A report on a lecture by Robert E. Wright

By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 24, 2022—Noted economic historian Robert E. Wright, the author of the 2017 book The Poverty of Slavery, How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy, recently took the podium at the Hamilton Grange to discuss Hamiltonian economics and slavery. He began with the assertion (or, perhaps, the hope) that “a thorough dose of Hamiltonian economics … could save the world” from what he sees as the burgeoning growth of slavery in the modern era.[1]

"A Thorough Dose of Hamiltonian Economics" Could Defeat Slavery
Robert E. Wright making his address (screenshot)

In recognition of Black History Month, the Grange National Memorial released a video of his half-hour presentation on Feb. 23. It can be accessed on the Memorial’s Facebook page and is certainly worth watching. The presentation was produced in collaboration with the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society.

Demolishing the Lies

Dr. Wright’s talk largely reprised his book, which argues forcefully against modern theories that slavery was responsible for the economic development of the United States and Great Britain. I consider this critique the most valuable aspect of his presentation. Less prominent was his discussion of how Hamilton might have approached ending slavery, had he lived, or how his economic concepts were incompatible with the practice.

Wright argues that it is a travesty that certain modern Ivy League historians today, and the New York Times, claim that slavery led to economic growth. This assertion, which threatens to justify slave practices, was disproven most dramatically in what Wright calls the great “natural experiment” of the comparative economies and societies of the North and the South prior to the Civil War. That experiment, on the contrary, showed that the more slavery dominated, the worse was the state of the economy. In fact, slavery hurt economic development, as was attested to by innumerable travelers who compared the situation in the North and the South, as well as the statistics.

"A Thorough Dose of Hamiltonian Economics" Could Defeat Slavery
Frederick Olmsted documented the poverty of the South during the 1850s. Here, one of his illustrations. (unc)

Economic growth involves increased productivity which requires the development of economic infrastructure such as roads, schools, and inventions, Wright argued. (These were precisely what was eschewed by the Southern elite, I would add). The Southern slavocracy showed that you could make huge private profits by intensively working your slaves (mostly at simple repetitive tasks). But they did so by imposing costs on the rest of society, especially by demanding support for policing the slave population. These costs are what economists call “negative externalities,” and they have been understood by certain thinkers over the centuries, including Hamilton. Wright compares them to pollution.

Wright does not deal with the roles of the slavocracy’s sponsors in Great Britain and the Northern financial centers; in fact, the British and Adam Smith come in for too much praise in the book, in my view. But I believe that technological progress occurred in the United States and Britain despite their evil but profitable slave investments, not as a result of them.

What Would Hamilton Have Done?

Dr. Wright only touched briefly on what he would consider appropriate measures to eliminate unfree labor today. As an avowed libertarian, the professor is convinced that the solution lies in eliminating what he called “paternalistic” policies; these include minimum wage laws, which Wright seems to believe should be replaced by freeing people to decide for themselves at what wage they would work. At the end of his talk, he also ventured suggestions about what Hamilton would do:

“In sum, if Hamilton were here today, he would try to reduce the supply of slaves by removing barriers to human flourishing, from onerous drug laws to occupational licensing, to technological transfer and immigration barriers. He would also try to reduce demand for slaves by raising the cost of enslaving others.”

Wright’s approach contrasts sharply with that of anti-slavery Hamiltonians of the American System school of the 19th century, and my own. (In a recent talk, Wright indicated that he had spent his career opposing those who use Hamilton to advocate for government measures like tariffs to promote economic growth.) Avowed Hamiltonian Henry Carey, for example, devoted a full book to the issue of eliminating chattel slavery, in which he elaborated his argument that it was by “raising the value of man” by protecting industry (from British free traders) with tariffs, investing in infrastructure, and developing urban centers and civilization that the moral abomination of slavery could be eliminated.[2]

Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures

I believe that Alexander Hamilton planted the seeds of the American System in his Report on Manufactures, in which he countered Adam Smith’s “free trade” approach, and put forward a broad set of Federal government measures to promote the “general welfare” in order to foster prosperity. Historically speaking, I think that Hamilton’s program for promoting manufactures and self-sufficiency in vital industries, had it not been sabotaged by the 20 years of Jeffersonian rule, followed after a short hiatus under John Quincy Adams by the anti-Hamilton rampage of Andrew Jackson, might well have allowed us to end slavery without a Civil War.

As for today, while Hamilton by no means was calling for top-down government controls of the economy, I think his approach would involve increased regulation (especially in banking) and more Federal spending, especially on technologies at the leading edge of science and modern infrastructure. Technological progress is the birthright of a free people, and it is the responsibility of a just government to provide it for those living today, and their posterity.[3]

[1] Wright is a leading member of Historians Against Slavery, which estimates that there are tens of millions of de facto slaves today as a result of human trafficking, sex slavery, and other gradations of forced labor.

[2] To be fair, Wright did mention Hamilton’s assertion of manufacturing’s positive impact on “ingenuity” as a “positive externality” of his economic program.

[3] I elaborate more on this point in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.


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