The New York Times Is Truly Messed Up
Although rightly rejected today, the Virginia-born Fitzhugh attained national prominence in the late antebellum period as one of the most widely read defenders of a slave-based economy. Charles Sumner called him a “leading writer among Slave-masters,” and his regular contributions to the pro-South magazine DeBow’s Review gained him a national readership in the 1850s.
In 1855 Fitzhugh embarked on a publicity tour of the Northeast, jousting with abolitionist Wendell Phillips in a series of back-to-back lectures on the slavery question. By 1861, he had added his voice to the cause of southern secessionism and began mapping out an elaborate slave-based industrialization policy for the Confederacy’s wartime economy.
Fitzhugh was also an avowed anti-capitalist. Slavery’s greatest threat came from the free market economic doctrines of Europe, which were “tainted with abolition, and at war with our institutions.” To survive, he declared, the South must “throw Adam Smith, Say, Ricardo & Co., in the fire.”
These are three key paragraphs (actually, the article is so tight that there are no “un-key” paragraphs) in economic historian Phil Magness’s piece “The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery,” American Institute of Economic Research, August 16, 2019.
Why does he publish it now? In part, it’s his response to a truly bizarre piece published in the New York Times Magazine on August 14. The piece, by Princeton University sociology professor Matthew Desmond, is titled “In Order to Understand the Brutality of American Capitalism, You Have to Start on the Plantation.”
As I know from long experience, authors of pieces in publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. rarely have their titles accepted. (My one piece I published in the New York Times, which I titled “The Case for Ed Clark,” the Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1980, was retitled “The Gospel According to Clark.” See the difference?) So I won’t hold Desmond to account for the title.
I will, however, hold Desmond accountable for the article’s content. He undercuts American capitalism by connecting it to 19th century American slavery. His Exhibit A is that slave owners–are you ready?–used accounting to run their plantations. He writes:
When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps.
Actually, notes Phil Magness, Desmond gets the roots wrong. Magness writes:
Many leading examples of NHC [New History of Capitalism] scholarship in the academy today are plagued by shoddy economic analysis and documented misuse of historical evidence. These works often present historically implausible arguments, such as the notion that modern double-entry accounting emerged from plantation ledger books (the practice actually traces to the banking economies of Renaissance Italy), or that its use by slave owners is distinctively capitalistic (even the Soviets employed modern accounting practices, despite attempting to centrally plan their entire economy).
Here’s an interesting fact from the Wikipedia entry on George Fitzhugh:
Now, let’s see. If I were to use Professor Desmond’s methodology, I would find a sinister connection between sociologist Fitzhugh and sociologist Desmond. Of course, I find no such connection.