The Dumbest Slaveholders

Before the abolition of chattel slavery, smart slaveholders provided adequate food, clothing, shelter and healthcare for their slaves, did not physically or sexually abuse them, hosted or permitted dances, jubilation and fun holidays, judged them fairly, and usually encouraged spirituality. None of these accommodations eliminated the intrinsic injustice of chattel slavery, but kind treatment reduced runaway attempts, improved economic productivity, fostered large slave families and created a loyalty which is difficult for modern people to believe. Respectable slaveholders reproached cruel slaveholders by saying they “did not use their people well.” It was truly in the slaveholders’ interests to treat slaves well, although as Charles Dickens said in this context, it is not in a man’s interest to get drunk, steal, gamble and indulge in vices, but men still did those things, and cruelty and the abuse of irresponsible power were bad passions of human nature.

The profit motive usually resulted in antebellum slaveholders treating their slaves well and shielding them from alcohol, violence, gambling and other vices. Before 1861, African Americans were much less likely to commit serious crimes than white people. Former slaves most commonly remembered the plantation mistress nursing them back to health when they were ill.

We may never know the percentage of slaveholders who were cruel and stupid. According to former slaves, alcoholic masters were the worst, followed probably by mentally ill slaveholders. Cruel slaveholders were more frequently put out of business or retarded in their financial progress.

To this day, many Southerners console themselves about slavery by observing the fairly clear connection between kind or at least fair treatment and antebellum commercial success. One of the least appreciated aspects of antebellum slavery was full employment among African Americans. Able-bodied slaves invariably worked hard, and this was not all bad for them. Slaves stayed in superb physical condition, and many remembered very little sickness on the plantation.

Okay, fast-forward 150 years: Many now decry New Age slavery and the New Jim Crow, our modern American regimes that incarcerate 1,000,000 African Americans and condemn many more ex-felons to severe discrimination in employment, government benefits, educational opportunities and marriage prospects. While the comparison between antebellum slavery and modern incarceration is not a perfect one, remarkable similarities justify close examination. Left-wing thinkers most often make this comparison, but the analogy reveals even more when viewed from a conservative, business-oriented perspective. When viewed from the perspective of one legally entitled to the labor of either slaves or prisoners, condemnation of modern American correctional systems on the basis of stupidity is inevitable. American citizens in the form of the U.S. government now own 2,300,000 slaves and are entitled to 100% of their labor, without pay if necessary or desirable. Unfortunately, the dumbest slaveholders of all time are modern American citizens, taxpayers and voters.

In modern times, slaves don’t make money, but instead cost slaveholders about $50,000 per prisoner per year. The direct expenditures per prisoner are only about $25,000 per prisoner per year, but the lost opportunity costs, social consequences, increased welfare costs and total economic impact may run in the neighborhood of twice the direct outlays. In other words, it costs us from $57,500,000,000 in direct costs to $115,000,000,000 in total costs every year so that the average American prisoner can loaf or sleep most of the day, plan gang activities, suffer, contract diseases, worry, get lonely, despair and too often commit suicide. These prodigious social and financial costs are not a necessary consequence of mass incarceration. Before special interests passed laws against prison industries, prisons made money. One famous prison in New York created profits four times greater than the cost of running the entire institution.

Southern slaveholders usually knew their slaves well; modern slaveholders do not want to see their slaves. Antebellum slaves invariably worked hard and boosted economic production; New Age slaves usually don’t work and are a drag on the entire American economy. Slaves usually stayed out of trouble; prisoners often stay in trouble. Slaves often respected or even loved their owners; prisoners never do. All slaves were legally free by 1865; very many New Age slaves of all races return to slavery after their first emancipation. Slaves were sometimes sold out of their families; New Age slaves are always sold out of their families when they go to prison. Some former slaves looked back with nostalgia on their lives as slaves; no ex-convicts do. Slaves raised families during slavery; New Age slaves cannot raise families. A slave child had a much better chance of growing up in an intact two-parent family than African American children today.

When we Americans seek the dumbest slaveholders, we will find ourselves. Prisoners deserve punishment, but we don’t.