The Slaver’s Objectivity

Their latest review was no fluke — the Economist will always find the master’s viewpoint more “objective,” regardless of the evidence provided.

Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882. Marc Ferrez / Moreira Salles Institute Archive.

The Economist’s controversial review of Edward Baptist’s new book ends on a feverish crescendo of denial about the fundamentals of American slavery: that slaves were slaves and masters, masters — with all the brutality, coercion, and punishment that relationship entails.

Accordingly, the publication has retracted the piece and issued an apology, but the loss of credibility will probably be lasting. The irony is that their indictment of Baptist’s exhaustive book decries its lack of objectivity. To this end, tucked away in the last paragraphs of the review is a surprising and somewhat obscure reference to Hugh Thomas’s 1997 book, The Slave Trade.

I’ve had the misfortune of getting to know Hugh Thomas’s book quite well. For my empirical work testing Eric Williams’ hypothesis that the Atlantic slave trade spurred capitalist development in Europe, I turned to Thomas to delve into the mind of slave traders, to understand their motivations and choices.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

Though the research frontier is flourishing with new studies and new results on forced labor, slavery, and institutions, in particular those that consider the role of power and coercion in labor markets, the most popular book-level treatment of US slavery in economics remains Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery.

The book marks a point of divergence between the study of slavery in economics and the study of slavery in history. Economic history, undergoing a “cliometric revolution,” saw the study of history as yet another a data challenge: the context was historical, but the statistical game was the same. Quickly, the ties between economic history practitioners in economics and history eroded. In the field of the study of slavery, this split was precipitated by the publication of Fogel and Engerman’s book.

The bitter aftertaste left by Time on the Cross comes from its popular legacy as a book that argues that the maltreatment of African Americans under slavery in the US has been exaggerated by historians. Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

Allusions to scripture aside, even if one grants that the authors were adhering to the standards of their time, today these results would not pass as robust without additional testing, on much better data. But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

No wonder most scholarship errs on the side of the master. And the more the field tends to produce research on a certain set of questions with a certain set of results, the more individuals with a taste for those questions will be selected into the field. That leaves little space for changing the composition of perspectives in economics.

Of course, the field of economics is broad, and perspectives at the research frontier are more ecumenical than the portrait of the discipline that reaches popular culture. Hence, the need to teach The Economist about economics. Indeed, there is no time like today for the empirically inclined on the Left to dive into economics: the rising recognition of behavioral (rather than optimizing) agents and incomplete contracts is challenging the dominance of traditional choice theory.

But the best way to scale that part of economics that challenges the conclusions made from the master’s point of view is to expand access to economics and its tools. One development in this arena is CORE — a free, online, and interactive textbook with contributions from scholars all over the world — the first chapter of which has recently gone live. Appropriating the master’s tools will be an integral step to dismantling his hold over “objectivity” in economics.

Ultimately, however, the questions raised in economics are rooted in class society. The struggle will depend on the emergence of new political movements and actors with the ability to transform not just academia but the material reality it describes.