One idea that will not die is the notion that Lincoln could have purchased the slaves freedom and thus avoided the Civil War. This argument ignores many factors. Among them: the fact that slavemasters actually liked being slavemasters and believe their system to be a "positive good." The fact that slavery was a social institution that granted benefits beyond hard cash. The fact that Lincoln tried compensated emancipation in Delaware and was rebuffed. The fact that no state was eager to have a large portion of black free people within its borders. But more than anything the argument ignores the fact that compensated emancipation was not economically possible. At all.
Rather then going through this again, I am reposting something I wrote when Ron Paul was arguing that compensated emancipation somehow would have prevented the Civil War. I do this with some frustration. More than anything, the Civil War has taught me that people often believe what they perceive it to be in their interest to believe. The facts of the Civil War are not mysterious to us. But they are, evidently, too brutal for of us to take. And so we find ourselves into a soloutionism premised on the idea that we are smarter than our forefathers. We are not. The Civil War is a fact. It happened for actual reasons. Those reasons do not change because they make us uncomfortable, nor because we believe in the magic of intellectual cowardice.
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
Slavery is an evil to the slave, by depriving nearly three millions of men of the best gift of God to man -- liberty. I stop here -- this is enough of itself to give us a full anticipation of the long catalogue of human woe, and physical and intel- lectual and moral abasement which follows in the wake of Slavery. Slavery is an evil to the master. It is utterly subservient of the Christian religion. It violates the great law upon which that religion is based, and on account of which it vaunts its preemi- nence.
Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good--a positive good.
Ron Paul's argument is essentially that it would have been better for the government to bail out slave-holders by effecting a mass purchase of blacks. This would have saved a lot of money, as well as the lives and limbs of a lot of white people. I do not believe that saving lives and limbs of any people--white or black--to be a disreputable goal. But I refuse to lose sight of the fact that slavery was, itself, war. And the lives and limbs of black people were perpetually at stake for centuries. From 1860 to 1865 the rest of the country received a concentrated dose of that medicine which black people had been made to quaff for over two and a half centuries. It is now a century and a half later, but still in some corners of white America it is fashionable to remain embittered.
One "economic" solution to the slave problem would be for those who objected to slavery to "buy out" the economic interest of Southern slaveholders. Under such a scheme, the federal government would purchase slaves. A major problem here was that the costs of such a scheme would have been enormous. Claudia Goldin estimates that the cost of having the government buy all the slaves in the United States in 1860, would be about $2.7 billion (1973: 85, Table 1). Obviously, such a large sum could not be paid all at once. Yet even if the payments were spread over 25 years, the annual costs of such a scheme would involve a tripling of federal government outlays (Ransom and Sutch 1990: 39-42)! The costs could be reduced substantially if instead of freeing all the slaves at once, children were left in bondage until the age of 18 or 21 (Goldin 1973:85). Yet there would remain the problem of how even those reduced costs could be distributed among various groups in the population. The cost of any "compensated" emancipation scheme was so high that even those who wished to eliminate slavery were unwilling to pay for a "buyout" of those who owned slaves.
[A]s a slaveowner, you know that an abolitionist government values slaves more than you. In particular, they don't have a reason to pay lower prices as they buy more slaves. Therefore, the market in slaves breaks down immediately upon the beginning of compensated emancipation. Suddenly, there's a big buyer who will keep on buying. Just like a bond trader, why would you charge a big buyer the liquid market price if you know he's not going to stop buying? You should charge him the highest value of the last slave owned by any slaveowner, at the very least.This is the theory of the cartel in the economics of industrial organisation. The social apparatus of a slaveholding society should minimise the number of defections from this cartel by easy sellers; in particular, they would fear that one's status would fall if one chooses money while one's neighbours choose to continue owning human beings. Sellers now have the market power; the price rises as a result.A government which buys slaves, with the explicit intent to buy all slaves, is in a poor bargaining position versus slaveowners.. Signalling your intention to buy up all the supply of a commodity on the market increases the price you'll pay, whether that be bonds or human beings.