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A tragedy of the commons:

Nate Oman has an interesting post about how, for a slave in the American South, it may well have been worse to be owned by a church than by a private owner. Nate writes (based on an account of a friend's doctoral research) (paragraph break added):

In most congregations, church property was not controlled by the minister but by the vestry, a committee of powerful members of the congregation. The minister was often simply a salaried employee who served at the pleasure of the vestry. The vestry, in turn, tended to be cheap. They weren't always excited about expending scarce church funds of things like doctors for injured slaves or other expenditures to ameliorate their condition. In particular, when a church owned slaves but lacked the capital to provide for them, it was sometimes extremely difficult for the vestry's to raise funds for slave-related expenses.

In contrast, slaves that were privately owned were regarded as an expensive investment that many owners were unwilling to wantonly harm through a false economy. In short, institutionally owned slaves where quite literally victims of the tragedy of the commons.

I recall reading something similar in George Reisman's The Government Versus the Economy (note: this is not an endorsement of that book generally), about, if I remember correctly, conditions for the slave in private slavery versus "state slavery," in the form of totalitarian labor camps.

Anderson (mail) (www):
"Church-owned slaves." Shudder.
7.18.2006 5:45pm
Gordo:
I always find it interesting that disciples of Ayn Rand and the like would find that unfettered capitalism is inherently moral, while disciples of Noam Chomsky and his ilk would find that capitalism is inherently immoral.

Capitalism is amoral. Capitalism can be grafted upon a state with the rule of law and personal freedoms. Capitalism can also be grafted onto a pseudo-totalitarian state (China). I find it no surprise that market forces would also have applied in a society that endorsed human slavery. It tells me that capitalism is neither moral nor immoral.
7.18.2006 5:47pm
guest (mail):
This sounds so speculative. Do they give cites as to actual statistics?
7.18.2006 5:55pm
Mark F. (mail):
I'm not sure that I agree that an action can be "amoral." If something is not moral, it is immoral.
7.18.2006 6:04pm
BossPup (mail):
Mark: When a lion kills a zebra for food, is that a moral act or an immoral one? When a tsunami kills a bunch of people, was that moral or immoral?
7.18.2006 6:31pm
Brennan:

I'm not sure that I agree that an action can be "amoral." If something is not moral, it is immoral.


Not so. I just blinked my eye. Was my blinking moral or immoral? Neither, of course, in the commonly used senses of "moral" and "immoral". (One could also use examples of actions occurring without human agency -- the sun rises, oxidation occurs, etc.) Thus, a word for actions that are neither moral or immoral has some use.
7.18.2006 6:32pm
byomtov (mail):
The historical data may back this up, but it doesn't make much sense as a matter of logic.

Wouldn't the vestry regard the slave as an asset just as the private slave-owner did? So the only reason not to take care of the slave was a capital constraint, which suggests that the church had no business buying a slave to begin with.

Could it be that the source of the problem is that churches got slaves by donation?

And BTW, what does this have to with the tragedy of the commons? Were church-owned slaves at the disposal of the entire membership, creating a commons problem, or did they work just for the church?
7.18.2006 6:32pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
If something is not moral, it is immoral.

"Amoral" means without regard to moral claims; an amoral person will behave morally or amorally as the case may be.

Kant would probably agree with you, since intention pretty much determines morality in his book. There is by no means universal agreement with him, however.
7.18.2006 6:33pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Mark, that's because you have defined capitalism as a verb while Gordo has defined it as a noun - more like a tool.

Of course, it's easier to use some tools for evil and some for good. (By easier I think I mean "more common") Compare guns, sofas, how-to books, and socks. Of these, I think Capitalism has to fall into the "good" category.

Even when used by "a pseudo-totalitarian state" Scroll down to "China leads the way"
7.18.2006 6:36pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Not so. I just blinked my eye. Was my blinking moral or immoral?

Inasmuch as blinking your eye preserves your eyesight and allows you to be a useful member of society, it's moral.

Choosing to sit around demonstratively blinking your eye, rather than exhibiting moral choice more constructively, would be immoral.

Isn't this fun? Wait ... no, actually ...
7.18.2006 6:39pm
JosephSlater (mail):
So you're equating ownership of a slave by a relatively small group of private individuals (the church vestry) to "state slavery"? Is the common thread here that neither stands to make a profit or loss on the slave as directly as, say, a plantation owner? If so, you might want to note how profit-makers/businessmen were treating slaves in other parts of the New World. As noted in another thread on this blog, slaves in Carribean sugar plantations were frequently literally worked to death.
7.18.2006 6:47pm
TomHynes (mail):
Let's try this hypothesis:

When a church is given a high maintenance income producing asset as part of a bequest, it tends to spend less on maintenance than when the same asset is held by a capitalist.

Partly it doesn't have experience in managing the asset.

Partly the vestry has a shorter time horizon than a capitalist.

Test the hypothesis by looking at other classes of assets received by bequest - real estate, businesses, etc.
7.18.2006 7:01pm
byomtov (mail):
Partly it doesn't have experience in managing the asset.

Wouldn't the vestry usually consist of well-off individuals, likely to be slaveholders themselves?

Partly the vestry has a shorter time horizon than a capitalist.

Why?

Test the hypothesis by looking at other classes of assets received by bequest - real estate, businesses, etc.

Fair enough. Do churches today do a poor job of maintaining their assets?

My own guess is that the slaves who were given to the church were not the healthiest, strongest, youngest, so the were not particularly valuable. Hence they were not treated well.
7.18.2006 7:13pm
Boalt Student:
A while back, I read a Cato paper which illustrates the post's last point about totalitarian labor camps fairly well.
7.18.2006 7:30pm
Freddy Hill (mail):
If slaves are treated as property, then it is easy to come up with counter-examples to the point of the post. After all, churches owned then and own now all kinds of property. Are church's roofs in a worse state of disreapair than private home's roofs? Are church-owned vehicles more likely to break down than private ones?

Yesterday, by pure chance, I visited Oak Alley, a historic Louisiana sugar cane plantation. Among many interesting things on display is an evaluation of the estate done in the mid-1800s. By far the most expensive single "items" in the estate were its slaves, a "lot" of a mother with 3 or 4 healthy small children going for $1000. In contrast, a crate of solid silverware was evaluated at $200 (I'm quoting from memory). Whether the owners of the property are a corporation, a church or a family, it would seem that they would work rationally to preserve its value.

The only reason I can think of why slaves might be treated better by individuals than by corporations is not rational: it's harder to mistreat a human being whose face you see than one you only know as an asset in a financial statement. In the same plantation statement, a "slave (one armed)" in his 50's was evaluated at $50. I suppose that an anonimous accountant might find a way to "dispose" of that property while somebody that knew the man for decades might have found it harder.

Or maybe not.
7.18.2006 7:50pm
Malvolio:
The goals of an individual in an organization may differ from the goals of the organization. In this case, the goals of the "church" are long-term financial stability, the spiritual health of its members, and so on. An individual vestryman may want credit for himself, an easy job, public acclaim, low level of conflict, or many other things. That might lead to overpaying or underpaying staff, ignoring maintainance.

This is just the agency problem and has little to do with capitalism per se.
7.18.2006 8:33pm
Mark F. (mail):
Well, I suppose the terms moral or immoral only properly apply to actions which are freely chosen. Nature and animals don't have free will, and people can't choose not to ever blink their eyes.
7.18.2006 11:54pm
Mark F. (mail):
I would point out that nowhere in the Bible is there a condemnation of slavery. Hence slaveowning churches. You would have thought that God would not have overlooked that "minor" detail in "his" book.
7.18.2006 11:57pm
RainerK:
Could the reason for poor stewardship by churches of the eonomical asset slaves represented be that others' money is easier spent than one's own?
I have had occasion to observe church elders make dumb and costly decisions because power struggle, ego and general incompetence got in the way. Of course, private owners could be just as incompetent regarding their assets, witness Thomas Jefferson.
7.19.2006 12:03am
Peter Wimsey:
Perhaps the reason is that slaves held by churches did not produce as much income as slaves held by, say, farmers. I.e., a farmer working his own fields who adds a slave to work with him has basically doubled his productivity and his income becuase he is able to produce twice as many crops as before.

Although I'm sure that a church-held slave would save the church some money by doing maintenence, etc., the slave would not have nearly the effect on the church's bottom line as would occur if the slave were held by a farmer - indeed, it's possible to imagine that a church with a slave would not even break even.
7.19.2006 2:38am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Mark F. writes:


I would point out that nowhere in the Bible is there a condemnation of slavery. Hence slaveowning churches. You would have thought that God would not have overlooked that "minor" detail in "his" book.
Both Roman slavery and the system of slavery specified in the Old Testament were a bit more humane than the system that developed in the British colonies. While there is some argument about it, by the time Britons were colonizing the New World, they had not even vestiges of a slave code, and had to make up their own. It was often worse than Roman law inspired slave codes used by the French and the Spanish.

One of the great mistakes that economists make when discussing the treatment of slaves is the concept of rational. From a purely rational standpoint, destroying a slave was equivalent to destroying a good condition two or three year old car today. What rational person would do that?

The difference is that you don't live in fear that your car is going to sneak into the house and night and murder you in your bed, or poison your breakfast. Masters lived in that kind of fear, and it became progressively worse after Turner's Rebellion in 1831.

As one of the commenters above pointed out, an individual slave owner might see a slave as a face and a person, and treat him better than a remote corporate board who didn't know that person at all. But that goes the other way, too. Slave owners could develop serious antipathies towards particular slaves, sometimes with good reason, and sometimes not.

An additional aspect of the irrational that affected slave treatment was that the entire system of slavery, of superiors and inferiors, took away the incentives to self-control. Jefferson, among other slave owners, wrote about the destructive results of raising children in an environment where a master could give full vent to his rage, and what a bad example this presented to his children. Some slave owners (especially mothers) preferred their sons to go to school in the North, so that they would not be tempted by the availability of slave women as objects of sexual desire.
It appears that the number of masters taking sexual advantage of slaves has been exaggerated, partly because it suited abolitionist propaganda needs, and partly because Victorian sensibilities were deeply shocked when it happened, but it did happen--and it went both ways. Masters took advantage of female slaves (and much more rarely, male slaves), but female slaves sometimes used the prospect of sexual availability has a manipulative tool as well.
7.19.2006 5:41pm
Shalom Beck (mail) (www):
Now apply this argument to prison privatization...
7.20.2006 5:53am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Anderson-

Inasmuch as blinking your eye preserves your eyesight and allows you to be a useful member of society, it's moral.

Choosing to sit around demonstratively blinking your eye, rather than exhibiting moral choice more constructively, would be immoral.


Of course there are situations where your reasoning above is incorrect. When the "society" is criminal, immoral, racist, dishonest, abusive, religio-supremacist, ethno-supremicist, etc. impeding and stopping it is a constructive moral action. Perhaps one of the highest of constructive moral actions. Certainly superior to the criminal, immoral, abusive, etc. "society" members.

Hard work does not equal morality. If you work hard at stealing from someone, it's still stealing. If you work hard at abusing someone, it's still a crime. Religion matters not at all - there have been countless amounts of "religious" criminals throughout history.
7.20.2006 5:55am
Sparky:
I'm just speculating here, but mightn't church ownership be better for female slaves, inasmuch as they would be less likely to be raped?
7.20.2006 3:26pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Guess you haven't spent much time around church folk, Sparky
7.20.2006 11:14pm