Discover more from Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality
“Slouching” Omission: Social Trust & Economic Prosperity: First Edition p. 346
Being subjected to millennium-spanning slave raiding as a major part of life created a long-lasting durable culture of social distrust. In a well-functioning market economy you begin nearly every meeting you have with a stranger thinking that this person might become a counterpart in some form of win-win economic, social, or cultural exchange. This is not the case if you think there is even a small chance that the stranger is in fact a scout for people with weapons over the next hill who will seek to enslave you, and perhaps kill you or your family in the process. This background assumption of distrust did not matter much as long as the trading and commercial infrastructure of the colonizers governed economic activity. But after the colonizers left, the distrust came to the forefront, and it led people to grab for weapons more quickly and more often than they would have in a more trusting society.
This point is of much broader applicability than to post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa before 2000. I should have but did not make this clear—and so Anne McCants makes a valid critique of the book:
I find statements such as this one on development in the global south to be really misleading. You ascribe the reason that the global south did not catch up or even keep pace (p. 341) as: “The pre-World War II colonial masters did next to nothing to prepare the colonized nations of Asia and Africa for independent prosperity.”
The lack of effort on the part of former colonizers may well be true (although material and advice aid to the global south has been a very big industry for a long time – simultaneously accused of being patronizing and not enough). But that is only one hypothesis among many possible. And it overlooks the role of trust-supporting-exchange entirely. I think it is possible to ‘teach’ people not to trust, but much more difficult to teach them to trust. So, it is not unreasonable to go next to the African slave trades of 1600-1900 period as a teacher of not-trust. This too is a testable hypothesis, but I suspect many of the standard tests are post hoc. As you point out yourself, there have been many massive slave trades through history – indeed, it seems safe to venture that the majority of all people who have lived (certainly before 1900, but plenty remain today, and disproportionately in the global south even without an oceanic trade) have been enslaved or in forced labor arrangements of varying kinds.
This is, sadly, the human condition.
It is not enough to cite the absolute number of the Atlantic trade (truly horrific of course) as bigger, because we don’t have a clear sense of the relative size (to population for example) of earlier, or parallel but less well documented, cases. It seems also that it might matter that external slave trades are only possible where local slaving is already commonplace, as we know it was in much of world history, the exceptions being the rare case. If we start with the presumption, as I think we should, that slavery is lamentably the normal condition, then what is really worth explaining is why it becomes abhorrent in some contexts.
[I believe you have heard my co-author Dan and I say something similar about polygamy and monogamy – in the contemporary west we feel a need to explain the former, but in fact the condition that is odd in world history is the latter. And it’s not an accident that Marx drew the parallel between polygamy and slavery.]