Van Alen’s partnership, and they ended their business relationship in 1924. In 1929, Walter Chrysler hired Van Alen to design a monument to his name, the Chrysler Building.

Competition Incentivized Innovation

In April 1929, Severance learned that his former partner was designing a structure of 809 feet. Ohrstrom and Severance, worried about falling behind, announced that they would add two additional floors to their original design so that 40 Wall Street would end up with a total height of 840 feet. That same year, Empire State Inc., led by former General Motors executive John Jakob Raskob, entered the race—putting pressure on Severance and Van Alen. To keep pace with the other two projects, architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and builders Starrett Brothers & Eken accelerated the construction process. According to architectural historian Carol Willis, the framework of the Empire State Building rose four and a half stories per week due to an A-team design approach in which architects, builders, and engineers collaborated closely with each other.

Troubled by both Severance and the Empire State project, Van Alen designed the famous chrome-steel art deco crown for the top of the Chrysler Building and a sphere to stand on top of the crown. The sphere was built inside the crown, hidden from the public, and it was never announced to the press or explicitly mentioned. On the other hand, Severance modified his design one more time and asked permission to add a lantern and a flagpole at the top of the tower, increasing the height by 50 feet. Severance planned to have 40 Wall Street reach the 900-foot mark to secure its place as the tallest building in the world.

On October 23, 1929, the sphere of the Chrysler Building was lifted from the inside of the crown, reaching 1,046 feet and surpassing the final height of 927 feet of 40 Wall Street. The crash of Wall Street on October 28 distracted the press from the trick played by Van Alen, and it was not reported immediately. When Severance found out, it was too late to change his design—40 Wall Street held the title for one month from its opening in the first week of May 1930 to the opening of the Chrysler Building on May 27. The Chrysler Building held the title for only 11 months until the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and became the new tallest building.

Regulations Limit Us

The Empire State Building held the title of tallest building in the world for 40 years, and it was built in only one year and 45 days. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, believes that excessive restrictions slow construction today. Regulations such as height restrictions prevent cities from going up. Humanity now has better technology than in the time of New York’s race to the sky, but getting permits to build upward is extremely difficult. Excessive restrictions also generate artificial scarcity, which is slowing the growth of cities and making it difficult (and expensive) to live in them. Cities could grow upward, but regulations limit their growth.

However, we continue to see competition in many industries; technology companies fighting for the dominance of artificial intelligence are creating better and more efficient tools. The race between SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic is improving the development of innovative technologies. Soon we might even have commercial flights to the moon. History has shown that when brilliant minds have freedom to compete, humanity moves forward.

Reuters | Health & Medical Care

UK Authorises Gene Therapy for Blood Disorders in World First

“Britain has authorised a gene therapy that aims to cure sickle-cell disease and another type of inherited blood disorder for patients aged 12 and over, the country’s medical regulator said on Thursday, becoming the first in the world to do so.

Casgevy is the first medicine to be licensed that uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR, which won its inventors the Nobel Prize in 2020.”

From Reuters.