Charles Ball’s Humanity

I participated in a Liberty Fund colloquium on Zoom Friday and Saturday on the topic “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism.” It went very well.

One of the most interesting readings was by Charles Ball, an escaped slave. Ball’s book, published in 1837, was titled Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. In it, he describes his experience as a young man who was moved from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1805 to the cotton fields in South Carolina. One of the big issues in Cornell University history professor Edward E. Baptist’s work is whether the quotas of Ball and others were continuously raised by a ratcheting up of torture. Baptist claims that it was and, to back his point, quotes from Ball’s autobiography, but the striking thing about the 4-page excerpt from Ball’s autobiography is that Baptist left out passages that showed that his (Baptist’s) claim was untrue.

But I found something else striking: despite the fact that Ball was a slave, he took pride in his work. After detailing the fact that he picked “only” 38 pounds his first day on the job while two young men about his own age had picked 58 and 59 pounds, respectively, Ball writes:

I hung down my head. and felt very much ashamed of myself when I found that my cotton was so far behind that of many, even of the women, who has heretofore regarded me as the strongest and most powerful men of the whole gang.

He continues:

I had exerted myself today, to the utmost of my power; and as the picking of cotton seemed so very simple a business, I felt apprehensive that I should never be able to improve myself, so far as to becoming even a second rate hand. In this posture of affairs, I looked forward to something still more painful than the loss of character which I must sustain, both with my fellows and my master; for I knew that the lash of the overseer would soon become familiar with my back, if I did not perform as much work as any of the other young men.

He goes on to say that the overseer told him that he had good hands and would “make a good picker.” Sure enough, his productivity improved to 46 pounds the second day, and 52 pounds the third day. The next week he and the others were told that if they picked more than 50 pounds in a day, they would be paid a penny for every extra pound.

Here’s what I found interesting: not the incremental incentives but my own reaction to Ball. One of the other participants said that Ball was kind of pathetic, like a child or a puppy dog, for feeling shame at not being productive enough the first day.

I responded that I thought of the situation completely differently. I thought Ball was a man I would have liked. Here he was being enslaved but he didn’t let that take away his humanity. He still had pride in his work.

Then I told the following true story. In 1968, when I was at the University of Winnipeg, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s buddy and Secretary of State (which isn’t like the position that has the same label in the United States) Gerard Pelletier had told a meeting of newspaper editors in Montreal that he was thinking of pushing for a draft in Canada. Canada has an even stronger tradition of a volunteer military than the United States has. I was 18 at the time and I wrote an angry letter to the Winnipeg Free Press, which was published in full.

I read with astonishment the article in the Free Press, October 29, entitled Non-Military Draft Plan Under Study. The only objection to the idea made by State Secretary Gerard Pelletier was that it would be difficult to put into practice. Considerations of justice do not appear to have entered his mind.

It is indicative of the temper of our times that when people propose government intervention, they do not say, “Is it right?” but only “Can we get away with it?”

In the same article Mr. Pelletier is quoted as saying that the young would like to “play their part in creating a more just society.” I am one of those young people. Because I want a just society I am taking my stand. I refuse to be coerced into serving a year for the government. Government intervention has never led to a just society and never will. (November 9, 1968.)

A week later I was thinking about the last part of my letter. I then realized who I was and said to myself, “You wouldn’t refuse. You would prefer the Army to jail. You always make the best of a bad situation. You would probably resist for a few hours at most and then would try to figure out what you could learn from the Canadian Army during this period of short-term slavery.” That’s why Ball’s first paragraph quoted above resonated with me. He made the best of a bad situation and didn’t let the fact that he was a slave  take away his humanity or his pride in his work.

This morning I woke up with a further thought. I remembered a 1957 movie titled Bridge on the River Kwai. SPOILERS AHEAD. Colonel Saito, the sadistic commandant of a Japanese POW camp in Burma, insists that the mainly British prisoners, including officers, build a bridge over the River Kwai. This, by the way, violated the Geneva Conventions. Work is not going well and there’s a lot of sabotage. But then Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, takes over and persuades the men to take pride in their work and build a first-class bridge.

When I watched the movie, I was torn between wanting Nicholson to fail and wanting him to succeed. But the point is that he and many of his men took pride in their work. And this was a more difficult dilemma than Charles Ball had. To the extent they succeeded in building the bridge, it would help the Japanese war effort. But to the extent Charles Ball succeeded, he would help buyers of cotton.

By the way, I read a few years ago that some of the people who were actually prisoners in that prison camp were furious at the movie. They felt pride in sabotaging. Here’s Wikipedia:

Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the railway construction and POW camps described in the novel/film, stated in a 1962 book, Through the Valley of the Kwai: “In Pierre Boulle’s book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose.”[26]

I get that too. One could take pride in the work or take pride in the sabotage.


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White Guilt and Reparations: A True Story

Co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s post this morning on collective guilt and the subsequent discussion in the comment section reminded me of something that happened my first day of a microeconomics class in 2001. At the end of the opening class, a number of people came up to ask questions. One was a young black woman who said, “Professor, what do you think of reparations for slavery?”

I answered, “I promise I’ll answer but first I want to know what you think.”

She said, “I favor them.”

“And those reparations would be paid for by white people?”

“Yes,” she answered.

I turned to a white guy who was waiting to ask a question, and I took a risk.

“Where are your grandparents from?” I asked.

“The Netherlands,” he answered.

I then turned back to the woman who had asked and said, “I’m ready to answer you. His grandparents came to this country well after slavery had ended. I think it’s wrong for the government to tax people who didn’t even inherit wealth from slavery to give to the great, great grandchildren of former slaves.”

Note: Of course it’s possible that his grandparents inherited wealth from their predecessors having had slaves in the Netherlands. I don’t know the history of slavery in the Netherlands. But the odds that they gained big time and came to the United States as wealthy people were probably pretty low.


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David Hume on Ancient Revolutions

The longest essay in the modern edition of David Hume’s Essays  is “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” first published in 1752. The essay aims to discomfort those who lionize the ancients of Greece and Rome, by arguing, in effect, that neither had succeeded in establishing a political order that truly achieved what we today would call the rule of law. That is a mark of “every wise, just, and mild government” (382). The moderns have succeeded better, somehow.

The establishment of the rule of law in an extensive territory would bring prosperity, and prosperity would be reflected in populousness. Thus, Hume uses populousness to assess the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece and Rome were much less populous than many like to think, and, thus, less prosperous, and less glorious.

Hume proceeds through a number of major aspects of the empirical question of populousness, highlighting the violence, capriciousness, and brutality of ancient society. The first is slavery. He explains why it is wholly detrimental to populousness, and, indeed, this section of the essay (pp. 383-397) is nothing short of an excoriation of slavery.

Next, Hume writes about infanticide and of the “great” families, which he presents as a sort of cult (398), with practices by no means conducive to the raising up of large families.

Next he turns to the “political customs” (400) and “political maxims and institutions” (404), treating a number of facets, including war and revolution. These too, he says, should make us skeptical about claims of ancient prosperity and populousness. About ancient revolutions, Hume writes:

In ancient history, we may always observe, where one party prevailed, whether the nobles or people (for I can observe no difference in this respect) that they immediately butchered all of the opposite party who fell into their hands, and banished such as had been so fortunate as to escape their fury. No form of process, no law, no trial, no pardon. A fourth, a third, perhaps near half of the city was slaughtered, or expelled, every revolution; and the exiles always joined foreign enemies, and did all the mischief possible to their fellow-citizens; till fortune put it in their power to take full revenge by a new revolution. And as these were frequent in such violent governments, the disorder, diffidence, jealousy, enmity, which must prevail, are not easy for us to imagine in this age of the world.

There are only two revolutions I can recollect in ancient history, which passed without great severity, and great effusion of blood in massacres and assassinations, namely, the restoration of the Athenian Democracy by Thrasybulus, and the subduing of the Roman republic by Cæsar. We learn from ancient history, that Thrasybulus passed a general amnesty for all past offences; and first introduced that word, as well as practice, into Greece. It appears, however, from many orations of Lysias, that the chief, and even some of the subaltern offenders, in the preceding tyranny, were tried, and capitally punished. And as to Cæsar’s clemency, though much celebrated, it would not gain great applause in the present age. He butchered, for instance, all Cato’s senate, when he became master of Utica; and these, we may readily believe, were not the most worthless of the party. All those who had borne arms against that usurper, were attainted; and, by Hirtius’s law, declared incapable of all public offices.

These people were extremely fond of liberty; but seem not to have understood it very well. When the thirty tyrants [a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC] first established their dominion at Athens, they began with seizing all the sycophants and informers, who had been so troublesome during the Democracy, and putting them to death by an arbitrary sentence and execution. Every man, says Sallust and Lysias, was rejoiced at these punishments; not considering, that liberty was from that moment annihilated. (407-408)

Hume goes on to address the security of life and property and the attitudes toward and extent of commerce and trade. He throws salt on ancient accounts that have suggested great populousness, and highlights other ancient remarks suggesting otherwise.

Happiness, prosperity, and populousness depend on the rule of law. Let us hope that it will be there for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.




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Some Reflections on Reparations for Slavery

In any liberal-libertarian conception of justice, there is no doubt that a liberated slave had a moral right to compensation from his master. From an economic viewpoint (what is possible and at what cost), the problem is more complex, especially across generations. In response to an article in The Economist, I would propose two arguments against reparation payments to today’s descendants of the slaves of several generations ago. These arguments suggest a new approach for effective and moral reparation.

The first argument is an economic argument: measuring the compensation due to the slaves’ descendants is impossible. Academic estimates of the harm done to American slaves range from 0.7% to 37% of today’s GDP (that is, of what American residents produce and earn in one year). But the problem is more serious than this range suggests.

Assuming we know for sure that a certain individual is a descendant of an American slave, we still face radical uncertainty as to whether or not the descendant himself was actually harmed. What is the counterfactual? His first slave ancestor brought to America would likely not have come here otherwise. There is a good chance that today’s slave descendant would have been born in Africa if he had been born at all. As late as 1950, life expectancy at birth in Africa was 37 years, compared to 68 (at that time) in the United States. We don’t know and have no way to know if today’s slave descendant would be alive and better off if his first ancestor had not been kidnapped and brought to America as a slave.

I sidestep the difficult philosophical question of whether an individual counterfactually born elsewhere—or even conceived in slightly different circumstances in the same bed—can be said to be the same individual. From a purely naturalistic viewpoint, it would seem that the answer is negative, which would refute my counterfactual argument. But we would still don’t know how to calculate meaningful figures for the reparations—nor, by the way, whether they should be paid in some sort of affirmative-action services or in cash.

The second argument is a moral argument, which is not surprising as welfare economics has shown that any government policy must ultimately rely on a value judgment about distribution. The argument is that there is no moral justification for forcing an individual living today to pay for his ancestors’ crimes. Collective guilt is indefensible. A cogent moral argument could be made for reparations from an identifiable individual of today only if it could be proven that he owes part of his wealth to an identifiable ancestor who exploited an identifiable slave whose current descendant will be the recipient of the reparation payment. Such a calculation is impossible.

The moral case would of course have been different when slaves were liberated in 1865 as their masters could be immediately identified. As time passes, the claims become unprovable and moot.

This being said, one may argue that some of the slaves’ descendants are currently being exploited by some of the descendants of slave owners (and perhaps by some slave descendants too). From a moral viewpoint, this current injustice by current perpetrators should of course be corrected. This leads to an indirect reparation path very different and more practical than what is currently being proposed.

It is possible that the slavery heritage of black Americans has helped keep them in (relative) poverty, if only because of the legal discrimination they have suffered until just a few generations ago. It is quite clear that the individuals responsible for maintaining laws that continue restraining economic opportunities for Blacks should cease doing so. There are at least four regulatory areas where the poor, including descendants of former slaves, are being continuously exploited by currently living Americans.

1) Zoning regulations.—Zoning regulation started in NYC in 1916 to prevent Blacks and immigrants from moving into white neighborhoods as the free market allowed them to do with their dollars and the beneficial greed of property owners. In his recent book A Republic of Equals (Princeton University Press, 2019, p. 196), Jonathan Rothwell illustrates “the tension between market forces and racism” with a quote from a New York real estate agent, found in the New York Times of August 4, 1898:

I assure you there is no sentiment about the property owners bringing colored people here. It is purely a matter of dollars and cents and self-interest. The negroes pay their rent regularly, and many of the white people do not.

Although zoning regulations are not explicitly racist anymore, they have a similar effect by artificially increasing house prices and apartment rents. (See my Regulation review of Rothwell’s book.) Terminating zoning bylaws would substitute partly for impossible and unethical reparation payments.

2) Licensure laws.—Occupational licensure now forces one-fourth of Americans to obtain a costly (in time or money) licenses before they can offer their services. They curb the ability of the poorest individuals to compete on the market—not to mention the increased prices they have to pay for the services of licensed professionals. Terminating licensure laws would indirectly provide compensation to individuals, including descendants of former slaves, who are victims of a kind of government discrimination on the entrepreneurial market.

3) Minimum wage laws.—Minimum wage laws prevent the employment of those whose productivity is lower than the fixed minimum. These people pushed out of employment include the poorest and, no doubt within them, many slave descendants. (The unemployment rate of Blacks is typically above that of Whites, Asians, and Hispanic.)

4) Drug prohibitions for adults and other victimless crimes.—Laws that create victimless crimes—such as those banning some drugs—have two effects for our purposes: first, they create underground markets that are tempting for the poorest workers; second, they give police more opportunities to discriminate against some minorities.

Since most of these discriminatory laws exist at the local or state level, the reforms would be difficult, slow, and perhaps always incomplete. But instead of confiscating money from current taxpayers as a punishment for something they never did themselves, the federal government could play a useful role in promoting these economically and morally justifiable policies.


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