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dia for a sojourn, suggests that their treatment, though usually far
from ideal, was not under such desperate conditions as to lead to
suicides on a large scale.
Most of the elements of choice open to most indentured work-
ers were lacking in the markets for slaves, where the choices were
entirely in the hands of the buyers and sellers. This did not mean
that the choices made by slave traders and slave owners were un-
constrained expressions of personal whims, because they were

constrained by economic considerations in general and by supply
and demand in particular.

Costs of Enslavement

Costs are crucially involved in the very choice of whom to enslave
in the first place. It is obviously more costly to try to enslave people
who have the army and navy of a major nation around them”
costly not only in terms of the money and lives expended trying to
capture such people, but costly also in the risk of provoking retalia-
tory military action against the country that launched the slave
raids. Broadly speaking, such costs defined those whom it was eco-
nomically feasible to enslave and those whose costs of capture were
prohibitively expensive. From the demand side, there must also be
a sufficiently valued use for slaves to cover the costs of even mod-
erately costly enslavement.
In some times and places, slaves were a by-product of military
actions undertaken for other purpose. In ancient times, especially,
captured enemy soldiers could be killed, sold back to their country
for ransom, sold in slave markets, or kept as slaves for use by those
who captured them. Here it is not feasible to calculate the sepa-
rate cost of capturing such slaves, since the costs of military oper-
ations were paid for other reasons and had other objectives and
consequences. However, campaigns specifically undertaken to
capture and enslave other people were more clearly constrained by
costs. Moreover, these costs did not remain constant over time.
Where small, scattered, tribal societies evolved into larger and
more powerful states, the peoples within such societies became
less and less likely to be targets of enslavement, as the costs of
slave raids rose.
Since some societies evolved in this way and others did not, or
evolved more slowly for one reason or another, those peoples likely
Free and Unfree Labor 61

to be enslaved changed over the centuries. In ancient times, when
Britain was a primitive island, fragmented into tribal regions,
Julius Caesar raided Britain and brought British slaves back to
Rome but, in later centuries, after Britain had a government, an
army and a navy, it would be too costly a place to raid for the sake
of capturing slaves. However, many parts of the world were more
difficult to consolidate into large states, sometimes because of ge-
ographic factors creating isolation in mountainous regions or on
small islands spread across a vast sea. These more vulnerable re-
gions remained major sources of slaves, whether in Europe, Asia,
Africa, the Polynesian islands or the Western Hemisphere.
One such area was the Balkans, whose Slavic inhabitants were
enslaved on a large scale for at least six centuries before the first
African was brought to the Western Hemisphere in bondage.
People were enslaved where the cost of enslaving them was less.
For centuries that usually meant that Europeans enslaved other
Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other
Africans, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere
enslaved other indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
Only in relatively recent centuries, as local sources of supply of
slaves dried up with the consolidation of nation-states, and as
growing wealth enabled people to be enslaved at greater distances
and transported far away, did Africa become the principal source
of supply for Europeans who transported them across the At-

Slave Prices
Even slaves destined for lowly manual labor were not simply labor
but also represented human capital. Thus a slave in the American
antebellum South cost about thirty times what he cost on the
coast of Africa, and not all of that was due to transportation costs

or even to an allowance for those who died en route. At a mini-
mum, a slave in the United States had to be able to understand the
English language. He also had to understand a new work routine,
new work implements, and a living pattern different from those in
Africa. The whole process of making these adjustments and ac-
quiring various forms of human capital was known as "seasoning"
and it often took place in the Caribbean before slaves were sold on
the American mainland. Subsequent generations of slave descen-
dants, raised in the new setting, would likewise command higher
prices than someone new from Africa for the same reasons.
In addition to this more or less general human capital, some
slaves possessed such specific skills as carpentry or animal hus-
bandry, and these commanded a still higher price. In the Ottoman
Empire, eunuchs were in great demand to work in the harems of
the wealthy and, because most of the slaves who were castrated
died, the price of the survivors had to cover all the costs incurred
capturing and transporting those who did not survive, so eunuchs
were the highest priced slaves of all. Slave prices also varied with
the distance from the source, so that slaves in the United States”
the most distant of the Western Hemisphere societies holding
slaves from Africa”had higher prices than those in Brazil, which
was closest to Africa.
One consequence of this difference in prices was that the slave
population in Brazil never reproduced itself, but was replenished
with new arrivals from Africa, while the slave population in the
American South began reproducing themselves and increasing in
size as early as colonial times. That is because Brazilian slaveown-
ers found it cheaper to get new slaves from Africa than to raise a
new generation from the existing slave population. Thus, in Brazil,
there was not only an overwhelmingly male slave population, but
also a separation of the sexes, and such slave women as became
Free and Unfree Labor 63

pregnant were not given as much time off, or sufficiently lighter
work, to enable them to ensure the survival of their offspring. In
the American South, where the costs of slaves was higher, it paid
the slaveowners to have slaves live in families and to lighten the
chores of pregnant women to the extent necessary for them to
bear and raise the next generation, who represented capital assets
to the slaveowners. The American South therefore became one of
the few slave societies in the Western Hemisphere where the slave
population reproduced itself at a level sufficient to replace existing
The magnitude of the difference made by these different prices,
and the different treatment resulting from them, may be indicated
by the fact that Brazil imported six times as many slaves from
Africa as the United States did, but the resident slave population
in the United States was larger than that in Brazil. Even a small
group of islands like the West Indies imported more slaves than
the United States, despite the fact that the resident slave popula-
tion in the United States was the largest in the hemisphere. An-
other example of the effect of economic incentives was in the
treatment of slaves on plantations where the slaveowner was in
residence, as distinguished from their treatment on plantations
run by an overseer serving an absentee owner.

Incentives and Constraints

Overseers tended to be paid by immediate results, such as the out-
put of sugar in the tropics or cotton in the American South.
Therefore the overseer had little incentive to think beyond stage
one. Special care for pregnant women or the spending of planta-
tion resources on the raising of children who were not yet old

enough to produce enough output to cover their upkeep was
therefore not something that overseers serving absentee owners
had an incentive to do. Even for able-bodied men, the overseer
serving an absentee owner had incentives to work them at a pace
that would maximize output during his tenure, even if this wore
them out at an early age and left them less productive in later life.
It was the same story when it came to maintenance and repairs on
the plantation or the care of animals or the soil.
In all these ways, plantations with resident owners tended to
operate more efficiently in long-run terms”with the people, the
animals, the soil, and the structures and equipment better main-
tained, even if that meant somewhat less output than if every-
thing was sacrificed for immediate production. While most
plantations in the American South had resident owners, who
could see to it that overseers did not sacrifice the owners' long-
run interests to the overseers' immediate interest in getting paid
for maximum output and getting a reputation for "results" that
would serve as the overseers' capital asset in finding his next job.
In the West Indies, however, it was more common for the planta-
tion owners to live in Britain, leaving resident overseers a far freer
hand in making decisions. One consequence was that the infant
mortality rate among slave women in the West Indies was some
multiple of what it was among slave women in the American

Slaves and Wealth
In many parts of the world, slaves were bought for their ability to
produce wealth that could be appropriated by the slaveowners.
Elsewhere, especially in parts of the Middle East, slaveowners of-
ten had large numbers of slaves as a sign of the wealth they already
Free and Unfree Labor 65

possessed. These slaves served as servants, concubines, entertain-
ers, or providers of other amenities”in short, as consumers rather
than producers, of wealth. In other kinds of societies, such as those
of the Western Hemisphere, where slaves were primarily used as
producers of wealth, just how much wealth was actually produced
by slavery as an economic system has been a matter of controversy
among scholars.
That the slaveowners gained wealth seems clear but whether the
whole society gained is less clear. In Brazil and the United States,
which had the two largest slave populations in the hemisphere, the
regions of these countries where slavery was concentrated”
northern Brazil and the southern United States”remained
noticeably poorer during the era of slavery and for generations
thereafter. The side effects of slavery were not negligible, espe-
cially in the United States, where the staggering economic and
human costs of the Civil War seemed to fit Abraham Lincoln's
premonition that all the treasure built up from unpaid labor might
be sunk in the ensuing war and every drop of blood drawn by the
lash might be repaid in blood shed with the sword.

The Economics of Freedom

A given individual's value as a free worker was likely to be greater
than that same person's value as a slave, because of the constraints
inherent in keeping someone in bondage. Whole categories of
work were usually off-limits to Western Hemisphere slaves, such
as work requiring extensive travel alone, or work requiring the use
of firearms, or the handling of large sums of money”all of which
could facilitate escape. Education was also both an instrument and
an incitement to freedom. Hence its ban for slaves throughout the
Western Hemisphere. This, however, then limited still further the

kind and quality of work that could be performed by slaves, even
when the individuals were perfectly capable of performing these
same functions as free workers.
It is a common principle in economics that assets tend to move
through the market to their highest valued uses, since that is
where the bidding for them will be highest. Accordingly, the eco-
nomic value of a slave would be greatest to the slave himself, even
aside from the value of freedom, as such, while others could own
the economic value of a slave, only that individual could own his
higher economic value as a free worker. Therefore an ideal free
market would lead to slaves buying their own freedom, since they
would have an incentive to outbid others on economic grounds
alone, even aside from their desire for freedom. Some slaves have
in fact done this in many places and times, whether in ancient
Rome or centuries later in the Western Hemisphere. Even where
slaves have had no money or inadequate amounts of money, ways
have been found to arrange self-purchase on credit, to be repaid
on the installment plan after achieving freedom. In those societies
which gave legal recognition to property owned by slaves”the pe-
culium, as it was called in ancient Rome”slaves might in some
circumstances earn and save enough over the years to purchase
their own freedom for cash.
The practical institutional difficulties of achieving self-purchase
were not the only reasons why this procedure was not more widely
used, which could have eroded the whole system of slavery. Where
the political authorities did not want a large population of ex-
slaves of a different race living among the free population, legal re-
strictions impeded manumission by purchase or grant. Such
restrictions became increasingly severe in the American antebel-
lum South during the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thus
blacks who had acquired freedom, by purchase or otherwise, often
owned other members of their own family as a legal formality, sim-
Free and Unfree Labor 67

ply because the costs and difficulties of getting them official free-
dom papers were so great. Some Southern whites who did not be-
lieve in slavery, such as the Quakers, likewise often owned slaves
as a formality, while it was an open secret that those slaves lived
the lives of free people.
In short, the very need to pass laws to keep slavery from self-de-
structing piecemeal was further evidence of its economic
deficiencies, quite aside from its violations of moral and humani-
tarian principles.
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Chapter 3

The Economics of Medical Care


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