Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism contains a dangerous message for 21st century abolitionists: slavery undoubtedly causes economic growth. Baptist is so certain of this claim, in fact, that he asserts that “it is the truth” (p. xii) and that his “true narrative” establishes it (p. xxii).
There is much to admire about the book, especially if one is sympathetic to the reparations movement or wants to empower African Americans by labelling them the makers of the modern economy and backing it with hundreds of pages of text and thousands of scholarly references.
For those of us fighting the sundry new forms of slavery today, however, Baptist’s message is potentially pernicious as it could be used to justify enslavement, from trafficked children to debt peons to convict laborers. The Western world owes its wealth to slavery, the argument would go, so it should stand aside and allow the rest of the world to do likewise. A similar argument has already been made to justify child wage labor and pollution in less developed countries.
Thankfully, Baptist’s thesis is not just wrong-headed, it is wrong, or at least wrong enough to render its use as a pro-slavery argument ineffective. For starters, Baptist confuses sufficient and necessary causes. That is unsurprising as he does not engage, and quite frankly appears utterly oblivious to, recent scholarship in financial and economic history outside of the narrow slavery literature. Sustained economic growth (consistent increases in real per capita income over decades and even centuries) could not have been monocausal, this literature shows, but rather resulted from complex interactions between governments, financial systems, legal precedents, entrepreneurs (including enslavers) and laborers (including the enslaved). None alone were sufficient causes of growth but some were necessary causes. For example, if one removed republican government from the early U.S. scene, growth would not have happened there (e.g., Latin America). Other causes, like slavery, were present but incidental. Had they been removed from the economy, growth would still have occurred after the necessary causes appeared (e.g., Canada).
Second, Baptist confuses profitability with economic efficiency. Baptist correctly notes that some scholars have argued that slavery was unprofitable but those views have long since been swept aside by both evidence and common sense. But the profitability of producers does not necessarily lead to economic efficiency, the proximate cause of economic growth, if one or more market failures intercede. Consider, as the most salient example, the recent financial crisis, which proved highly profitable for a few while hurting the overall economy.
Monopolies are probably the most widely known market failure but they were not much of a factor in the antebellum South. The ill effects of pollution are also widely understood and, unlike monopoly, germane to the slavery question. Pollution is just one example of a broader class of market failure called negative externalities, which occur when some of the costs of production are borne by the economy at large rather than by buyers and sellers. Slavery produced numerous, significant negative externalities (e.g,. slave patrols, public whipping stations, fugitive slave acts, etc.) worth far more than slavery’s marginal productivity (its productivity minus the productivity of the next most productive alternative labor system, which was not debt peonage!).
At the root of many of the negative externalities produced by chattel slavery was the resistance of the enslaved: running away, feigning sickness, breaking tools, behaving in an “uppity” manner, and so forth. The enslaved and formerly enslaved, with help from abolitionists, eventually managed to impress upon many Northerners the costs/negative externalities that slavery imposed upon the overall economy and thus prepared the way for emancipation.
Not only could this counter narrative be used to uplift African Americans today, it is closer to “truth” than what Baptist has mustered, at least by half. The counter narrative also reserves a place for abolitionists and leaves no room for claims that slavery, then or now, is good for the economy. Then as now, enslaving people is a sin that enriches the enslaver but does not drive growth.