The New York Times Gets Slavery (and Capitalism) Wrong, Yet Again

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When a woman in 2002 wrote a New York Times Magazine article on Americans adopting Ethiopian children, she mentioned my family, which has two Ethiopian boys. Just before the story was to be printed, someone from the newspaper called me, a “fact checker” who asked several questions trying to ensure that the story would be accurate and that no wrong information would leak into the account.

Whatever commitment the NYT has had toward accuracy and truth, however, has disappeared into the maw of modern identity politics. From Duke Lacrosse to promoting Nancy MacLean’s false allegations about the Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan, the newspaper has taken the view that all truth must fit within a leftist political narrative, and if the facts don’t match the narrative, the paper doubles down in what Murray N. Rothbard once called the progressives’ “war with nature.”

In the opening sentence of his 1871 path-breaking Principles of Economics Carl Menger writes: “All things are subject to the law of cause and effect. This great principle knows no exception, and we would search in vain in the realm of experience for an example to the contrary.” With its highly-publicized and controversial Project 1619, the New York Times has violated Menger’s rule by turning cause-and-effect upside down and in the process, the paper dishonestly rewrites history.

I have no problem with taking a hard look at the history and long-lasting effects that black chattel slavery has had upon the United States. If we agree that slavery brought a host of social ills, then the year 1619 is significant to U.S. History, as it was when the first Africans (who were indentured servants) were brought to Jamestown in Virginia. One need not exaggerate to say that the slave system which developed here was hellish, and there is no sanitizing or justifying it. However, the NYT in its Project 1619 series has done much more than simply exaggerate slavery’s effects on the country; instead, the paper has made outlandish claims that easily are shown to be untrue – and when someone points out a falsehood, the paper’s allies Tweet out a storm of abuse aimed at the truth-telling “heretic.”

Perhaps the most bizarre claims are made by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond, who declared that slavery was the bedrock of capitalism, and that nearly every modern business practice, including double-entry bookkeeping, is the product of American black chattel slavery. Writes Desmond:

Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above. (Emphasis mine)

While “woke” progressives would not think Desmond’s statement to be even controversial, it is filled with untruths and thoroughly violates Menger’s dictum on cause-and-effect. The first part of the paragraph is true, in that cotton was the single most valuable export from the United States. The greatest amount of tariff taxes collected for the U.S. Treasury came from southern ports, as cotton exports paid for importation of European and British goods. Furthermore, cotton helped produce wealthy plantation owners, and most of those men owned slaves.

The following sentence, however, is troublesome on many fronts: “What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor.”

This statement is typical of modern historians, and especially those that identify with the field called the New History of Capitalism , which claims that capitalism as it developed in the United States owed its success almost solely to slavery and brutality. This is a huge departure from how historians have examined the rise and growth of capitalism, as few of them have seen slavery on its own as the primary source of value in the U.S. economy. Writes Robert Murphy : “Slavery, like war, is a destructive institution that reduces the welfare of most people in society, though a few beneficiaries can profit from the insidious system and thus have an incentive to sing its blessings.”

In examining Desmond’s claim, he assumes two erroneous things. First, he insinuates that slave labor was more valuable than free labor, a contention that effectively is challenged by economists such as Murphy and Vincent Geloso . His second contention is even more dubious. Let me explain.

Desmond assumes that Americans succeeded economically because they were willing to employ higher levels of violence than anyone else. Yet, the American South was not the only place in the world where people grew cotton. Both India and Egypt were major producers of cotton, and one doubts that British overseers were any more benevolent to Indian and Egyptian field workers than their American counterparts. If violence is the key to creating wealth, as Desmond insinuates, then the communist nations would have created fabulous amounts of wealth, given that the regimes running those countries controlled their labor forces even more ruthlessly than did American slave owners control their own. Yet, the common denominator of communist countries is poverty – and lots of it.

Another Desmond claim also is dubious, this one speaking of “seemingly endless supplies of land and labor.” While it is true that the USA had vast tracts of land, especially in the West, areas suitable to growing cotton were limited and improvement in crop yields did not come from planters simply moving west, but rather they improved their growing methods.

Agricultural labor in the United States in the antebellum era was quite scarce , and one of the justifications for slavery that the planters used was that free labor was too scarce to be dependable, so slavery provided economic stability. Far from being “endless” in supply, available labor was quite scarce, and certainly scarce enough to help provide justification for slave owners that were criticized for promoting the “peculiar institution.”

While slave owners did value slave labor, nonetheless it is improper, as Desmond has done, to claim that slavery was the source of value. As Carl Menger noted in Principles, factors of production – including labor – gain their value by contributing to the creation of the final product, the consumption good. Cotton was the product of value, and slave labor became valuable to plantation owners because it was useful in producing that good, not because slavery was intrinsically valuable.

To better clarify this point, read the following from Greg Timmons :

With cash crops of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane, America’s southern states became the economic engine of the burgeoning nation. Their fuel of choice? Human slavery . If the Confederacy had been a separate nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest in the world at the start of the Civil War. The slave economy had been very good to American prosperity.

If Timmons’ contention was true – that slavery fueled agricultural prosperity – then one would have to conclude that American farmers and business owners that failed to use slave labor were placing themselves at a disadvantage, which would have made slavery more attractive relative to free labor. Furthermore, as Robert Murphy has noted , if slavery were truly the “fuel” of southern agricultural prosperity, then one would expect the value of cotton to have fallen after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

However, Murphy points out that the cotton economy improved in the latter part of the 19th Century relative to its performance in antebellum years, which would support the thesis that free labor was more competitive than slave labor, even in a region where slavery had dominated the workforce for more than a century.

It is one thing to say that slavery was pervasive in American life before the Civil War. Furthermore, slave labor was vital to the success of the southern plantation – but it was not exceptional, as the New History adherent claim. To declare, as Desmond does , that slavery was super-productive and that the source of the productivity came from beatings, whippings, killings, and other atrocities is so ludicrous on its face as to make one wonder why anyone takes the New History School seriously.

Had slavery not existed in the USA, one can be sure that the nation’s economic and political development would have been different than what actually happened. It is doubtful that the plantation system as we know it would have developed, especially in the absence of available labor, given the farm economy at that time was extremely labor intensive and the fact that the labor situation in Colonial America differed greatly from what existed in Great Britain and Europe. Given that Social and cultural attitudes toward slavery differed greatly in the 1600s and early 1700s than they do now, perhaps it is not surprising that landowners, when faced with labor shortages, turned to the slave market. While it is difficult for modern-day Americans to comprehend those attitudes today, in the 17 th and 18th centuries slavery was the acceptable norm in most countries of the world.

These facts do not excuse the cruelties of the slave economy, but they do help us better understand the economic conditions and the social mindset that brought it about. It is one thing to condemn slavery, and any freedom-loving person should do so; however, it is quite another to attribute things to slavery and the American slave economy that are untrue. Unfortunately, that is what the country’s Newspaper of Record has done.

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