The new book by Edward Baptist The Half Has Never Been Told has been getting a lot of attention on the internet. More precisely, a review of the book in The Economist has been getting a lot of attention.
Amid all the attention to the Economist’s ridiculous review, the book itself has been somewhat neglected.
I have not read the entire book. I have read the parts related to the areas that I am most familiar with. What I have read I do not like. On page 129 he writes that “during the late antebellum years, northern travelers insisted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, a point of dogma that most historians and economists have accepted.” The footnote for this statement does not actually provide any evidence to support, which is not surprising since you would be hard pressed to find an economic historian who does accept it. Actually, there have been surveys of economic historians that show that more than two-thirds would agree that slave agriculture was efficient relative to non-slave agriculture. It has been more than a half century since Conrad and Meyer showed that investment in slaves had a return comparable to other potential investments. As best I can tell Baptist does not even cite Conrad and Meyer. Fogel and Engerman long ago argued that slave agriculture was as dynamic a version of capitalism as existed anywhere in the United States. In awarding the Nobel Prize to Fogel in 1993, the Nobel committee stated that “Fogel showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective, unprofitable and pre-capitalist organization was incorrect. The institution did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity, had been economically efficient.” How can any of this be reconciled with the claim that most economists and historians and economists accept the dogma that slave labor was less efficient?
To say that Baptist is knocking down a straw man would be an injustice to straw men.
He suggests that pretty much everyone has failed to notice that productivity increased on cotton plantations, but his primary evidence for this is from Olmstead and Rhode, and, for some reason, he cites their NBER working paper, even though the paper was published in the Journal of Economic History six years ago. He also rejects Olmstead and Rhode’s explanation for the productivity increase, which emphasizes improvement in cotton plants, but he does not address the evidence that they provided to support of this conclusion (productivity increased much more in areas that grew varieties of cotton for which new seeds were being developed than it did in areas where new varieties were not grown). Contrary to what he seems to suggest Olmstead and Rhode did not simply assume that it must have been technological change that caused productivity to increase. They went to considerable effort to rule out other explanations.
This is not nitpicking. These arguments are at the center of the book. Baptist consistently misrepresents or ignores the contributions of others, even when it is clear that he is familiar with their work. The false claims about the book’s contributions make it difficult to discern if there are any legitimate contributions.
By the way, if you are looking to read a good recent book about slavery in the United States, I would suggest Kathleen Hilliard’s Masters,Slaves and Exchange.