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Overworking the Slaves, from Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men by J. R. Hummel

This is from Chapter 2, The Political Economy of Slavery and Secession, of J. R. Hummel’s overview history of the American Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, in a section entitled Overworking the Slaves.

Nearly three-quarters of America’s slaves toiled on plantations or farms in 1860, and the proportion was climbing. Most of these bondsmen were in the South’s cotton belt; others grew sugar in lower Louisiana, rice along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, or tobacco in Virginia. For the greater number of them, self-purchase was almost certainly unfeasible even had it been legal. Large plantations were the one place where free white labor could not compete effectively against black slave labor. The reason? The threat of the lash compelled field hands to work longer, or perhaps harder, than anyone would for market wages.

During peak seasons, black drivers herded gangs of men and women into agricultural assembly-lines that labored from sunup to sundown. Edmund Ruffin, a militant apologist for the peculiar institution, saw this as the source of its superior productivity: Slave labor, in each individual case, and for each small measure of time, is more slow and inefficient than the labor of a free man…. But the slave labor is continuous…. Free laborers, if to be hired for the like duties, would require at least double the amount of wages to perform one-third more labor in each day. Planters moreover put women into the fields, even when pregnant or soon after childbirth, and children beginning around ages eight to twelve. Slaves too old for field work took over the care of infants along with other light household duties. As a result of the plantation’s full employment regime, two-thirds of slaves participated in the labor force, compared with only one-third for free populations, North and South.

These slaves were being worked well beyond the point where the value of their output could cover a wage that would attract free laborers. One implication of Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s well-known and much-criticized study of American slavery is that a single field hand’s labor on large plantations was worth $52 per year more than the cotton he produced. If free and receiving the full value of their output, these blacks would have done less work and consumed more leisure, or perhaps done work that produced less but was more fun or interesting or had other non-pecuniary rewards.

In these instances, where planters compelled laborers to give up leisure or on-the-job rewards, slavery did raise the economy’s physical output. This, too, however, represented a misallocation of labor, a misallocation that made aggregate production too high rather than too low, because the extra output came at the expense of total well-being. Each additional hour of labor was producing less than its value to the laborer as leisure. In other words, for every dollar that slavery drove up southern output it drove up deadweight loss as well. Fogel and Engerman put this loss for the South overall at $7 million in 1850 alone.

The ultimate gainers from this increased cotton production were primarily consumers. Higher output drove down cotton prices and caused a redistribution from black slaves to American, English, and continental wearers of clothing. But since there were many more of them, these benefits were thoroughly dispersed. One estimate is that every dollar gained by the typical user of cotton cloth imposed a welfare loss of $400 on some individual slave. Although the planter usually earned a competitive return on his chattels, American blacks were being deprived of leisure so that millions of workers elsewhere could live slightly better.

To summarize, so long as we concentrate on the behavior of blacks, the peculiar institution pushed the South’s aggregate production of goods and services in two conflicting directions. Insofar as slavery forced laborers to work at less valued jobs, it lowered output. Insofar as slavery forced laborers to work more hours or more intensely, it raised output. Since increased output predominated in southern agriculture, it undoubtedly swamped the reduction in output, which must have been most common in the South’s urban areas. The adverse impact on aggregate well-being was unambiguous, however. For calculating slavery’s deadweight loss, the two tendencies, rather than counteracting each other, add together. And while bondsmen bore most of this burden, their effective exclusion from mor highly valued jobs hurt some white Southerners as well.

–Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (1996). 45–47.

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