Rothbard on Aptheker on Slavery

At the Mises Institute today I was looking through the library and noticed Murray Rothbard’s copy of American Negro Slave Revolts, the 1943 study by Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. One passage stood out because Rothbard had marked it with heavy lightning-bolt squiggles and marginal comments like “Right,” “Good,” “Great.”

Aptheker, discussing the claim that “cruelty was characteristic of the institution of American Negro slavery,” writes:

Many, perhaps most, writers on this subject have denied this and assert, on the contrary, that “kindliness [was] the rule” under the system. … A recent repetition of this idea urges the reader to bear in mind that “owners of slaves were hardly likely to be cruel or careless with expensive pieces of their own property,” just as most people do not abuse their horses or automobiles.

Aptheker goes on to provide ample empirical evidence to the contrary; but first he attacks the theoretical argument, and this is the section that excited Rothbard’s enthusiastic approval:

[T]he fatal error in the above proposition is the assumption that one may accurately compare any two pieces of property, even if they be so far apart and so distinct as is a horse from a human being.

Aptheker and RothbardThere are, however, fundamental differences. Basic is the reasoning faculty which leads men, unlike automobiles, to compare, plan, hope, yearn, desire, hate, fear, which leads them to seek pleasure and shun pain, to spin dreams and build philosophies and struggle and gladly die for them. Human beings, in fine, or, at least, many human beings, do possess the glorious urge to improve themselves and their environment. And people who are beaten, branded, sold, degraded, denied a thousand and one privileges they see enjoyed by others will be discontented, and will plan, or at least, think of bettering their lot.

This was the slaveholders’ nightmare. This it was that led them to erect theologic, economic, social and ethnologic justifications for their system, that led them to build a most elaborate machine of physical repression and terrorization. For, and here was another crucial difference, most slaves were owned as investments, not as ornaments or commodities of consumption, as are most automobiles. Slaves were instruments of production, were means by which men who owned land were able to produce tobacco and rice and sugar and cotton to be sold and to return them a profit. Their existence had no meaning other than this for the employers. Profit must be gotten from these workers – whom the bosses owned – no matter what blood and sweat and tears this entailed, and the more profit the better.

When one combines the differences, then, he finds the slaves to have been not inanimate ornaments or instruments of pleasure, but thinking, living commercial investments, rational machines of production. It may be said, therefore, that cruelty was an innate, inextricable part of American Negro slavery, for these peculiar machines, possessed of the unique quality of human beings – reason – had to be maltreated, had to be made to suffer physical cruelty, had to be chained and lashed and beaten into producing for a profit. The latter was the reason for their existence and incorrigibility, protest, disobedience, discontent, rebelliousness were bad in themselves, and disastrous as examples. Instead of the slave’s value preventing cruelty, it was exactly because of that value, and that greater value he could produce – when forced – that cruelty existed. (pp. 132-133)

It occurs to me this Aptheker-Rothbard argument also raises a problem for Hans Hoppe’s contention that monarchs can be expected to be relatively benign because they take the attitude of private ownership toward the realms they rule.

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37 Responses to Rothbard on Aptheker on Slavery

  1. Kevin July 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

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    This is your best knockdown argument against Hoppe since your “The Hoppriori Argument” post of yore.

  2. Crosbie Fitch July 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm #

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    If copyright suspends all individuals’ cultural liberty to profit the privileged holder of that liberty then perhaps similar cruelty/fear can be observed by the publishing cartel in their state supported persecution of Jammie Thomas, Joel Tennenbaum, and Brittany Kruger – for having the temerity to assume they were at liberty to share music?

    And all we do is remark at how perverse it is for the cartel to persecute their own customers (whilst trying not to think too hard about the poor individuals concerned).

    We never learn: masters vs slaves, whites vs blacks, aryans vs jews, guards vs prisoners, publishers vs public.

    Privilege corrupts. Privilege is corrupt.

  3. Black Bloke July 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

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    My argument against Hoppe’s contention of private monarchy (and perhaps Spencer Heath’s similar idea) has almost always been the example of King Leopold. But who even remembers that guy?

  4. Marja Erwin July 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

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    I thought he was infamous, not obscure… But perhaps he’s not as widely-despised as I had thought.

    • Black Bloke July 28, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

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      He’s both infamous and obscure, but as a result of the latter he’s not as widely-despised as he should be or was at one time.

  5. dennis July 28, 2009 at 5:49 pm #

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    Leopold’s archnemesis was a radical classical liberal.

  6. MBH July 28, 2009 at 6:16 pm #

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    This is a cool wrinkle. Taking-the-attitude-of-private-ownership towards a human being is innately cruel, since, what it means to be human is to be owned by yourself. Gandhi called it Swaraj.

    What I’m still concerned about is this. It seems like a logical extension is that to be human is more than self-rule or non-aggression, but necessarily both, and to perceive humanness as a joint experience.

  7. TGGP July 28, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

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    There actually is at least one modern writer who defends slavery based on the arguments of Hoppe (and Carlyle). I used the example of King Leopold to argue against him and also for the proposition than constitutional limited monarchy is better than absolute rule.

    “Vertically integrated proprietary community” is the technical term for Heath-doms. Peter Leeson critiques them here.

  8. Anon73 July 28, 2009 at 8:18 pm #

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    I didn’t really understand the wiki article on Leopold; it said he couldn’t get support to make the Congo part of Belgium, so he borrowed money from the Treasury to set up a colony there which he controlled, and eventually he was forced to make it a part of Belgium? This all sounds very strange, the King of Belgium controlled the territory the entire time, so was it really the property of a private person?

    • Gary Chartier July 28, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

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      My sense is that that’s exactly right. Monarchs don’t just act as public persons–they have personal and family property that isn’t state property. Leopold’s was just bigger than than some other people’s.

    • dennis July 28, 2009 at 10:40 pm #

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      Leopold’s colonization of the Congo was done with the intent of keeping the Belgian government out of his management of the colony. He established a foothold there by leading an “anti-slavery” society. He was able to bribe and charm influential figures to gain political cover and get recognition for his Congo colony from the Chester A Arthur administration. The story is kind of complex but it is laid out in good detail in “King Leopold’s Ghost.”

  9. Brainpolice July 28, 2009 at 9:42 pm #

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    “It occurs to me this Aptheker-Rothbard argument also raises a problem for Hans Hoppe’s contention that monarchs can be expected to be relatively benign because they take the attitude of private ownership toward the realms they rule.”

    I always found the assumption that just because you’re a “private” slave rather than a “public” one, you’re inherently going to be treated better, as quite dubious. I don’t see how it inherently follows from the state being a single person’s “private property” that they will inherently be benevolent.

  10. Bob Kaercher July 28, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

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    “This is your best knockdown argument against Hoppe since your ‘The Hoppriori Argument’ post of yore.”

    If memory serves, I seem to recall that in that post Roderick wrote he was somewhat empathetic with the *type* of argument Hoppe was making with his argumentation ethic; he just wasn’t swayed by the *particular* argument Hoppe made. I also seem to recall that Roderick wrote he could buy the argumentation ethic if logically framed in a certain eudaimonist context. That was hardly a “knockdown” of Hoppe’s argument.

    “It occurs to me this Aptheker-Rothbard argument also raises a problem for Hans Hoppe’s contention that monarchs can be expected to be relatively benign because they take the attitude of private ownership toward the realms they rule.”

    The key term there is “relatively.” I believe Hoppe has said that monarchs were benign *relative* to modern democracy since the latter has certain in-built incentives that resulted in an accrual of power to the central state barely imagined in the era of the former. But, yeah…the “Bloody Sunday” massacre under Czar Nicholas II immediately comes to mind.

    • Brandon July 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

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      Bloody Sunday isn’t much of a massacre by modern standards. Anyway, Nicholas II isn’t to blame. He wasn’t even there. Monarchs aren’t omnipotent. They can’t control everything that’s happening. The killing of Thomas Becket by knights affiliated with Henry Plantagenet is another example. Henry is blamed for Becket’s killing, but he didn’t order it and tried his best to stop it. Henry II is an example of a monarch of the High Middle Age who was extremely moderate even by modern standards – never sacked towns, never killed civilians, established the first appeals court, very concerned with justice, eager to forgive enemies etc.
      To read more check out The King and Becket.

      • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009 at 10:48 am #

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        The “Bloody Sunday” massacre may not be the best example, but Nicholas was at the very least negligent with regard to taking care of his “property,” so if one is going to throw out counterfactuals in an attempt to empirically falsify Hoppe’s thesis that incident seems to be a pertinent one. But I’m not even sure that citing various counterfactuals necessarily falsifies Hoppe’s thesis in the first place.

        And of course, many monarchical atrocities pale in comparison to such democratic atrocities as, say, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, or the post-Civil War massacres of the American Plains Indians.

    • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009 at 11:05 am #

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      I’ve realized it was a mistake for me to use the qualifier “modern.” If I’m not mistaken, I believe that Hoppe’s comparison includes all democracies, regardless of historical period.

  11. Bob Kaercher July 28, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

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    “I had the odd doubt about the monarchs-have-low-time-preference thesis when I visited Versailles.”

    I have similar thoughts when I look at pictures of the Vatican.

    • Bob Kaercher July 28, 2009 at 10:01 pm #

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      Not that I’ve ever heard a “Popes-have-low-time-preference thesis”. Aaaaahhhhh…it’s late and I’m tired.

      • Aster July 30, 2009 at 7:50 am #

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        The sort of people attracted to Hoppe’s worldview would approve of displays of wealth by established institutions as a form of maintaining civilisation, but would consider enjoyment of wealth by anyone else a sign of implicitly criminal poor character.

        It’s a quite common attitude. My adopted stepfather manages to enjoy a significant quality of alcohol while prominently advocating for more restrictions on bars. Those other people can’t handle it, you see, while if one has a nice salary one can make any ‘vice’ appear decorous.

        In Thailand, desperately poor people will work their lives to buy bits of gold to press into enormous statues of the Buddha. If they used the gold to decorate themselves instead they would undoubtedly be dismissed as selfish and irresponsible. Behold altruism, in all its sweetness and gentility!

        Kinsella’s right that Hoppe’s not precisely the crude bigot he comes across as in an American context, just as Rand wasn’t precisely the crude apologist for established capitalism which she comes across as in an American context.. Hoppe, I see, is a European. His opposition to democracy is at heart a naturalisation of pre-1914 European social heirarchies; his argument against ‘democracy’ takes advantage of the ambiguity inherent in a word which retains a different sense and reference in different cultural and class discourses.

        The practical difference is that one can hold social double standards in good rather than bad conscience; American hard rightists are almost always spiritually sick; European hard rightists are often more spiritually healthy but conceal an infinite capacity for selective callousness.

        I prefer not to try to make logical sense of something which doesn’t make logical sense. Don’t bother to examine a folly. What it accomplishes is obvious.

        Libertarianism has done something *seriously* wrong to have become usable by apologists for monarchy, aristocracy, feudalism, or slavery.

        • MBH July 30, 2009 at 8:41 am #

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          Lady Aster: diagnostician extrodinaire! Good stuff.

  12. Julian Fondren July 28, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

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    No, this argument has nothing at all do with this contention of Hoppe, and nothing to do with monarchs. You’re thinking of Hoppe’s contrast between private ownership and public ownership of people – specifically between private slaves and the ‘public slaves’ of the communist regimes — that is, their populace, who A) could be told to work, and B) could not leave. If there’s empirical evidence of very terrible private slavery, well again: what is being held as less preferable is public slavery under e.g. Stalin, Mao.

    • Marja Erwin July 28, 2009 at 11:37 pm #

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      And is private slavery any less abusive than public slavery?

      The Middle Passage rivals the horrors of the Holocaust. The slave breeding plantations which largely replaced the Middle Passage add their own horrors.

      • Julian Fondren July 29, 2009 at 12:10 am #

        Opera 9.64 Windows XP

        Would you, as a slave, rather your death be meaningful or meaningless to your owner? Should destroying you be of any concern of his? Should he be personally poorer for your losses? Put another way, a private slave is like your car, and a public slave is like a rental car that nobody else owns, either. If you just go by historical cases, I think private slavery is older than history whereas mass public slavery is a 20th-century experience.

        • Soviet Onion July 29, 2009 at 1:53 am #

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          Slavery to public institutions is not a modern phenomenon, especially if you count conscription. Classical Athens had a small contingent of Scythian slaves operating as a police force, in addition to vast numbers of privately owned slaves.

        • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009 at 11:03 am #

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          S.O.: And classical Athens was something of a *democracy*, no?

        • Julian Fondren July 29, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

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          ‘Public slavery’ is not a term for ‘democracry’. As I said at the outset, Roderick has confused two arguments of Hoppe’s. One compares monarchy and democracy, the other compares private slavery and public slavery. They’re similar in that both point out that a monarchy and a private slave-owner also own the capitalized value of respectively the country and the slave. To rebut this point you would have to say that capitalized value doesn’t matter, or that it has actually the reverse implications. Ask: if I had no-consequences complete ownership over you for just today, would I be more or less likely to end the day by rendering you into hamburger, than I would I also owned you for tomorrow, for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life?

        • JOR July 29, 2009 at 2:51 pm #

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          Well, private ownership is, other things equal, more efficient than public ownership, not more benevolent. For Hoppe’s contrast to stand we need to accept the further premise that treating slaves benevolently (to some degree) is efficient. For slaves trained and retained for some purposes, that’s no doubt true; slave-soldiers, entertainers, children’s maids, and the like.

          But for slaves retained for hard labor, such as cash crop agriculture? Well, in every case, private or “public” (which really just ends up being de facto private, necessarily), the brutal methods rather more contemptuous of human life always dominated.

        • Julian Fondren July 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm #

          Opera 9.64 Windows XP

          Well, it seems that I can’t reply to the people replying to me, so I’ll add:

          > S.O.: And classical Athens was something of a *democracy*, no?

          ‘Public slavery’ is not a term for ‘democracry’. As I said at the outset, Roderick has confused two arguments of Hoppe’s. One compares monarchy and democracy, the other compares private slavery and public slavery. They’re similar in that both point out that a monarch and a private slave-owner also own the capitalized value of respectively the country and the slave. To rebut this point you would have to say that capitalized value doesn’t matter, or that it has actually the reverse implications. Ask: if I had no-consequences complete ownership over you for just today, would I be more or less likely to end the day by rendering you into hamburger, than I would I also owned you for tomorrow, for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life? Or: if you were to get evicted from your house today, would you be more or less likely to repaint the main bedroom than if you expected to own it for another ten years?

        • Brainpolice July 29, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

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          The very idea that a slaveowner is particularly caring about their slaves is, quite frankly, bizarre nonsense. They don’t “care” about them as people, only as a means. Likewise, just because the state is “privately” owned by a single individual does not mean that the owner particularly “cares” about their subjects or is necessarily going to treat them well.

        • MBH July 30, 2009 at 6:57 pm #

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          Brainpolice, I like your first point: that care — in the meaningful sense we would apply it to people — could not move from owner to slave. But then, you make a separate point that’s weird to me.

          “…[J]ust because the state is “privately” owned by a single individual does not mean that the owner particularly “cares” about their subjects or is necessarily going to treat them well.

          Certainly, if you mean necessarily in the strong logical sense, I’d agree. But, Julian is undoubtedly correct, in the strong logical sense, that the owner has the incentive to treat them better than if the slave couldn’t be a means to the owner’s end.

          Now let me back up. I don’t think that another human being could ever be a means to another human’s end. I think the only meaningful way we can talk about humans-as-means is when considering the human experience as a means towards objective flourishing — as opposed to, say, the canine experience as a means towards objective flouring. But, I still think your last point is an overstatement.

  13. Jesse Walker July 28, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

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    Interesting as all this is, the best thing about this post is those separated-at-birth photos.

    • Soviet Onion July 29, 2009 at 1:43 am #

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      I always thought Rothbard bore a striking resemblance to Henry Kissinger myself.

    • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009 at 11:05 am #

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      Agreed!

      • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009 at 11:06 am #

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        I mean I agree with Jesse Walker. S.O.: Ouuuuucccchhhh…

  14. jpg July 29, 2009 at 3:58 am #

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    Roderick said:
    “It occurs to me this Aptheker-Rothbard argument also raises a problem for Hans Hoppe’s contention that monarchs can be expected to be relatively benign because they take the attitude of private ownership toward the realms they rule.”

    But, Hoppe did not contend that to have one’s property under the control of a monarch was better than than to have it under one’s own control. If he had contended that, then Aptheker’s arguement might be a problem for it. In fact Hoppe held just the opposite view. His contention was that to have one’s property under the control of a monarch was better than to have it under the control of a democtatic state but that to have no state was best of all.

    Aptheker simply argued (most persuasively!) that not to be a slave is better than to be a slave.

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