Thursday, December 14, 2017

Clegg on Capitalism and Slavery

I just ran across John Clegg’s  "Credit Market Discipline and Capitalist Slavery in Antebellum South Carolina." Social Science History (2017): 1-34. Clegg got a lot of attention a couple of years ago for "Capitalism and Slavery." in which he criticized the approach of New Historians of Capitalism, especially Edward Baptist. Clegg’s critique was based in part on work that he had done on the role of credit among slaveholders in South Carolina, and that work is presented more fully in this new paper.

Clegg follows Robert Brenner in terms of focusing on competition for the means of production as the driving force behind capitalist growth. Capitalists are forced to increase productivity to survive as capitalists. Clegg’s twist is to add the need to use credit to finance the purchase as land and slaves as the mechanism that drove this competition in the South. He has interesting information about the development of debtor creditor law and the extent to which slaveholders experienced foreclosure.

Clegg explains that
I claim that the ability of creditors to seize the land and slaves of insolvent debtors compelled slave owners to specialize for the market and increase productivity. It did so because most slave owners were in debt, and those who failed to repay their debts at the going rate would end up losing their land and slaves, and thus cease to be slave owners.

He concludes that
if the debt constraint I am describing was operative, then identifiably capitalist outcomes—market orientation, profit maximizing, technical innovation—are in an important sense independent of mentality. This is because slave owners who were not interested in specializing for the market, maximizing profit or adopting cost-reducing innovations would end up losing their slaves to those who were. On this view, capitalist patterns of behavior can be the unintended consequence of competitive selection operating via credit markets

That description made me think of Armen Alchian’s Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory, which made essentially the same argument in defense of economic theory.  I should also mention John Nye’s "Lucky fools and cautious businessmen: On entrepreneurship and the measurement of entrepreneurial failure." The Vital One: Essays in Honor of Jonathan RT Hughes. Research in Economic History 6 (1991): 131-52 which makes a similar sort of evolutionary argument regarding entrepreneurship. 

P.S. If you weren't paying attention when Clegg's first paper came out you might to check out the Junto for some of the discussion it generated.

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