Streetwise Professor

August 12, 2017

Iconoclasm and the Lost Cause

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:42 pm

Protests over the removal of the R. E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA predictably descended into violence, with at least three dead: one killed when a car drove into a group of counter-protestors, and two police officers killed when their helicopter crashed while observing the chaos on the ground.

The protestors were primarily white supremacists, egged on by appalling figures like David Duke. Their opponents included Antifa types, as well as non-violent protestors.

As someone who has been intensely interested in the Civil War since I was 8 years old, I have considerable ambivalence about memorials to figures like Lee and Jackson, or to Confederate veterans generally–and to their removal.

I understand acutely that the memorials were primarily an assertion of political power. Many were erected in the 1890s through 1920s, and were monumental embodiments of the Lost Cause myth, which denied the evil of slavery and its fundamental role in causing the War–and the consequent destruction of the Old South. They were to a considerable degree defiant assertions of the resurgence of the old social and political order. Hence, I understand the bitterness and anger and humiliation that they engender, particularly among black Americans whose ancestors suffered under that order.

But this very history makes them artifacts that document an important and instructive period of American history. I would much prefer that they be preserved, contextualized, and interpreted as such. That they be transformed into museums, rather than memorials per se. Repurposing them can contribute to our civic education in ways that destroying them cannot.

The history of the monuments can educate people about the history of an era, and in so doing may actually contribute to a broader understanding of just why they evoke such bitter memories and emotions in many Americans. Extirpating the monuments will generate a frisson of excitement and satisfaction, but once they are gone the era which spawned them will become even more opaque to Americans at large, and the important lessons of that era will be lost to most. Ironically, this is actually not helpful to the interests of those who find the monuments offensive: they would be better served if the lessons they convey could be taught in the future, rather than largely forgotten, as will happen once the monuments are gone.

It is because of this loss of historical memory that I am averse to iconoclasm. I am also quite conscious that iconoclasm is itself almost always an assertion of political power, and as such can be as divisive as the erection of the icons was. A cycle of symbolism can sow discord, and generate much more heat than light. In a deeply divided country, we should be looking for ways to improve understanding and to provide fora for reconciliation, rather than to inflame divisions. Building the monuments was a way of showing who is on top: taking them down is a way of doing the same. But assertion of power relations exacerbates conflict and detracts from the advancement of true equality.

The Confederate monument controversy has also catalyzed tribalism, perhaps intentionally so, as this has definite political uses, most notably making it possible for the left to claim that the fringe mouth breathers who rallied to defend the monument are representative of all its political adversaries. It is also the last thing the increasingly tribal US needs at present.

There are of course always hard cases: the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis (removed several years ago) is a good example, given his record as a slave dealer, the commander during the commission of a mass racial atrocity (the Fort Pillow Massacre), and leader of the first incarnation of the KKK. But even here, the fact that he was memorialized provides a very telling commentary on the attitudes of those who memorialized him. His very outrageousness makes his monument particularly instructive about the times in which he was cast in bronze and put on a pedestal.

The monuments are about a particular interpretation of history that held sway in a part of the country for decades, and as such are themselves historical artifacts that can inform and instruct. Transforming them from icons of The Lost Cause into museums that educate about the reasons for the Lost Cause myth, and the society that created it, would allow them to play a constructive role in America’s future, and in a way redeem the destructive role they played in the past. Making them the battlefields in a new civil war pitting some of the ugliest elements of America against one another only perpetuates their divisive legacy, as today’s events in Charlottesville demonstrate tragically and forcefully.

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  1. @Professor
    You are knowledgable about the Civil War and so please tell me if I am mistaken. it seems to me The South was more or less a client state of Great Britain. GB ran the slave trade in the majority from West Africa to the US and cotton went from The South to GB.

    Because of this belief the sanctimonious statements from Brits about slavery in the US disturb me. The entire odious situation rested on the economic interests of GB.

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2017 @ 4:39 am

  2. I agree with you that the monuments should be housed in museums where the nuances of history can be presented in a more thorough manner.

    History is a mixed bag of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses. There are extraordinary achievements and horrible depredations.

    By contemporary standards, slavery is rightly viewed as a horrible violation of basic human rights. However, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was common throughout the world. When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world.

    What was unique about America was that many people in the colonies strongly objected to slavery and many of the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it altogether.

    But those framers also understood that those salutary principles would be lost in an imperfect world without compromise to create a nation to give those principles a chance to endure.

    American history is flawed. But so is every human endeavor. Those who call for the destruction of statues and monuments commemorating the mistaken leaders of our past are measuring our history against perfection, not against other real places.

    What other societies in 1787—or any date in history prior to that time–would these critics find more free and equitable than ours? Where else was religious freedom to be found in 1787?

    If we judge the past by the standards of today, then must we stop reading Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Will we be soon be required to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum? Will we also need to remove memorials to slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson?

    Lincoln initially favored removing all the slaves to a foreign country until it became politically expedient for him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Do we now redefine his legacy because his segregationist views are repugnant to modern standards?

    Compared to perfection, our ancestors reflect badly. All of them made wrong decisions, but few who are memorialized today did so in order to further selfish interests. Most of them are worthy of our respect, regardless of whether their views in their time are in line with our modern standards formed with the pristine lens of hindsight bias.

    Americans long ago abandoned Lincoln’s admonition—”malice toward none, charity for all.”

    In a world of demons and angels, we can’t agree on who’s which. And we don’t have the charity in our hearts to admit most of us are somewhere in between.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — August 13, 2017 @ 6:51 am

  3. Pahoben

    Apart from the fact that GB banned the slave trade many years before and the Royal Navy expended considerable blood and treasure enforcing that ban.

    Comment by Recusant — August 13, 2017 @ 6:55 am

  4. “GB ran the slave trade in the majority from West Africa to the US”: the UK abolished slave trading in 1807. It then spent some of its taxpayers’ money for decades in rather rudely suppressing other nations’ slave trades.

    Do you know any history at all?

    Comment by dearieme — August 13, 2017 @ 8:22 am

  5. If the US Left were serious about reminders of slavery wouldn’t they demand that Yale change its name?

    Comment by dearieme — August 13, 2017 @ 8:23 am

  6. Come to think of it, they ought to demand that Washington’s name be changed too.

    Comment by dearieme — August 13, 2017 @ 8:23 am

  7. If we in the US had gone through something like the various countries in the sovok union went through – statues of Lenin on virtually every street corner to memorialize a brutal oppressive government system, thousands and thousands of them, I would say, yes, remove the statue of the founder of a brutally oppressive system.

    In fact, in Ukraine, statues of Lenin have been taken down. In the Czech Republic, they went to a museum.

    But Robert E Lee was not that type of a founder, and he won and had the respect of both sides. All Confederates, except one, were pardoned, and he was a US citizen, serving very honorably at Washington and Lee University.

    There are only 4 monument statues to Robert E Lee, and they are (or in the case of New Orleans, were) listed on the National Register of Historic Places:

    Anyone who watched the Civil War series by Ken Burns, and any student of history knows that Lee’s mansion was surrounded by a cemetery – Arlington National Cemetery – so that Lee and his family could never return home. It is now a memorial to Lee (worthwhile visit):,_The_Robert_E._Lee_Memorial

    The city decided to sell the statue for some unknown reason:

    The statue should remain as reflective of history, to inform and instruct.

    It certainly cannot be viewed as idolizing slavery, or advocating the return of slavery.

    Stupid decision to remove it.

    Even more stupid for the white supremacists and the antifa, each side spoiling for a fight, to go to gang warfare over a statue.

    Comment by elmer — August 13, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

  8. “What was unique about America was that many people in the colonies strongly objected to slavery”: what on earth was unique about that? One of the reasons that some in the southern colonies were keen on independence was that they were perturbed by the rise of abolitionist sympathies in Britain.

    Comment by dearieme — August 13, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

  9. I thought the monuments to The Side That Lost are considered sign of nation’s maturity, homage to opponent’s bravery and sometimes courage, and as such – sign of reconciliation of the former enemies. It is what makes Western civilization superior to tribal barbarism of other parts of the world.

    Not so sure about the idea of building museums around such monuments. How many people (other than the affected) you know who willingly, of their own urge, go to Holocaust museums around the Europe and America – or museums of Irish Hunger, or numerous places associated with former official cult of Lenin in ex-USSR? Mayby “museums” should be taken in wider meaning, not strictly physical sense, not so much buildings of stone and mortar but as educational institutions.

    However, I’m appalled at the thought of endless statues of Lenin, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky etc left to lord over the “little people”. I think, the statues should remain – but pedestals removed. And short, factual account of their deeds should be added for a passerby to read and memorize.
    Can something like this be acceptable to descendants of Southern slaves? I don’t know.

    Comment by ETat — August 13, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

  10. There were essentially no slaves landed in the US after abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 by both US and Britain. Prior to that most landed in the US on British ships.

    Prior to secession about 80% of the cotton used in GB originated in the Confederate States. The Union blockade runners were British and were paid in cotton and so ammunition and weapons and war ships came to the south from Britain during the war. The confederate warship Alabama was constructed in Liverpool

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

  11. Pahoben
    Do you get your carer to write your comments?
    The South thought they could get British support because the cotton trade was so important. London said slavery was a more significant deal, so fvck Manchester. A recession followed, but Indian cotton blossomed.

    Comment by james — August 13, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

  12. Prof
    I can’t agree, though usually I do.
    A statue or name, whether it’s Nelson’s Column or Waterloo Station, may be an object of veneration. (Not Waterloo station to its millions of commuters.)
    But these things by definition are silent.
    Thousands of statues of Lenin and Stalin are better off melted down for the bronze. The Iraqis really enjoyed pulling down statues of Saddam.
    Better to read a book.

    Comment by james — August 13, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

  13. Funny do a search on Confederate uniform buttons and find most that are for sale were manufactured in….Great Britain. Enfield, Whtworth, Kerr etc-British manufactuted. In fact Russia’s Baltic fleet was mobilized to the US to protect the Union from a …British attack. Some claim that if Antietam had gone differently the British government intended to support the Confederacy officially and overtly rather than covertly.

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

  14. Try this, Pahoben

    Given that England was mostly on the Union side, and buttons were mostly made in Birmingham (about as far from the sea as you can get in UK) I suggest the most likely source of buttons was a) before the war b) from the North.
    As for Russia’s Baltic fleet… are you kidding? A generation later they tried it, and the whole caboodle went to the bottom of the Japan Sea.

    Comment by james — August 13, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

  15. I don’t understand why it’s impossible to remove the monuments from town squares and to keep the history alive at the same time. It’s been done all over central and eastern Europe. The only countries that did not do this (like Russia) are simply ambivalent about what these monuments represent. Do you really want to be sending the message that your town is ambivalent about slavery?

    Comment by aaa — August 13, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

  16. Phaoben, you are being a dick on this one. The Union purchased just as many weapons, buttons etc from the UK as the south did. All those Enfields the first Black regiments carried? British parliamentary papers show quite clearly there would NEVER be British government support for the Confederates as long as slavery was in place. And no. Between independence and 1807 most slaves arrived in the states on US registered ships.

    Comment by Andrew — August 14, 2017 @ 12:45 am

  17. “most notable making it possible for the left … are representative of all its political adversaries”.

    Ditto for the right. That’s obvious. Richard Spencer is already making sure this crisis doesn’t go to waste.

    Prof, it might be a measure of how far this blog has strayed from its original purpose that I half expected you to go Alex Jones batsh!t crazy on us and say it was the “liberal MSM” and the “elites” and “establishment” who intentionally planted a false flag. Hell, maybe Hilary drove that car.

    Comment by Job — August 14, 2017 @ 1:00 am

  18. But Robert E Lee was not that type of a founder

    No he wasn’t, and it pisses me off that Lee is portrayed by the media – including our own idiotic BBC – as some sort of pro-slavery fighter. As I’ve written here, he was nothing of the sort, and his motivation for fighting was in defence of his native Virginia.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 14, 2017 @ 4:03 am

  19. Richart Spencer … where have I seen this name? Ah, right:

    Comment by Ivan — August 14, 2017 @ 4:07 am

  20. Oops, I meant Richard Spencer, of course.

    Comment by Ivan — August 14, 2017 @ 4:09 am

  21. @James
    Materiel support for the Confederacy came from Britain. The Confederacy could not have maintained a war effort without that support. To say the British government was not aware of this support is incredulous. Do you really belive a warship could be constructed in Liverpool for the Confederacy and not be known to the British government. Do you really believe all of the output of a major arms manufacturer in London could be sent to the Confederacy without the knowledge of the British government. Confederate uniform buttons came from Britain during the war and including from manufacturers in London.

    It is a historical fact that the Tsar sent the Baltic Fleet to New York to support the Union. Russia was the only international power that supported the Union.

    There were 10MM slaves transported to the New World from Africa and Britain was the largest slave trading country in the 18th Century. Out of the 10MM about 400K landed in the US. Liverpool’s development in the 18th Century was predicated on the slave trade.

    My point was that Britain was the main customer for cotton from the southern US, actulaly set up the agrarian slave economy in the US, and supported the Confederacy materially during the war.

    Some excerpts from Wikipedia to follow that I consider an assemblage of historical facts-

    “In the 18th century, Britain became the world’s largest slave trader. Starting in 1777, the Patriots outlawed the importation of slaves state by state. They all acted to end the international trade but it was later reopened in South Carolina and Georgia. In 1807 Congress acted on President Jefferson’s advice and made importing slaves from abroad a federal crime.[44]

    While under the Constitution, Congress could not prohibit the import slave trade until 1808, the third Congress regulated it in the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited shipbuilding and outfitting for the trade. Subsequent acts in 1800 and 1803 sought to discourage the trade by limiting investment in import trading and prohibiting importation into states that had abolished slavery, which most in the North had by that time.[60] The final Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was adopted in 1807, effective in 1808. However, illegal importation of African slaves (smuggling) was common.[3]

    After Great Britain and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, British slave trade suppression activities began in 1808 through diplomatic efforts and formation of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron. From 1819, they were assisted by forces from the United States Navy. With the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the relationship with Britain was formalized, and the two countries jointly ran the Blockade of Africa with their navies.”

    Further from Wikipedia-

    “The London Armoury Company was a London arms manufactory that existed from 1856 until 1866. It was the major arms supplier to the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. The same company name was used during World War I to import arms from America such as the Colt New Service Revolver in 455 Eley.

    The Confederacy was now the London Armoury Company’s principal client and it manufactured and shipped more than 70,000 rifles and about 7,000 revolvers (out of a total production run of about 10,000) to the South. However these weapons had to pass through the Union blockade and the number that actually reached the Confederate army is unknown. Confederates acclaimed the Armoury’s guns as the best weapons made in Britain.[2]

    The London Armoury Company was almost completely dependent on sales to the Confederacy and survived for only a year after the end of the war, dissolving in the Spring of 1866- however, most of the gunsmiths and staff of the London Armoury Company went on to form London Small Arms Co. Ltd in that same year.[3]”

    Further from Wikipedia-

    “In 1863, during the American Civil War, most of the (Baltic) Fleet’s ocean-going ships, including the flagship “Alexander Nevsky” were sent to New York City. At the same time ten “Uragan”-class monitors based on an American-designed “Passaic” monitor were launched. Here it was the policy of the Czar and his government to show support for the Northern Union Army in the United States during their Civil War.”

    Comment by pahoben — August 14, 2017 @ 7:19 am

  22. Speaking of tribes – American Indian tribes had slaves.

    Anyway – kind of interesting how the Russians handle things.

    In Ukraine, the statues of Lenin were taken down in part because they continued to be used as propaganda pieces for Russian-led domination and subjugation of Ukraine. In one case, a golden toilet seat was put in place of the statue of Lenin – because the president who fled, Yanukovych, Putler’s pal, had a golden toilet seat in his luxurious mansion estate.

    In Estonia, when a WWII (oops, the Great Patriotic War) soldier monument was moved from a traffic circle, the Russians in the area used that event as a trigger to loot, rob and pillage liquor stores and other buildings.

    I guess we can all just forget the Ken Burns series on the Civil War, as absolutely stupid, inane political rhetoric get published all over by media idiots.

    Comment by elmer — August 14, 2017 @ 8:17 am

  23. @pahoben – we can all selectively quote wikipedia

    First paragraph on the construction of the CSS Alabama from the Wikipedia article –

    ‘Alabama was built in secrecy in 1862 by British shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Company,’ in north west England at their shipyards at Birkenhead, Wirral, opposite Liverpool. The construction was arranged by the Confederate agent Commander James Bulloch, who led the procurement of sorely needed ships for the fledgling Confederate States Navy. The contract was arranged through the Fraser Trenholm Company, a cotton broker in Liverpool with ties to the Confederacy. Under prevailing British neutrality law, it was possible to build a ship designed as an armed vessel, provided that it wasn’t actually armed until after it sailed into international waters. In light of this loophole, Alabama was built with reinforced decks for cannon emplacements, ammunition magazines below water-level, etc., but the builder stopped short of fitting her out with armaments or any “warlike equipment”.’

    From the Article about the Alabama Claims –

    ‘The Government had requested advice from the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who ruled that her release did not violate Britain’s neutrality, because she was not outfitted with guns at the time that they left British ports.[1]

    In the next year, Britain detained two ironclad warships constructed in Birkenhead and destined for the Confederacy. As a result of the uproar over the Alabama, Palmerston instructed the British Admiralty to tender an offer for the purchase of the ships. They had been bought by a go-between, Monsieur Bravay of Paris (who had ordered their construction as intermediary for Confederate principals).’

    Comment by Steve — August 14, 2017 @ 8:58 am

  24. I think you are correct for the most part. This post reminded me of what Radley Balko had written several weeks ago.

    Although, here in Baltimore, the Mayor raised the statues of Lee and Jackson in 1948. Baltimore and more generally Maryland was not a state in open rebellion. There were parts of the state that supported the Confederate cause, but clearly it was still part of the Union. The statues in Baltimore were clearly not a symbol of heroism, but purely a statement of racial solidarity for the white citizens of Baltimore. Fun note, that mayor was Thomas D’Alesandro, our very own House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s father.

    Comment by Matt C — August 14, 2017 @ 9:06 am

  25. Matt C, thanks for that (and that is indeed a fun note).

    Look at Baltimore today – a mess.☻

    Comment by elmer — August 14, 2017 @ 9:28 am

  26. Sirs,
    although being Dutch and member of a country that hugely profiteered in the slave trade, I would like to point out that, if there is a case where pure patriotism took precedence over anything else, it’s the case of Robert E. Lee. He was respected by friend and foe for his level-headed actions, well weighed judgement and moderate behaviour in all aspects of life. And he was certainly not (as has been stated on this forum) pro-slavery. At least this is the picture I got from reading the wonderful trilogy ‘Echoes of Glory’ published by Time/Life books.
    In case we want to deny that there are thousands of shades in between black and white, we have indeed to resort to iconoclasm, which, finally, is always an expression of frustration.
    The person who said that ‘statues like this should be preserved in museums’ was absolutely right. But even more, a tribute to this man who, after ample consideration, found that his patriotism outweighed (or should outweigh) other factors, is in order. Not because of his distinction as a general which seem to bee outstanding. But that is by the way. The real point is that he weighed all things he knew and did what he found was morally right.
    And that’s much more encompassing than’just’ taking a position over slavery, disgusting as it is in itself.

    Willem Hurkmans, Greece

    Comment by Willem Hurkmans — August 14, 2017 @ 10:15 am

  27. well, heck, if we’re going to go all PC on this whole Civil War thing, tear down all the Lincoln monuments.

    Lincoln’s views on slavery, race equality, and African American colonization are often intermixed.[89] During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln expressed his then view that he believed whites were superior to blacks.[89] Lincoln stated he was against miscegenation and allowing blacks to serve as jurors. While President, as the American Civil War progressed, Lincoln advocated or implemented anti-racist policies including the Emancipation Proclamation and limited suffrage for African Americans.

    Comment by elmer — August 14, 2017 @ 10:31 am

  28. “tear down all the Lincoln monuments”: well, if you want to put those old divisions to rest maybe you should ‘tear down’ all the monuments to politicians and generals on both sides.

    Comment by dearieme — August 14, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

  29. I agree also and good logical proposal elmer.

    Comment by pahoben — August 14, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

  30. As our esteemed prof would say:
    Slavery = insufficient labour to exploit resource
    Emigration = over supply of labour

    It’s just the demand supply curve, but with people in it, innit?

    Comment by james — August 14, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

  31. I don’t think the Esteemed Prof, or any economist, would agree with your analysis, James.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 14, 2017 @ 6:11 pm

  32. @James. You need to explain your remarks. On their face they are grotesquely wrong. I never have said anything remotely like that, nor would I. Ever. Putting such words in my mouth is a travesty or worse.

    Perhaps you are attempting some wry commentary. If so, here’s your chance to ‘splain: you tell me how my classical liberal views can be interpreted as you characterize them here. Specific examples are warranted to support such insinuations. I will withhold further comment until you do.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 14, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

  33. Jeez-Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar might fall under suspicion also. He strongly opposed Wilberforce and the Abolitionists.

    Comment by pahoben — August 15, 2017 @ 8:12 am

  34. Dear Professor
    I’m not making a political or moral remark.
    Slavery is as old as civilisation. Agriculture needs hands, whether it’s rice in China, sugar in the Caribbean, cotton in the South and these products were particularly labour intensive.
    Not enough labourers > slavery

    The other option is where there are too many workers, e.g. the Malthusian problem or the Irish dispora.

    I deplore the moral results as much as you do. But they were driven, not by church, government, ideology or whatever… But by economics and birth rate.

    Comment by james — August 15, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

  35. Prof
    To enlarge on my comment, ever since a class divide emerged (50,000 year ago or more) labour has been a unit of productivity.
    As such, it’s subject to the same laws of supply and demand as any other commodity.
    I can’t go back to Ancient Greece or the Deep South to tell them it’s wrong. Even though it is.
    I read a book a long time ago about ancient slavery where the author argued that Greece and Rome would have lasted longer with share-cropping, not slavery. Quite convincing but where’s the data? We don’t call it share-cropping any more, but renting your land to a farmer amounts to the same thing.
    I do hope today’s wage slaves get differential pay. I’d hate to see a proper economics professor earning less than a counsellor in Grievance Studies. And if you got paid the same for heart surgery as for filling holes in the road, no one would bother with university.

    Comment by james — August 15, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

  36. well, son of a gun, if this don’t beat all

    In Fremont, Washington, there is a statue to a thug, a mass murderer, an oppressor – Lenin. Notice the way these articles depict it – oh, tee hee, tee hee, that’s just quirky Fremont.

    Wonder what the idiot antifas/BLM/lefties have to say about that? Probably nothing – because they don’t know history, and seek to replace history with their own fantasy.

    Comment by elmer — August 15, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

  37. @james. Thank you for explaining.

    IMO slavery and other less severe forms of unfree labor (e.g., serfdom, in its various manifestations) are means of extracting rents through the employment of force. These institutions are effectively forms of taxation that overcome the disincentive effects of other forms of taxation by forcing the amount of input to be greater than would be supplied voluntarily, given the level of compensation: t. They are, in a way, the use of force to overcome the Laffer Curve. Imposition of a tax, without constraining the amount of labor supplied, leads a free (but taxed) laborer to exert less effort: this effect is particularly for particularly grueling forms of labor, such as mining (a major slave labor industry in Classical times) and plantation agriculture, especially sugar production. By compelling effort, and extracting output above subsistence level, the slave owner earns a rent (that is capitalized in the price of the slave).

    Mancur Olson’s theory of Stalinism basically makes the same argument: Stalin accumulated capital by using coercion to force labor to exert more effort than it would have under any scheme of taxation combined with free choice of effort. Labor was paid subsistence wages, and the state captured basically the entire area under the marginal productivity of labor curve net of the cost of subsistence.

    Historically, some forms of coercive labor are actually more common when labor is relatively abundant, not scarce, and unfree institutions weaken when labor is short. For example, the severity of serfdom eased substantially after the Black Death, which led to a sharp decline in the labor/land ratio: landowners/nobles competed for scarce labor in part by allowing serfs to retain more of their output. Conversely, population growth and Malthusian pressures during Medieval times often resulted in more stringent labor conditions. North and Thomas (1973) is a good source on this.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 15, 2017 @ 6:24 pm

  38. statue of Lenin in New York City

    oh, look – it’s “quirky”

    it’s even “beloved”

    Comment by elmer — August 15, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

  39. Dear Prof
    You’re much more brainier than I am.
    But look at it from the slave’s p o v.
    Do as little work as possible, steal the small crop.
    Laffer curve for a slave is around zero.
    As a further controversy:
    Should freeholders rent at a fixed rate (whether a farm, an office or a shop) or, given that these businesses are now subject to tax inspection, should they take a share of the profit? A bit like share-cropping, then.
    And investors in the NYSE, are they not share croppers?

    Your remark
    Historically, some forms of coercive labor are actually more common when labor is relatively abundant, not scarce,

    I can see where this might come from (Egyptian pyramids, seasonal variation?) but can you point to any long term evidence for this view?

    Comment by james — August 15, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

  40. @james-That’s why coercion and monitoring are necessary to extract surplus from the slave. When the costs of coercion and monitoring are sufficiently high, slavery doesn’t pay. Monitoring and coercion costs are lowest for production processes involving gang labor, such as cotton or sugar production, or mining.

    With regards to share cropping, there is an extensive literature on this. Share cropping has long been considered inefficient because the cropper does not obtain 100 pct of his marginal product, which reduces his incentive to work. However, share cropping has been a persistent form of contracting, and continues to exist today, and not in the traditional setting (e.g., the South). Risk sharing and providing incentives to land owners to make improvements are reasons to share crop, rather than to have pure cash rent. So can asymmetric information about land quality. Various information and incentive issues can make share cropping efficient.

    And yes, the public corporation reflects similar trade-offs. The corporate form facilitates separation of ownership and control. The upside of that is better risk sharing through diversification. The downside is weaker incentives for management.

    The best long-term evidence is from Medieval Europe, where shocks to population over periods of centuries led to variations in restrictions on labor. Again, I recommend North & Thomas.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 15, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

  41. @james

    “Do as little work as possible, steal the small crop”

    You just described the USSR and much of what remains after its nominal collapse.

    The strong incentive to exert effort under Stalin was that you would be sent to the the smaller, harsher GULAG from the minimal security USSR.

    As this incentive system gradually collapsed (because the slave owners strived to minimize the risks inherent in it), so did the USSR (but not the slave-owner/slave behavioural models). Laffer curve kicked in, more or less.

    That’s why Putin is gradually restoring Stalinism: there is basically no other way to keep those rents flowing. Well, theoretically he can abolish slavery, but that won’t work in Russia.

    Comment by Ivan — August 17, 2017 @ 11:46 pm

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