Time on the Cross
by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman

An account of the economics of American slavery based on sophisticated analysis of all the statistics available. It caused a sensation when it was published in 1974, and it was recommended at the time by Murray Rothbard and Joe Peden and others I respect. I have owned a copy for several years but didn't get around to reading it until this year (1993).

It shows that the slave system was profitable and was not about to die a natural death from economic competition. It also shows that in all the things that can be measured, the slaves were better off economically than the free laborers, black or white, North or South. On purely measurable criteria, the average slave on the cotton plantations in the ante-bellum South had a higher standard of living than the average contemporary free, white laborer. The American black slave in 1850 had a life expectancy of 36 years, which was equal to the average life expectancy of contemporaries in France and Holland and more than the life expectancy of the average Italian (35 years), Austrian (31 years), or resident of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia (24 years).

When slavery was abolished, the standard of living of the former slaves went down.

Utilitarianism, which requires that we calculate the effects of our actions and approve those that increase the general welfare, is a philosophy that lends itself to a focus on measurable things that can be added and subtracted and compared mathematically. Based on the statistics reported in this book, utilitarians could make a stronger case for the American slave system than they could against it. A utilitarian could be impressed by the efficiencies of scale that the slave system made possible in the Cotton Belt and by the fact that the slaves enjoyed a healthier diet, better housing, longer life, and better clothing than the free laborers. Logically, a utilitarian should recommend an extension of the slave system to include the free laborers. It is only necessary that the slave owners and plantation owners be free men so they can benefit from the market system and get the feedback they need about relative prices and can use this information to manage their property efficiently. (Socialist slavery cannot be efficient because it has no way of discovering whether it is making a profit or a loss, but free-market slavery worked well.)

Year Read: 1993


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