The slave trade and global inequality

There’s a great piece in the Boston Globe on the relationship between the African slave trade and current global inequalities: Shackled to the Past.

One thing that’s always irritated me about broadly materialist historical explanations is the tendency to miss the importance of contingent historical events. Geography is not destiny, as Jared Diamond suggests, but rather it becomes a destiny when mixed with certain kinds of choices and chances. In The Longterm Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades, Harvard economist Nathan Nunn has shown that Africa’s exceptional poverty is directly linked to the slave trade:

if the slave trades had not occurred, then 72% of the average income gap between Africa and the rest of the world would not exist today, and 99% of the income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world would not exist. In terms of economic development, Africa would not look any different from the other developing countries in the world.


If Jared Diamond is right, then Africa’s exposure to tropical diseases and the inadequacy of tropical agriculture suggest that investment in public health is the key to Africa’s future healthy and eventual equilibrium with the rest of the world. This thesis is popular among those who see our responsibilities towards Africa in the light of a the duty of assistance, rather than identifying some deeper obligations like recompense or reparation. It also appeals to our sense of pity, rather than invoking the much messier emotions of guilt and responsibility.

If Nunn is right, slave raiding destroyed institutions in the very most developed parts of Africa, shifting local comparative advantages in the continent away from institutionally stable, politically cohesive, and agriculturally rich coastal and agricultural societies towards remote, rugged, and difficult to access societies. Thus, we should invest in the things we destroyed: institutional stability and political cohesion in coastal and agricultural nations. I have independent reasons for supporting the institutional hypothesis, insofar as I suspect that institutions are the best tools for producing legitimate outcomes and that legitimacy has a greater impact on growth and justice than public health or the forms of production. Still, it’s nice to have some confirmation that the worst thing that human beings have ever done to each other is still the same: not genocide, which is a remarkably modern and weird form for our aggressive nihilism to take, but good, old fashioned domination.

Some short pieces derived from Nunn’s work:
Slave trade and African underdevelopment
The Blessing of Bad Geography

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