I'm rereading Robert Fogel's titanic work on slavery, Time on the Cross. The work was incredibly controversial when it came out, because it completely overturned a lot of the standard economic claims about slavery. Here's the list from the first chapter of the revisions it made to the standard model:
1. Slavery was not a system irrationally kept in existence by plantation owners who failed to perceive or were indifferent to their best economic interests. The purhcase of a slave was generally a highly profitable investment which yielded rates of return that compared favorably with the most outstanding investment opportunies in manufacturing.
2. The slave system was not economically moribund on the eve of the Civil War. There is no evidence that economic forces alone would have soon brought slavery to an end without the necessity of a war or some orther form of political intervention. Quite the contrary; as the Civil War approached, slavery as an economic system was never stronger and the trend was toward even further entrenchment.
3. Slaveowners were not becoming pessimistic about the future of their system during the decade that preceded the Civil War. The rise of the secessionist movement coincided with a wage of optimism. On the eve of the Civil War, slaveholders anticipated an era of unprecedented prosperity.
4. Slave agriculture was not inefficient compared with free agriculture. Economies of large-scale operation, effective management, and intensive utilization of labor and capital made southern slave agriculture 35 percent more efficient than the northern system of factory farming.
5. The typical slave field hand was not lazy, inept, and unproductive. On average he was harder-working and more efficient than his white counterpart.
6. The course of slavery in the cities does not prove that slavery was incompatible with an industrial system or that slaves were unable to cope with an industrial regimen. Slaves employed in industry compared favorably with free workers in diligence and efficiency. Far from declining, the demand for slaves was actually increasing more rapidly in urban areas than in the countryside.
7. The belief that slave-breeding, sexual exploitation, and promiscuity destroyed the black family is a myt. The family was the basic unit of social organization under slavery. It was to the economic interest of planters to encourage the stability of slave families and most of them did so. Most slave sales were either of whole families or of individuals who were at an age when it would be normal for them to have left the family.
8. The material (not psychological) conditions of the lives of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers. This is not to say that they were good by modern standards. It merely emphasizes the hard lot of all workers, free or slave, during the first half of the nineteenth century.
9. Slaves were exploited in the sense that part of the income which they produced was expropriated by their owners. However, the rate of expropriation was much lower than has generally been presumed. Over the course of his lifetime, the typical slave field hand received about 90% of the income he produced.
10. Far from stagnating, the economy of the south grew quite rapidly. Between 1840 and 186, per capita income increased more rapidly in teh South than in th rest of the nation. By 1860 the South attained a level of per caita income which was high by the standard of the time. Indeed, a country as advanced as Italy did not achieve the same level of per-capita income until the eve of World War II.
As you can see, there was something in there for everyone to get angry about, and they did. The debates are still going on, though the work has held up remarkably well.
I bring this up for a few reasons. First, everyone should read the book. Second, it reminded me of the definitional problems of feminism.
Bear with me. Most traditional feminists would say that being pro-life is an automatic disqualifier for calling yourself a feminist. I find this argument dramatically uncompelling. Fetal personhood is a quasi-empirical value judgement that should not be made for instrumental reasons--we can't decide that six year old children aren't persons simply because this would possibly make it easier to advance female equality.
What Fogel brings to mind is that the argument about the personhood of slaves was a similar sort of instrumental argument. Recognizing their personhood would in fact have destroyed a highly functioning economic system; therefore, many people advanced the argument that slaves couldn't be persons. This is rubbish.
To be sure, it's obvious to me that slaves are persons, while I find the personhood of fetuses deeply problematic. But I don't think it's facially ludicrous to declare that they are persons. To me that means that "Feminists for Life" cannot, as I've heard declared, be an oxymoron; it seems perfectly possible to embrace all the other tenets of whatever you want to define as feminism, and also regretfully believe that since fetuses are persons, we cannot embrace this particular means of women's liberation.
The third thought is sort of related: there's a lot of instrumentalism in arguments about the Civil War in some libertarian circles. The Civil War, in my humble opinion, makes it impossible to jointly hold two beliefs dear to libertarian hearts:
1) No country should ever wage aggressive war
2) States (or for that matter, smaller geographic units) have the right to secede from the polity if it stops meeting their needs.
The South posed no immediate military threat to the North; they wanted to leave the Union, not invade it. If you don't think that, say, Saddam's awful behavior posed a valid moral reason to invade*, then it's hard to make an argument that we had a right to invade to end slavery. Even a prudential argument doesn't work very well on this metric--we killed more confederates than Iraqis both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, and the south was far more economically devastated by the war than Iraq will have been.
I reject proposition one and say that aggressive wars can be justified on humanitarian grounds. Prudentially, they probably rarely work, but as a matter of moral theory, okay, it was worth having the Civil War to get rid of slavery. Yes, even if we did it under the penumbra of "preserving the union" rather than "ending slavery".
Others bite the bullet and say, okay, we didn't have the right to invade the South. This is logically consistent, but it leaves you with the problem of saying that aggressive wars are worse than slavery. There is thus a largish cottage industry among those who hold this view in claiming that slavery would have ended anyway.
Time on the Cross is a pretty thorough refutation of this belief. Slavery was not an economically inefficient institution that was withering away. It's doubtful that we could have had our moral cake and eaten it too. Certainly, the book makes it clear to me that the very least we could have hoped for was decades more of slavery.
*(I am leaving aside the now-obvious, and arguably then-obvious, fact that the war was prudentially undesireable, and addressing only the belief that aggressive wars are definitionally morally illegitimate.)