26 January 2012

Counterfactualizing for truth

Something kind of incredible is going on over at Ta-Nehisi Coates's place: Bouncing off some typically reprehensible and ahistorical remarks by Ron Paul—who apparently thinks that (1) the U.S. Civil War was started by the North, (2) for the express purpose of ending slavery, even though (3) nonviolent means, such as "compensated emancipation," could have accomplished that end—Coates is not simply rounding up the contrary evidence, but actually trying to work out whether and how a nonviolent end to the "peculiar institution" could have worked. It's like a Harry Turtledove novel, except fascinating and good and informative.

Nevertheless, the saving of people is, indeed, a noble goal, and Paul is not without at least the rudiments of a case. Enslaved black people were constructed into an interest representing $3 billion. ($70-75 billion in 21st century money.) But including expenditures, loss of property, loss of life (human capital,) the war, according to Ransom, costs $6.6 billion.

The numbers are clear--the South's decision to raise an army, encourage sedition among its neighbors, and fire on federal property, was an economic disaster for white America. Moreover, the loss of 600,000 lives, in a war launched to erect an empire on the cornerstone of white supremacy and African slavery, was a great moral disaster for all corners of America.

In the most crude sense, it would have been much "cheaper" for the government to effect a mass purchase. But how?

Spoiler alert: compensated emancipation doesn't look very practical, especially considering that Southern slaveholders were pretty damned hostile to the idea. But getting to that conclusion is enlightening, and the discussion in Coates's famous comments section is as well worth your time as the posts. ◼

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