Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Could the US have bought its way out of the Civil War? ... Revisited for today's world.

A couple years ago, when I was blogging the first time around, there was a flurry of discussion across the web about whether the US could and should have avoided the Civil War by having the federal government simply buy the freedom of all the slaves.

The gist of the detailed argument runs that since the total cost of the Civil War exceeded the average market price of a slave times the number of slaves existing in 1860, it would have been advisable and possible (at least in hindsight) for the government to have followed the course of buying the slaves on the free market, thus averting the coming fight over them. (Even Brad Delong and Alex Tabarrok presented this case.)

My own two bits thrown in the pool was that even in hindsight an action has to be possible to be plausible, and the "buy the slaves" strategy was simply impossible for reasons both political and economic....

1) Nobody at the time imagined that any coming conflict would be anywhere near as costly as it would prove to be, so nobody would have ever considered paying any comparable price to avoid it. (As in fact nobody did.)

2) In making southern slave-owners whole upon the sale of their slaves (else they wouldn't voluntarily sell in the market) the entire net cost of avoiding the war, comparable to that of the war itself, would have fallen on the North. It's, well, unlikely that northerners would have happily taken that immense cost upon themselves to keep southerners whole as a reward for their vice.

3) The cost of buying all the slaves would have been far higher than the amount estimated by multiplying the average market price of a slave by their number. Market price is that of the marginal item for sale on the market. Owners would sell their least valuable slaves first then retain their more valuable slaves waiting for higher prices. That is, as per the law of supply and demand, as the number of slaves declined their market price would shoot up -- making the total cost of buying them all impossibly high.

4) The government's program of buying all slaves would make it very profitable for southerners to buy and import slaves from nearby Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean areas, for resale northward at a gain, creating a whole new profitable slaving industry. That would be illegal, of course, but how could the government stop it?

Why am I repeating all this arcana from years gone bye now?

Because slavery still exists today, and well-intended "slave redemption programs" are seeking to buy the freedom of slaves today, and are running exactly into problems #3 & #4.
"We've made slavery more profitable than narcotics," Jacobson [former slave redeemer] says. Recently I asked Manase Lomole Waya, who runs Humanitarian Assistance for South Sudan, a group based in Nairobi, what he thought about slave-redemption efforts. "We welcome them for exposing the agony of our people to the world," he said. "That part is good. But giving the money to the slave traders only encourages the trade. It is wrong and must stop. Where does the money go? It goes to the raiders to buy more guns, raid more villages, put more shillings in their pockets. It is a vicious circle." Slave redeemers enrich every element of the trade: raiders, owners, and traders... [Atlantic]
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, early trips of slave redemption, where charities bought the freedom of slaves, were successful in freeing thousands of slaves. [But] later a man came to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army and confessed to having a part in defrauding these organizations. According to CSW, Dr. Samson Kwaje says he doubts that even 5% of the supposedly freed people were in fact slaves, and that many were instructed in how to act and what stories to tell...'
Buying people out of slavery at market prices doesn't work today, and it wouldn't have worked in 1860. Some problems you just have to fix the hard way.