Saturday, August 15, 2015

Serfdom versus slavery

Slavery remains a live issue, as discussed in the Global Slavery Index. The Index uses the following operational definition of slavery:
Slavery is the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal. Usually this exercise will be achieved through means such as violence or threats of violence, deception and/or coercion (p.11).
That is a definition of labour bondage, rather than slavery as such, but as all human bondage is an offence against people as moral agents, one can understand the attraction of slavery as catch-all term. Especially as the inaugural edition of the Index (conservatively) estimates that 30 million people are in such bondage world-wide.

The economic scholarship on slavery and serfdom usually starts with Evsey Domar’s classic article (scroll down), summarised here by Paul Krugman. See an updated version of Domar’s model. (And further.)  Economic discussions of the choice between slavery and serfdom tends to be somewhat unsatisfactory, as the key factor--whether the source population for the labour in bondage is local or imported--is rarely given the significance history suggests it should have. The American experience of mass multi-generational slavery, along with the myth of no slave smuggling, perhaps distorts perspectives.

Return to labour
Historically, labour bondage (from slavery through to serfdom and similar arrangements) occurred when the return to labour was sufficiently high that the policing costs of bondage were more than covered by the reduction in the cost of labour from imposing bondage compared to the cost of free labour. (The effects of coercion on productivity is a more complex issue.) Typically, this occurred due to either a drop in the population (e.g. the rise of the coloni in the Roman Empire after the Antonine plague and the plague of Cyprian) or to an expansion in land available for farming (e.g. after the advent of gunpowder weapons led to the retreat of the pastoralists in Eastern Europe). In these cases, the return to labour increased because it became relatively scarcer compared to land: to put it another way, labour's marginal productivity went up because there was more land per provider of labour. So coercion blocked labour's ability to get the full return therefrom.

The expansion of export markets (also a factor in the Eastern European en-serfments), so an increase in the demand for the products of labour, and development of gang (or other easily-supervised) production methods (increasing the output for a given level of coercion) could also encourage use of labour bondage. In the former case, increased demand for the product increased the return to labour. In the latter case low supervision costs increased the return to bondage.

Pre-industrial mining and cotton harvesting were both often done by slaves or other bonded labour. In both cases, the resource was unpleasant to gather but said gathering was easily supervised. Sugar harvesting (which was particularly easily supervised) was even more prone to use of slave labour.

So, effort-intensive (unpleasant but relatively simple) production was much more prone to bondage, particularly slavery. Care-intensive (more attention complex) production tended more towards serfdom or free labour; although an "open" slave system (i.e. freed slaves then integrate into the society) would allow care-intensive slavery--such as the labour market of (pdf) the Roman Empire. It would even permit slave agents if a lack of corporation law or equivalent made free-but-controlled agents problematic. In the words of (pdf) economic historian Stefano Fenoaltea:
Another of the principal consequences of the slave's legal incapacity is that the slave is legally an extension of his master, so that a sum paid to the slave of Titius is considered paid to Titius himself. Nowadays, this would matter little: legal intermediation by an agent is not difficult, and in any case most of our bills are paid not directly to individuals but to abstract legal persons (which in substantive terms are also intermediaries). In classical antiquity, on the other hand, both legal agency and abstract-legal persons were restricted to very special cases where they were recognized at all; but an effective substitute for the nonhuman person or the legal agent was found in the human nonperson, who was legally but his master's instrument. Slaves thus also had a specific advantage in the role of agents, and slave agents were common even where slaves were generally scarce (p.657). 
Economic historian Peter Temin makes a similar point (pdf):
As [Sir John] Hicks noted, slavery was the most common formal, legally enforceable long-term labor contract in the early Roman empire. A person with a long-term relation to a principal would be his or her most responsible representative. Slaves were more valuable than free men in that respect. Witness the frequent references to literate, skilled slave agents in the surviving sources (p.536).
Slave-serf spectrum
The difference between serfdom (in its various forms) and slavery is that a serf is bound to the land or workplace (the Soviet Union operated a system of workplace industrial serfdom from 1940 to 1956) while a slave is property. That distinction seems clear enough, except that (pre-revolutionary) Russian serfdom was perilously close to slavery in several senses--serfs were bound to owners more than land, and could be bought and sold (or, at least, the right to their labour could be). Forms of bondage have been historically so varied that the distinction between owning a person (slavery) and owning their labour services (serfdom) is not always very clear-cut.

Another difference between slaves and serfs is that serfs could legally own property, slaves could not (being, themselves, property). Russian serfs could own property, for example. Except that distinction is more de jure than complete. Slaves could have economic property rights (i.e. effective control over goods or attributes thereof), even if said property rights were not legally recognised or protected--otherwise slaves would not be able to buy their freedom, as some did. (The point also works in reverse: inmates of labour camps may not be legally slaves, but they functionally are.)

Both serfs and slaves could be born such. Indeed, serfs were typically born into serfdom. This was less true of slaves, who were often enslaved, as slave populations generally did not fully reproduce themselves. Roman slavery had significant slave breeding (pdf). Indeed, judging by the age data of slaves, it is possible that a significant proportion of Roman slaves purchased their freedom in part by raising children to replace them. There was also significant slave breeding in the Antebellum South, hence it received a relatively small proportion of enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic, even including smuggling (mainly via Cuba).

That both systems had significant slave breeding was true despite Roman slavery being an "open" slave system (relatively high levels of manumission with ex-slaves being integrated into the wider society as full citizens and economic participants) and American slavery being a "closed" slave system (very little manumission and ex-slaves were not integrated into the wider society).

But it is highly doubtful either slave population was able to fully reproduce itself. The claim that the slave population of the Antebellum South was an exception to this principle seems to be based on ignoring or downplaying the (apparently considerable) smuggling of slaves.

That the family status of slaves had no standing, so they received little or no economic benefit in extra labour or provision for old age from raising children--remembering that children have to be not only brought to term, but then nurtured--militated against full internal reproduction of slave populations.

Serf populations never had that drawback. Serf populations had little difficulty reproducing themselves, having the normal economic incentives for raising children (extra labour and provision for old age) given that they could own property and their family status was fully recognised.*

Local or imported?
The clearest difference between serfdom and slavery is that serfs were local populations bound to the land, while slaves were (at least originally) imported. If the supply of bonded labour is local, that means:
(1) things have to be arranged so that the population continues to locally fully reproduce itself; and
(2) the costs of reducing said population to being property will be particularly high, due to the size and propinquity of the population. (This will include possible threat to the legal status of other members of that society.)**
Binding people to the land or workplace was a lot cheaper and safer than stripping them of all legal rights and standing--given that most of the advantage of bondage is gained simply by blocking the ability to offer their labour elsewhere. Which led to the further advantages of requiring significantly less ongoing policing while allowing said population to unproblematically locally reproduce itself. Thus, while debt slavery did occur (selling yourself or your children into slavery to pay a debt), debt bondage is more commonly a form of serfdom--due to reduced policing costs and much increased possibility of multi-generational labour services.

Conversely, if the supply of bonded labour is foreign or otherwise scattered:
(1) the process of enslaving will have already stripped them of rights and standing;
(2) the expectation of further imports will reduce any need to arrange for full local reproduction of the slave population; and
(3) the more tradable they are, the more the cost of more complete stripping of rights will be ameliorated. 
Policing costs will be higher, however, and the cost of the enslaving will be reflected in the purchase price. So slaves will have to be more productive than serfs to be profitable, reflecting the higher acquisition and enforcement costs. Which, in return, requires either extracting more output or doing so at lower cost, or both. (Use of slave labour to reduce the costs of oppression--as in the labour camps of totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union or North Korea--is a somewhat different case.)

Serfdom will therefore dominate slavery, as the policing costs of serfdom will be substantially lower and acquisition costs will be entirely contained within the return to the serfs, who will retain the normal reasons in farming societies to have children. So, the more use of serfdom (or its cognates), the less use of full slavery. Which is what we observe historically.

Since serfdom dominates slavery, slavery--particularly mass slavery--will typically occur when some effective constraint blocks the enserfing of local population. Such as a simple lack of such population; as in the Americas after the disease catastrophe of the Columbian exchange. (Though a form of serfdom was enacted while and if significant indigenous populations remained.) Or substantive political constraints--such as wanting poor locals to row warships or serve in the army, giving them the status and bargaining power to avoid bondage (classical Athens and Rome). The very notion of citizenship militates against enserfing.

Conversely, Sparta did not use mass slavery, as it already had an enserfed local population--the helots.  (It is notable that the coloni of the later Roman Empire evolved after Roman citizenship had become universal, so of much less moment, and the Roman Empire was on the defensive, so fewer slave imports.)

Imported bonded non-slave labour did occur--in the case of "blackbirding" and other indentured labour in the colonies. A little surprising, since the importation costs would at least partly replicate enslaving costs. But slavery being illegal would give space for use of imported "serfs". And importation costs may not fully equal enslaving costs, especially if lower policing costs also operate, given that these indentures were often entered into quite voluntarily, looking to a desired outcome (such as being paid to move to a society with improved income prospects).

Where the possibility of imported bonded-but-not-enslaved labour exists as an alternative to slavery, other factors may play a role. If there is a mode of production--such as gang-production--where the return to using slaves more than compensates for extra policing costs, then slavery will be favoured. Moreover, if the bonded labour is ethnically distinctive, that reduces policing (and psychic) costs of slavery. So, if physically distinct slaves are available, but physically distinct serfs or other bonded labour is not, slavery will also tend to be favoured (as the policing costs advantages of servitude over slavery is reduced). Thus, in most American colonies of European states, (African) slavery was comparatively favoured against (European) servitude.

Even so, indentured labour was imported into the more northerly British American colonies even while slavery was entirely legal and slaves were available. The key factor seems to have been the nature of production: indentured labour was preferred for care-intensive production (typical of the small farms and businesses of the northern colonies) while the balance of advantage shifted towards slavery when the expansion of gang-production methods made slavery more economic for various crops in the southern colonies.

The enserfment that did not happen
One of the historical puzzles about the use of labour bondage is the (re)enserfment that did not happen after the massive population loss of the Black Death (1346-1353). Here was a society which had had extensive labour bondage confronting a sudden labour scarcity (since lots of people had died, but the land and capital was still there). There was a clear increase in wages as a result of said labour scarcity. Yet the attempts to re-impose bondage failed.

Looking at the historical record, two elements seemed crucial:
  1. The landlord cartel was insufficiently coherent because there were too many alternative ways of deriving income from land.
  2. The crowns had become much less dependant on landlord military service, so lacked sufficient interest in enforcing such a landlord cartel (which is what mass enserfment essentially is).
A paper on the economics of labour coercion (pdf) suggests that my intuition was on the right track but not quite broad enough. The paper argues that effort and coercion are complements; that is more coercion means more production. But the paper also argues outside options are crucial, because that affects the alternatives available to coerced labour.  In the words of the paper:
Labor scarcity creates a labor demand effect: it increases the marginal product of workers in the coercive sector, and thus encourages employers to use greater coercion and extract higher effort from their workers. It also creates an outside option effect: it increases the outside option of the workers in the noncoercive sector, and reduces coercion because employers demand lower effort and use less coercion when workers have greater outside options. ... Whether the labor demand effect or the outside option effect dominates simply depends on whether the population change has a larger direct effect on the market price or the workers’ outside options (Pp587-8).
In post Black Death Western Europe, the paper argues that the relatively high degree of urbanisation increased the outside option effect, reducing the use of coercion. While, in Eastern Europe in the early modern period, the lack of urbanisation meant a minimal outside option effect, increasing the use of coercion.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but it was not merely urbanisation. Western Europe also had commercially more complex economies, which also increased the outside option effect. A commercial complexity that was in part a result of more extensive states, able to mediate and facilitate such complexity: a point which particularly applies with the comparison to Russia (which had much fewer officials per given number of population), where serfdom lasted longest.

As for my above point about what the crowns wanted, at the deepest level, it is the same point; that the societies had become sufficiently commercially complex also meant that armed forces were increasingly dominated by monetary taxes and payments independent of the return to landlord coercion. And it is enforcing (or not) the landlord cartel which is the key element. Not merely to block shifting between landlords but also to block alternative contracts (as the basis of mass bondage is that essentially the same conditions are imposed across controllers of labour), as both effects reduce outside options and make coercion more profitable.

Constraints and returns
So, slavery, particularly mass slavery, will occur when there some effective constraint blocks the enserfing of local population and the option of imported "serfs" is not suited to the mode of production, has insufficient advantage in policing costs or is otherwise not practical. For example, because passage is too risky to be attractive or contract enforcement is too problematic. A West African labourer had no capacity to contract with a potential American employer and, when slavery was legal, no protection against being enslaved on route. Conversely, moving from one part of the British Empire to another as indentured labour had much better contract enforcement possibilities.

Hence the slavery versus serfdom choice--in a situation where labour bondage is practical, and the return to bonded labour is positive--will be primarily a matter of the source of the population on which bondage is imposed. If the source population was local, serfdom (or some cognate) would be used. If the source population was foreign in origins, then (with the caveats noted above) slavery (i.e. being reduced to merely property, so more tradable) would be used to compensate for the increased acquisition costs, despite the increased policing costs of slavery over serfdom.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

* Slavery implied sexual bondage, as family status was not recognised; serfdom did not, as family status was recognised. This provides a particularly clear contrast between being property oneself and having one's labour services owned (in part or full). [Added footnote in response to a Facebook discussion.]
** As Yoram Barzel points out (pdf), this made slavery most problematic when it threatened the legal status of members of the domestic population. Unless, of course, such threat was the point--as in labour camp slavery. Modern servitude (amounting at times to slavery) among illegal immigrants operates precisely because they are isolated from the domestic population.

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