Capital Ideas Blog

Does morality trump economics?

By Nathaniel Grotte

From: Blog

Chicago Booth professor and Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel died June 11, leaving a vast legacy of scholarship, including 1974’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (with Stanley L. Engerman). A new poll from Chicago Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) finds that the majority of economic experts surveyed agree with that book’s main thesis: the institution of American slavery was thriving on the eve of the Civil War, and that social and political pressure were essential to the abolitionists’ success.

Fogel rose to academic prominence on the strength of his early work on the impact of railroads on the American economy, but Time on the Cross made him a popular sensation, with an appearance on the Today show and lengthy features in Time, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times.

In a relatively slim, nontechnical volume based on quantitative analysis of voluminous amounts of plantation records, Fogel and Engerman challenged decades of received wisdom that said slavery was an economically inefficient system doomed to collapse. Instead, they found that slaves were efficient and hard working, and that they enjoyed material conditions that were comparable to those of free laborers of the period.

A fierce debate ensued over the next two years, with Southern historians and colleagues fiercely attacking Fogel and Engerman for being sloppy scholars and slavery apologists. They addressed the former accusation by meticulously revisiting their data to address their critics’ concerns, but the latter, more sensational charge proved harder to shake, despite pains to make a distinction between empiricism and endorsement of a reprehensive practice.

As Fogel put it at a press conference following the announcement of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics: “It would be a nice world if efficient processes were moral. I don’t think that’s been the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is such a thing as morality, and morality is higher than economics.”

Today, quantitative analysis of data is a cornerstone of economic history, and there is perhaps more of a consensus as to what it can and can’t do. As unwise as it is to declare any field of academic inquiry to be truly settled (scholars even continue to revisit Fogel’s work on railroads), the results of the poll suggest that, at least among the members of the IGM panel, the slavery debate is settled for now.


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