by Doctor Science
I've been reading a lot of books about slavery and antebellum America over the past few years, and I keep noticing how many current "conservative", Republican economic principles were already held by Southern enslavers and their politicians.
"Low taxes" was always their watchword. They were doubtful about infrastructure spending (then called "improvements") and public education. They wanted the justice system, including prisons, to pay for itself (via fines, bail, and prison labor).
Right now, I noticed that NY Magazine writer Eric Levitz tweeted about his his new article, Oklahoma Tried the GOP's Tax Plan. Now, It's Electing Democrats, saying:
Republicans are ideologically committed to immiserating their own voters. And that's starting to get Democrats elected in the heart of red America. https://t.co/unPvGuvOtB— Eric Levitz (@EricLevitz) November 17, 2017
Several people on Twitter mentioned that the word "immiserating" was new to them. I, on the other hand, have become familiar with the word because historians of American slavery use it to describe the economic status of enslaved people. In particular, they use it for the way that American slaves were impoverished to an extreme degree. They usually had enough food, but they had only the bare minimum of clothing, housing, and medical care, and no education, furniture, livestock, household goods, privacy, or land.
It was a premise of American slavery that enslaved people could be objects of the economy, but they could not be actors: they could not, as a rule, have money, nor could they barter goods and services "on the side" to other slaves or to free people. In Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Keri Leigh Merritt argues that Southern slave patrols weren't just for controlling slave behavior, they also policed poor whites who might be inclined to trade with slaves, form relationships with them, and realize how much they had in common.
Usually when people talk about the economic effects of slavery on the Southern states, they discuss how it tended to depress the wages of free labor. What I haven't seen experts point out is how slavery strangled consumer demand. Persistent postbellum Southern poverty is usually blamed on its slow industrialization and agricultural economy. But I think it's due to the persistence of a bias against demand, which in modern times become arguments for "supply-side economics" and "austerity".
Before the Civil War, the men who ran the South felt that their section was wealthy, because they were wealthy. But the wealth of a society is much closer to the median wealth than the mean, and in e.g. South Carolina, which had a slave majority, the median wealth was zero.
Because the majority of people in SC couldn't buy shoes or ships or sealing-wax, there were very few potential customers for the poorer half of the white population to sell things to. Their only possible work was agricultural--but all the decent farming land was owned by enslavers. So (as Merritt outlines in her excellent book) the bottom quarter or half of the white population was effectively forced out of the monetary economy, subsisting on itinerant work, hard-scrabble farming, and hunter-gathering.
We're romanticized hunting to feed your family, but when large numbers of people in a (supposedly) advanced economy are doing it, that economy is *broken*. I'm not saying, as historians did decades ago, that the South was a "pre-capitalist society". As I learned from The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, slavery was a crucial part of the American capitalist system, it relied on international trade, and slaves were often mortgaged. But the Southern ruling class had, as a matter of policy, carved a majority of the population out of the money-based economy. There wasn't -- there couldn't be -- enough economic activity to cover all of the people, and that's a pretty good definition of an impoverished society.
Southern rulers' understanding of business and economics was "supply side". They were almost all in the business of producing raw cotton for export. Their experience was that when one of them got extra money, he would invest it in more land and more slaves, to produce more cotton. From their POV, giving more money to the rich indeed meant more jobs would be created--if by "jobs" you mean "forced labor and stolen work".
Their experience also was that the market for cotton was insatiable, that they couldn't overproduce or flood the market. The only important factor was supply, demand was endless. The King Cotton theory seemed quite reasonable to them: they could keep upping production, secure that the price they got for the last bale would be the same as for the first.
I'm not saying modern GOP Supply-Side-ism is directly descended from the antebellum Southern version, but there seems to be a continuity.
Today, the closest thing to King Cotton's supply-side bias is King Petroleum: a commodity so essential that a business (below the level of a sovereign nation, at least) doesn't have to worry about demand, only about producing as much as possible.
This may explain why petroleum and other extractive industries are so prominently Republican: like 19th-century cotton producers, they feel like they're living in a supply-side world, detached from observing the effects of demand on their business.
I'm not saying the remnants of slavery are the only element in GOP economics. Probably more important is the economic Calvinism William Neil rightly described as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Market. Paul Waldman sums it up, as expressed by Senators Grassley and Hatch and embodied in the current Tax Bill:
they're driven by a moral imperative, one that says that no matter what effect cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations might have on the economy, it's just the right thing to do. It rewards the virtuous, and you can tell who the virtuous are by how much money they have.As Fred Clark and the commentariat at Slacktivist like to say, Thus, Calvinism.
Let those who are too intent on wealth beware lest they should falsely employ Joseph's example as a pretext: because it is certain that all contracts which are not formed according to the rule of charity are vicious in the sight of GodCalvin was not an American Calvinist.