A Good Word for Slavery
Jude Wanniski
April 14, 1998


Memo To: William F Buckley, Jr.
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Bob Novak and Slavery

Bob Novak seems to have gotten himself into trouble with the politically correct by putting a positive spin on the enslavement of Africans in America. Your column last week in the New York Post, “Can We Talk of Slavery,” gingerly tried to defend his attempt to see something good come out of evil. I of course agree with you and think Novak is not only right, on both secular and spiritual grounds, but that he has performed a service by opening this discussion at this time. As a Christian, Bill, I know you easily see that on spiritual grounds there is never a problem in extracting some good out of the worst evil. Suppose Pontius Pilate had decided to give Jesus a get-out-of-jail-free card and there had been no crucifixion? We are almost compelled to say that the crucifixion produced more good than the evil of its inherent injustice, are we not? If God permitted his only begotten Son to die on the cross, in expiation of the sins of mankind, how can we ever question His compassion in permitting the pain and suffering of the rest of us? A religious leader I know recently told me that God does not “waste anything.”

In His divine plan, we not only must look for the good that flowed from slavery, but from wars and plagues. Even the Holocaust, you note, brought forth the state of Israel and a huge diminution in the anti-Semitism that prevailed throughout Christendom. At Easter mass Sunday, we were again reminded that after death comes life, in a new form. This does not mean that slavery was not evil or that the Holocaust was anything but evil to the nth degree. It means that we have a responsibility to look back and try to understand the flow of human history, from its wellsprings to the present. Who was it that said we should not argue with history?

The secular arguments in support of Bob Novak’s comments are a bit complicated, involving economic considerations. What Novak meant was exactly the opposite of what his critics supposed. He simply meant that we should appreciate that we have in our national mix the contributions of African culture as it has evolved over the centuries. There may be Americans who curse slavery because it brought Africans here and here they are and wouldn’t it be nice if they weren’t? This was on the mind of practically every President through the 19th century, with William McKinley, elected in 1900, perhaps the first to think of more hopeful relationships between the races. Ah, but wouldn’t they be in our midst anyway, even without slavery? That’s hard to imagine, I think you’d agree. There were about 15 million slaves who came to the hemisphere between the 16th century and the end of the 19th, when they were still arriving in Brazil and Cuba. Most were men. The best estimates are there were 4.5 million in 1860. If not for slavery, it’s not likely there would have been more than a few hundred blacks arrive here prior to the 20th century. Without black women, they would have been absorbed into the general population. The black population today could easily be in six figures or below.

Europeans came over as indentured servants, which means creditors would advance them the cost of passage and sustenance in the New World. Yes, Chinese came in great numbers to build the railroads, but they were believed to be “civilized,” while Africans were not. The Chinese had been building vast public works projects for thousands of years and were sufficiently educated to be able to do the railroad work. There’s reason to believe most plantation slaves lived better than the Chinese railroad workers, who submitted to the most arduous working conditions knowing they would eventually work off their indenture. Of course, some significant fraction were treated abysmally. Yet by 1865, as hard as it was for the freedmen to adjust to freedom, they had enough human capital to do it. What this boils down to, I think, is that it seems highly unlikely that if it were not for slavery, the western hemisphere would be white.

The economics of slavery are seldom discussed in polite society, but the fact is that slavery was an improvement in the history of civilization, an advance on starvation. Even today, in tribal regions of sub-Sahara Africa, the contest over calories leaves two options: war or slavery. The most successful form of slavery as an economic institution was that practiced in the Ottoman Empire, which developed a form of meritocracy among men who were technically “owned” by the nobles. We routinely now discuss the concept of “human capital,” by which we mean the combination of human bone and sinew with education or talent. Under population pressures, societies would permit infanticide, generally of females, but when clashes of populations took place in a contest for limited space, the alternative to “take no prisoners” was slavery.

During periods of economic expansion built on technological or political breakthroughs, societies would free slaves as they became uneconomic. In the reign of Caesar Augustus, taxes were lowered by broadening the tax base, and the government committed to a constant gold weight to Rome’s money. The economic boom was such that Augustus worried that slave owners were freeing their slaves more rapidly than the economy could absorb them, and had laws passed that limited manumissions to a certain number a year. That is, a slave owner could liberate his slaves and buy the specialized labor they represented in the marketplace at lower wages.

For the United States now to be truly a nation of nations, representing all classifications of races, religions and ethnicities, the enslavement of Africans had to exist. Would the world have been better off today if the enslavement of Africans did not exist? Looking backwards, the accounting would be difficult, because it isn’t possible to reckon how many of the 15 million brought here in chains would have died through warfare, starvation or disease -- including that brought to Africa by Europeans. Going forward, we can say that as the 35 million black Americans have closed most of the gap in human capital that existed 400 years ago, there is now a sizeable constituency here advocating the development of Africa. President Clinton would not have spent ten days in Africa in recent weeks if it were not to play to the political gallery here at home, not only the black base of the Democratic Party, but also to the rest of the American family, which knows that a debt eventually has to be paid to that dark continent.

P.S. The religious leader who told me that God never wastes anything was Louis Farrakhan, who also believes there should be no apologies for any history by people who did not live it. There are injustices being committed every day by man against man, which should be confronted to repair past injustice. Whites have a responsibility to do what they can to repair the damage done by their white forebears. Christians have a responsibility to repair the damage done by anti-Semitism, but not at the expense of others who are neither Christian nor Jew.