Ron Paul On Slavery and the Civil War: Decent Economics, Terrible History

Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul speaks during a town hall meeting in Mt Pleasant, Iowa, on December 21, 2011.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), the nationalist/anti-interventionist/libertarian presidential candidate with a penchant for publishing racist newsletters would probably have done well to keep his views on the Civil War to himself rather than denouncing Abraham Lincoln and calling it a “senseless” conflict back during the 2008 cycle.

Indeed, this leaves Paul open to the accusation from Avi Zenilman that he was proposing a massive bailout of slaveowners. The fact of the matter is, however, that Paul is basically right on the economics here. The total value of the slave population of the United States was around $3 billion in 1860s money which is about (PDF) what the Union spent on the war. When you consider the $1 billion spent by the Confederacy and – of course – the huge non-monetary costs involved in getting hundreds of thousands of people killed, hundreds of thousands more maimed, vast swathes of southern infrastructure ruined, etc. it would have made much more sense to undertake a scheme of fair value financial compensation than to fight a years-long war.

Where Paul goes wrong here is on his history. The policy Paul suggests was in fact the policy of the Lincoln administration. Abolitionists didn’t like it because, precisely as Zenilman suggests, it seems morally wrong to financially reward slaveowners for participation in a gross moral crime. But this was the position of the initially dominant moderate wing of the Republican Party. It didn’t happen because southerners rejected it. And southerners rejected it because – to play Captain Obvious for a minute – slavery was in part about naked financial self-interest but also in large part about an ideological commitment to racism and white supremacy.