Friday, August 24, 2012
A Perspective on Slavery
If we could obtain data on how slaves were treated --- relationship with owners, quality of life, degree of freedom, etc. --- we would find a lovely curve with data distributed around a mean or average value. On one end we would see a small percent of the data for those who treated their property as human beings while on the other end of the graph we would find an equal number of owners who were monsters. Such is the nature of human beings --- for every Saint there is a Sinner. The issue becomes of finding the average behavior and range of variation from that behavior.
Now let's turn to the owner. He has human property and it's rather expensive to purchase and maintain. This property works like a machine, but it has emotions and these emotions make it more difficult to "operate/control." For the economics of slavery to work, a slave must produce more revenue than his "operating costs." In the agricultural south, a person's wealth is measured in his property --- land and slaves. However, the real value is in the slave, because without the slave the land cannot be worked to produce revenue and, without cash flow, the land is worthless. This issue is at the heart of the Civil War.
Now rational owners would want to treat their slaves well to make sure the "machines of their wealth" continued to operate at their peak. The significant word is "rational." Consider those people who don't maintain their assets. They fail to do routine maintenance on their cars and homes, they let their skills atrophy, and ignore their investments. Logic is a characteristic not often associated with human beings. So for every slave owner who realized the value of his asset, there were probably those who fell in the category of not understanding or not appreciating this worth. Add to this mix, those owners who treated their wealth as a God-given right and resented the notion that any part of it was from the labor of his slave. This idea would increase with each generation as the entrepreneurial energy of grandparents eroded into expected entitlement of their grandchildren. This issue is also common to other business enterprises.
If we weigh these factors together, we see the "average slavery index" as imprisonment with forced labor whose pain is lessened by rational owners who treated their slaves humanly either because they saw them as human beings and not objects or they were interested in maximizing the performance of their property. The owners were not all monsters, but they were typical of employers who wanted to maximize the output of their workers and minimize the cost to get this output.
This employer-employee relationship hasn't changed much in the last 150 years. Improvements in the relationship were due to government regulations (child labor, prison labor, minimum wages, and health and safety) and the collective power of labor unions. Any questions? Ask your boss.