Notes From Babel

The Man on the Right Bank and the Man on the Left Bank

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It is a shame that the Civil War, indeed most of the clashes between antebellum North and South, has been all but completely reduced to a glorified race riot in contemporary understanding.  This, despite the well-documented historical fact that antebellum Northerners were probably more “racist” than their Southern contemporaries—slavery was outlawed in the North because it was not economically feasible, not because of any particularly wellspring of moral enlightenment.

In this regard, antebellum America offers a positively unique insight into the effects of subjugation and totalitarian planning—i.e., progressivism—in economic life.  The so-called “racial inferiority” of the blacks was a thinly veiled justification to experiment with planned economies in which workers were given relative stability and security in exchange for choice over the distribution of their services and incentive to devote their mental energies to improving the output of their labor.   In other words, take away the physical brutality the slaves endured, and we are left with an early example of a Great Society.

In Democracy in America, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed the result of this early example of American progressivist economic planning in Kentucky, as juxtaposed with the vibrant free market across the river in Ohio.  It can be seen that the social planning imposed on the unwilling worker has little to do with that worker’s race—it has the same effect whether that worker is an antebellum black slave or a modern would-be state ward:

The traveler who, placed in the middle of the Ohio, allows himself to be carried along by the current to the mouth of the river in the Mississippi, therefore, navigates so to speak between freedom and servitude; and he has only to cast glances around himself to judge in an instant which is more favorable to humanity.

On the left bank of the river, the population is sparse; from time to time one perceives a troop of slaves running through half-wild fields with an insouciant air; the primitive forest constantly reappears; one would say that society is asleep; man seems idle, nature offers the image of activity and of life.

From the right bank, on the contrary, rises a confused noise that proclaims from afar the presence of industry; rich harvests cover the fields; elegant dwellings announce the taste and hte care of the laborer; on all sides comfort reveals itself; man appears rich and content: he works.

. . . .

It is true that in Kentucky, masters make slaves work without being obliged to pay them, but they receive little fruit from their efforts, while the money that they would give to free workers would be recovered with interest from the value of their labors.

The free worker is paid, but he acts more quickly than the slave, and rapidity of execution is one of the great elements of economy.  The white sells his assistance, but one buys it only when it is useful; the black has nothing to claim as the price of his services, but one is obliged to nourish him at all times; one must sustain him in his old age as in his mature age, in his sterile childhood as during the fruitful years of his youth, through sickness as in health.  Thus, only by paying does one obtain the work of these two men: the free worker receives a wage; the slave an education, food, care, clothing; the money that the master spends to keep the slave is drained little by little and in detail; one hardly perceives it: the wage that one gives to the worker is delivered in one stroke, and it seems to enrich only the one who receives it; but in reality the slave has cost more than the free man and his work has been less productive.

The influence of slavery extends further still; it penetrates to the very soul of the master and impresses a particular direction on his ideas and his tastes.

On the two banks of the Ohio, nature has given man an enterprising and energetic character; but on each side of the river he makes a different use of this common quality.

The white on the right bank, obliged to live by his own efforts, has placed in material well-being the principal goal of his existence; and as the country that he inhabits presents inexhaustible resources to his industry and offers ever renewed enticements to his activity, his ardor for acquiring has surpassed the ordinary bounds of human cupidity: tormented by the desire for wealth, one sees him enter boldly onto all the paths that fortune opens to him; be becomes indiscriminately a sailor, a pioneer, a manufacturer, a farmer, supporting the work or dangers attached to these different professions with equal constancy; there is something marvelous in the resources of his genius and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.

The American on the left bank scorns not only work, but all the undertakings that work makes successful; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost a part of its worth in his eyes; he pursues fortune less than agitation and pleasure, and he applies in this direction the energy that his neighbor deploys elsewhere; he passionately loves hunting and war; he pleases himself with the most violent exercises of the body; the use of arms is familiar to him, and from his childhood he has learned to stake his life in single combat.  Slavery, therefore, not only prevents whites from making a fortune; it diverts them from wanting it.

Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Univ. Chicago Press, 2002  (Mansfield and Winthrop, eds.) at 331-33 (emphasis added).


Written by Tim Kowal

October 31, 2009 at 2:19 pm

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  1. […] since my second year of law school.  Prompted a lot of blog posts: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and my favorite one […]

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