Saturday, April 21, 2007

Another Slaveowner-Homeowner Analogy

Last year, Kevin Levin mentioned an analogy between home ownership and slave ownership as a possibly useful way to explain the way that slavery shaped antebellum southern society. I thought immediately of that post yesterday when I ran across the same analogy, although used for a quite different purpose.

The analogy appears in Gavin Wright's The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1978). I probably understood about half of it, but even so it was apparent to me why it is regarded as the authoritative volume on antebellum southern political economics. Short (184 pages of text, including footnotes [real footnotes!]), the book is incredibly well written.

The book's argumentation is a model of the sort I like. In a recent post, I complained that historians were too often like ships passing in the night. There are no such ships here. When discussing a topic, Professor Wright regularly lays out the arguments that others have made, together with the facts and evidence that tends to support each. He then carefully weighs and analyzes the facts and arguments, pointing out factual gaps, contrary evidence and logical fallacies, until he arrives at his own conclusion, which may favor a particular view or be a synthesis of competing or apparently contradictory positions. The clarity of the writing and methodology makes it easy for the reader to evaluate the conclusions (unless, of course, you're an economics idiot like me!).

I also like the fact that Professor Wright does not overstate his case. Sometimes, his conclusions are firm. But where he does not believe the evidence admits a definitive answer, he does not hesitate to admit that the answer he proposes is simply the one that best reconciles the known facts.

At all events, Professor Wright raises the analogy between slave ownership and home ownership "to explain why Southerners went to extremes in insisting on absolute guarantees of their rights by the federal government everywhere in the Union."

Slave property was extremely valuable in the 1850s, with the price of slaves far in excess of cost-determined levels. High prices reflected the fact that slavery was profitable, but more importantly the higher prices embodied that profitability. The rising prices represented capital gains supported by a region-wide market (unlike land, the price of which was determined by local conditions and markets, slave prices were consistently uniform throughout the south). Those capital gains and regional market provided a unifying economic interest among slaveholders across the south. Professor Wright comments that "[i]t is difficult to think of historical cases that are remotely comparable."

Professor Wright then turns to the question quoted above. If slaveholders had so much economic value to preserve, why did they act so rashly during the 1850s? "With so much to conserve, why weren't they more conservative?"

The beginning of the answer lies in the fact that "the value of slave property was so thoroughly dependent on expectations and confidence." Moreover, that expectation and confidence was one that was region-wide. Thus each slaveowner or prospective buyer had to take into account the confidence of others throughout the market. It's best to let Professor Wright speak for himself, using the fugitive slave laws as an example:
Such a financial asset involves external effects of region-wide scope: even if I attach no importance whatsoever to fugitive slave legislation as it effects [sic] my own slaves, if I think that you (any nontrivial number of slaveowners or buyers) attach some importance to it, then the issue affects me financially and I have good reason to become a political advocate of strong guarantees.

So where, you ask, is the homeowner analogy? Well, here it comes. Again, I'll simply let Professor Wright make his own case:
The closest analogy today is the behavior of homeowners. A house is typically the largest asset owned by a family -- indeed families are usually heavily in debt if they buy a house -- and here also the value of the property depends on the opinions and prejudices of others. In this case as well, prejudice and intolerance are intensified by market forces. I may not really care whether a black family moves next door, but, if I feel that others care, I will be under financial pressure to share their views or at least act as though I do. The main difference between the housing case and slavery are that many owners held more than one slave, and that for slavery these were not "neighborhood effects" limited to a small geographic area but system-wide externalities, so that a threat to slavery anywhere was a threat to slaveowners everywhere. The effect was to greatly exacerbate the response to any threat.

I would add only that the large geographic extent of the market increased the likelihood of mistaken understanding of the concerns of others located far away. As a homeowner, I presumably have a reasonably good feel for the concerns of others in my neighborhood. But a slaveholder in, say, Georgia would have little way to know the concerns of slaveowners in, say, Kentucky. It strikes me that, with little hard information to go on, the Georgia slaveowner would likely fear the worst and thus tend to expect that Kentucky slaveholders were gravely concerned about fugitive slaves, even if they weren't.

As usual, Professor Wright does not overstate his case. He does not contend that slaveowners were basing political decisions on slave prices. He does not deny that there were many other factors at work:
The strength of the argument is that it is not based on an exclusively economic nor exclusively rational conception of motivation and behavior. Fear, racism, misperceptions, and long-run strategic calculations all undoubtedly did exist. The point is that economic forces served to intensify every other motive for the South's insistence on guarantees of the rights of slaveholders and even the quest for a virtual endorsement of slavery by the North. The argument does not imply that Southern politicians were scrutinizing slave prices in their every action; but the widespread concern over property values created a situation in which an ambitious politician could easily mobilize a constituency by strongly insisting on absolute guarantees for slaveowners' rights.


  1. Anonymous8:48 AM

  2. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Similar to the way profits allocated resources toward slavery, the same mechanism would have worked to remove slavery over time as technology and manufacturing returns have far outpaced other forms of investment. Also, the inherent political risk of such an unethical labor source would also not justify the returns of slavery.

    Regarding Levin, I wouldn't want to cite him for any useful unbiased information as his blog shows his agenda.

  3. A,

    I suspect the key phrase in your comment is "over time." I agree that economics will ultimately have its way. Professor Wright himself points out that a leveling off of worldwide cotton demand in the 1860s probably would have resulted in wrenching changes to the southern economy even without the War.

    That said, it remains difficult if not impossible for me to imagine how or when slavery would have ended in the United States without the War. I do not think we are talking about a decade or two -- probably 1920 or so at the earliest.


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