Paradoxical Empires that Trade Made

At the height of the South Carolina secession crisis, Andrew Jackson supposedly said the following:

“… the Tariff was only the pretext, and Disunion and a Southern Confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the Negro or Slavery question.”

In a sense, this is a prescient, but also a highly subversive statement.  It suggests that the difference between the North and South that precipitated the Civil War was not just the slavery question, but something more fundamental.  As Jackson saw it, the anticipated slavery question, as was the tariff question at his own time, would merely be a pretext, not the cause.  It is tempting at this point to jump around abstract philosophical and “political” causes that separated the North and the South, but I think that is mistaken.  It should suffice only to look at the linkage between tariff and slavery:  they were both fundamentally economic question with political roots.  Essentially, the South was a coalition of free traders who benefited from the comparative advantage granted them by their ability to take advantage of cheap labor, which they did so through political and social means, in the form of slavery.  An important caveat, of course, was that, as Jackson foresaw, in a sense, overt slavery was not the only means through which the South could maintain the comparative advantage of cheap labor:  through segregation, sharecropping, and union-busting, South was able to maintain its comparative advantage via political means for many decades even after 1865.

The South was not the only empire of free traders building on unfree labor, and certainly not the most paradoxical one.  That title goes to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a full century before the rise of the American South.  The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was built on a system of extensive liberties that was available to all races and creeds–Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Free-Thinkers, as long as you were a nobleman.  Among this cosmopolitan elite, the Enlightenment Thinking was the big hit:  everyone, who was noble, that is, received extensive education, spoke multiple languages, and went around the world looking for causes to fight–like Kosciusko and Pulaski who went halfway around the globe looking for righteous causes to join.  But, at home, their enlightened status depended on a brutal and unfree system of labor that allowed them to profit from free trade:  the invention of efficient cargo ships by the Dutch, the fluytschip, in the late 16th century made it profitable to trade even in bulk cargo like grain.  Central and Eastern Europe, where the Polish nobles held sway, could concentrate on becoming the granary to the Western Europeans in a manner not unfamiliar to the Southern cotton planters:  they used their political and social power to tighten the grip of serfdom on their underlings, reduced them to unfree labor essentially held in bondage, who could be ruthlessly exploited for profit from foreign trade, the profit that could be funneled into their allegedly more enlightened enterprises.  A great irony of 19th century history is that the liberation of the slaves at the end of the American Civil War (whether in form of the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment) and the liberation of the serfs in the Russian Empire in 1861 did, indeed, share the same context:  the liberation of the serfs was intended largely to destroy the economic power of the troublesome (and very hypocritical) Polish nobles who were resisting the Russian rule, in a manner, one might say, that bore certain resemblance to the resistance of the Southern oligarchs to the Federal rule in antebellum United States.  For good or for ill, though, the peculiar history of the serfdom in Poland is not as well known outside Belarus or Ukraine:  when the serfs and masters look alike, I suppose, it does not seem obvious to the outsiders, even if the history of serfdom persists in form of the peculiar socio-, ethnic-, and religious divides in these countries even today–including in context of the present civil war in Ukraine.

These provide a disturbing context for the social-, political-, and economic-divides in present day United States and Western Europe.  Free trade and open societies may or may not provide net benefit to all, but it is clear that the benefits are concentrated among the political and economic elites inside the Beltway, on Wall St, and in Silicon Valley,  while the costs fall heavily among the masses outside all three.  Whether these have done more good or not, their effects are perceived starkly differently by different audiences.  Like 19th century South Carolina and 18th century Poland, the global social, economic, and political order of today rests on a dangerous paradox:  while Kosciusko’s and Pulaskis were fighting for “liberty” abroad, their agents were suppressing the uppity and unenlightened serfs back home, who were, in turn,  being riled up by the autocratic Czars and Czarinas in Moscow.  (with the peculiar shadow cast by Putin, even this has a strange analogue today.  In case of Ukraine, the conflict there is almost exact replay of the old conflicts that never really ended.)  Is today’s global order enlightened, or not?  Who knows.  But this too rests on a highly combustible basis at home.


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