[The movie] Glory, concerning the raising, training, and early combat actions of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the state’s two free – that’s important – black regiments raised for the Civil War. It’s a good movie, in most respects. But it fosters a couple of half truths which, like most half truths, are wholly misleading.
In the first place, the 54th was not a regiment of runaway slaves. Oh, there are some; men who escaped – self-selecting, like William Carney, as they did – at a time when escape was quite difficult and very dangerous. Most of the men of the 54th, however, were born free. Some, indeed, were born free in Canada. Company G, for example, was recruited in Toronto and came south to fight.
What difference does that make? It makes a vast difference. If one were to peruse the accomplishments of the black regiments in the Civil War, one wouldn’t find much to commend or condemn among the regiments composed of freedmen. Oh, they were important to the war effort, but not for fighting so much as for labor, and to guard behind the lines. The couple of occasions they were given the chance to shine, notably at the Petersburg Crater, circumstances, to include some incredibly stupid decisions, tended to screw them.
So the best we can say of the freedmen regiments is that we don’t know. That said, it would be a very surprising thing – an unconscionable defense of slavery, really – to suggest that having been enslaved didn’t do bad things to one’s character, didn’t set one in the mind of being inferior, didn’t strike at one’s self confidence and morale at the very core.
The good regiments, conversely, 54th and 55th Massachusetts, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored, 20th USCT … some few others … were by and large free born. They did well, fought well, and, in disproportionately large numbers, died well. But they had never, in the main, been subjected to the literal degradation and decay of slavery while, for that fraction which had, they had either self-selected for sheer obstinate courage or could draw considerable moral support from those who had or who had been born free.
And then there’s the other thing that annoyed me about the movie, that scene where the men of the 54th – explicitly, if wrongly, portrayed as runaway slaves – are issued their first uniforms and everything changes in an instant from disorder, indiscipline, and general raggedness to precision, as if the mere symbol could change the reality.
The very idea is nonsense. One doesn’t overcome a lifetime’s conditioning with a symbol. No, not even if you desperately want to. No, not even if you can convince a court and legislature that your fantasy must be given wing. It just doesn’t work like that.
Tom Kratman, “The Amazon’s Right Breast”, Baen Books, 2011.
May 10, 2016
May 5, 2016
Virginia had been kind of a wreck ever since most of the original Jamestown settlers had mostly died of disease. Governor William Berkeley, a noble himself, decided the colony could reinvent itself as a destination for refugee nobles, and told them it would do everything possible to help them maintain the position of oppressive supremacy to which they were accustomed. The British nobility was sold. The Cavaliers – the nobles who had fought and lost the English Civil War – fled to Virginia. Historians who cross-checking Virginian immigrant lists against English records find that of Virginians whose opinions on the War were known, 98% were royalists. They were overwhelming Anglican, mostly from agrarian southern England, and all related to each other in the incestuous way of nobility everywhere: “it is difficult to think of any ruling elite that has been more closely interrelated since the Ptolemies”. There were twelve members of Virginia’s royal council; in 1724 “all without exception were related to one another by blood or marriage…as late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660”.
These aristocrats didn’t want to do their own work, so they brought with them tens of thousands of indentured servants; more than 75% of all Virginian immigrants arrived in this position. Some of these people came willingly on a system where their master paid their passage over and they would be free after a certain number of years; others were sent by the courts as punishments; still others were just plain kidnapped. The gender ratio was 4:1 in favor of men, and there were entire English gangs dedicated to kidnapping women and sending them to Virginia, where they fetched a high price. Needless to say, these people came from a very different stratum than their masters or the Puritans.
People who came to Virginia mostly died. They died of malaria, typhoid fever, amoebiasis, and dysentery. Unlike in New England, where Europeans were better adapted to the cold climate than Africans, in Virginia it was Europeans who had the higher disease-related mortality rate. The whites who survived tended to become “sluggish and indolent”, according to the universal report of travellers and chroniclers, although I might be sluggish and indolent too if I had been kidnapped to go work on some rich person’s farm and sluggishness/indolence was an option.
The Virginians tried their best to oppress white people. Really, they did. The depths to which they sank in trying to oppress white people almost boggle the imagination. There was a rule that if a female indentured servant became pregnant, a few extra years were added on to their indenture, supposedly because they would be working less hard during their pregnancy and child-rearing so it wasn’t fair to the master. Virginian aristocrats would rape their own female servants, then add a penalty term on to their indenture for becoming pregnant. That is an impressive level of chutzpah. But despite these efforts, eventually all the white people either died, or became too sluggish to be useful, or worst of all just finished up their indentures and became legally free. The aristocrats started importing black slaves as per the model that had sprung up in the Caribbean, and so the stage was set for the antebellum South we read about in history classes.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Albion’s Seed“, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-27.
February 3, 2016
In Reason, J.D. Tuccille explains why the usual media coverage of underage/trafficked/sex slave prostitutes being shipped in to cater to the depraved masses at the Super Bowl are so much hysterical nonsense:
When the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off in San Francisco, experts warn us to expect Cam Newton and Peyton Manning to face burial under a tidal wave of human flesh — not the opposing team’s defensive line, as you might expect, but a writhing mass of sex slaves inundating the Super Bowl and the Bay Area.
Or so government officials and moral panic types would have it.
“Super Bowl host cities typically see a jump not just in tourists, but also in some crimes, including human trafficking and prostitution,” San Francisco’s KGO warned earlier this month on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, an annual event held every January 11.
“The good news is that we are continuing our efforts to fight human trafficking,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the same day. “The bad news is that the problem continues to increase.”
Gascón made his comments at a press conference deliberately tied to the big game, in anticipation of a wave of “trafficked” sex workers descending on the area.
That term – not “prostitution,” but “trafficking” — is a deliberate choice, selected to confuse people accustomed to the plain language established over the long history of the buying and selling of sexual services. The reason why is obvious. While the trade in sex was once frowned upon in itself, that’s no longer necessarily the case. A YouGov poll published this past September found Americans almost evenly divided, with 44 percent favoring legalization of prostitution, and 46 percent opposed. That’s up from 38 percent support for legalization in 2012. Amnesty International is among the organizations seeking to recognize people’s right to, in the organization’s words, “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.”
Opponents of commercial sex find themselves on the wrong side of shifting public opinion, so they pull a little rhetorical sleight of hand to get around that inconvenient word “consensual.” The implication of the “trafficking” terminology is that prostitutes are slaves — and they’re being hustled off to a major sporting event near you.
“Coercion is much rarer than ‘trafficking’ fetishists pretend it is,” insists Reason contributor and former call girl Maggie McNeill. “The term ‘trafficking’ is used to describe many different things along a broad spectrum running from absolutely coercive to absolutely not coercive, yet all of them are shoehorned into a lurid, melodramatic and highly-stereotyped narrative.”
December 7, 2015
Hannah James reports on Montreal’s “Jewish Schindler”:
From his office at The Prancing Horse — a high-end car and motorcycle dealership in Montreal — Steve Maman is scrolling through picture after picture of Yazidi women and girls he’s helped liberate. They were held as slaves in northern Iraq by fighters with the Islamic State group.
“You relive the emotions,” Maman explains as he looks through his files of dozens of women and children. “It’s anger. Right now I’m getting angry. That’s all it is. It builds anger. You get angry.”
In August 2014, IS militants raided villages in the Sinjar District of northern Iraq. It’s an area occupied by many Yazidis – a religious minority practicing an ancient religion, pre-dating Islam.
IS considers the Yazidis heretics, and set out to purge the villages of men, and to kidnap thousands of women and children to sell as sexual and domestic slaves.
Not long after the invasion of Sinjar, an IS video surfaced, showing a group of men laughing and joking about buying and selling Yazidi girls.
“Can you prove to her you’re a man?” one of the men asks another.
Maman, a car dealer specializing in luxury vintage automobiles, saw the news coverage of the massacres across Sinjar, and says he felt he had to take action. He calls his mission not a “choice” but “divine providence.” He says he’s inspired by his religious beliefs, and also by Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who rescued 1,200 Jews during the holocaust.
October 7, 2015
What about slavery? Slavery certainly has its place among the horrors of humanity. But our “educators” today, along with the media, present a highly edited segment of the history of slavery. Those who have been through our schools and colleges, or who have seen our movies or television miniseries, may well come away thinking that slavery means white people enslaving black people. But slavery was a worldwide curse for thousands of years, as far back as recorded history goes.
Over all that expanse of time and space, it is very unlikely that most slaves, or most slave owners, were either black or white. Slavery was common among the vast populations in Asia. Slavery was also common among the Polynesians, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other indigenous peoples before anyone on this side of the Atlantic had ever seen a European.
More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States or to the 13 colonies from which it was formed. White slaves were still being bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.
Thomas Sowell, “Indoctrination by Grievance-Mongers: Anti-American educational elites need a dose of reality”, National Review, 2014-10-15.
September 24, 2015
I am often asked if, by calling “sex trafficking” a myth, I’m saying that there is no such thing as coercion in sex work. The answer, of course, is “not at all”; what I’m saying is 1) that coercion is much rarer than “trafficking” fetishists pretend it is; 2) that the term “trafficking” is used to describe many different things along a broad spectrum running from absolutely coercive to absolutely not coercive, yet all of them are shoehorned into a lurid, melodramatic and highly-stereotyped narrative; and 3) that even situations of genuine coercion rarely bear much resemblance to the familiar masturbatory fantasy of an “innocent” middle-class girl in her early teens abducted by “pimps” from a shopping mall, bus stop or internet chat room.
Maggie McNeill, “The Face of Trafficking”, The Honest Courtesan, 2014-10-10.
August 26, 2015
Strategy Page on the use of slavery to provide tangible rewards to faithful Muslim warriors of the new Caliphate:
Although ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) publicized an auction for slaves (captured non-Moslem women and children) in June they have since replaced that with a printed price list. Young children are the most expensive going for up to $200 each. Adolescent girls cost about $125 and adult women go for under a hundred dollars. The catch here is the buyers are restricted to ISIL gunmen, as something of a fringe benefit. The sales are made with the understanding that the buyer can resell their slave for whatever they can get. It is also understood that ISIL slave owners can try to arrange for families to ransom the slaves for whatever the owner can get (usually several thousand dollars each). The June 2015 slave auction in eastern Syria sold 42 Yazidi women who were offered to ISIL men for between $500 and $2,000. So being allowed to buy a slave is quite a lucrative fringe benefit.
Since the slaves were not Moslem they could not be married so their owners would use them for sex, housekeeping or whatever. ISIL was depending on Moslem scripture to justify this. Actually, ISIL is not alone as there is still a lot of slavery in the Islamic world. There is also a lot of hatred for non-Moslems especially those considered pagans. ISIL considers the Yazidis pagans but will enslave Christians as well. It was with Yazidis that ISIL reintroduced slavery (of non-Moslems, especially “pagans” like Yazidis) into their new Islamic State. This may appall many in the West and to placate foreigners most Arab nations have outlawed slavery, despite the fact that it still exists and continues to exist with much local support.
For example in northeast Nigeria a local Islamic terror group, Boko Haram, revived slavery in 2014. Boko Haram, which considers themselves devout religious reformers, consider slaving justified by Islamic law. Yet the Boko Haram revival of slaving resonates deeply in northern and central Nigeria. Northeastern Nigeria was once the center of an empire that grew rich by enslaving other Africans and selling them to Arab traders who transported the slaves to Arabia. This trade continued until the British colonial government suppressed it in the 19th century. Bitter memories linger and the Boko Haram slaving opened an old wound.
May 6, 2015
Published on 27 Jan 2015
In this video, we take a look at real-world applications of elasticity, using the examples of slave redemption in Sudan and and the effects of gun buyback programs in the U.S.
May 4, 2015
Published on 27 Jan 2015
Beginning in 1993, Sudan entered into a civil war, with one of the worst parts being that many people were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Humanitarian groups traveled to Sudan to redeem slaves by buying them out of slavery. Is this good policy? Did it work out, or make it worse? Let’s use elasticity to analyze the situation.
April 6, 2015
Poul Anderson pointed out to me that he rather doubted if this country could survive through purely voluntary military service.
Perhaps he is right. I care not. If there are not sufficient Simon-pure, utterly uncoerced volunteers to defend a country and save it … [sic] then let it go down the drain! And that applies just as much to my own beloved country as it does to the Roman Empire … The thought of a draftee being required to die that I may live is as morally offensive to me as that of galley slaves, chained to their sweeps, and drowning in battle not of their choosing.
If the United States goes under (as I am inclined to think she will), I will be inclined to blame it on moral decay rather than on the superiority of our enemies … [sic] and, to me, the gravest aspect of that moral decay lies in the fact that we have elected to depend on human slaves as cannon fodder.
But I suppose that my opposition to a democratically accepted and publicly approved social institution such as the National Selective Service Act — having the gall to label this flag-bedecked and chaplain-blessed custom “human slavery” — is still another of “Heinlein’s dangerous ideologies” as seditious as my unspeakable notion that the franchise is not a “natural right” to be handed out as freely as favours at a children’s party, but to be earned by toil and danger at great personal sacrifice.
Well, if my teachings are now to be indicted as “dangerous”, tending to “corrupt the youth of the land”, I will be in most noble and distinguished company. Pass the hemlock, please —
Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Cogswell 1959-12-04, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).
March 26, 2015
All laws and regulations have unforeseen consequences. That usually means unintended damage, but there’s no law of history that says every unplanned outcome is pernicious.
If you’re an advocate of a free society — one in which all arrangements are voluntary and there is the least coercive interference from governments or other thugs — history will present you with an unending series of conundrums. Whom do you side with in the Protestant Reformation, for example? The Catholic Church banned books and tortured scholars, and their official structure is one of hierarchy and authority. Easy enemy, right? Clear-cut bad guy. But the Church had kept the State in check for centuries — and vice versa, permitting seeds of freedom to root and flourish in the gaps between power centers. Whereas the Protestant states tended to be more authoritarian than the Catholic ones, with Luther and Calvin (not to mention the Anglicans) advocating orthodoxy through force. There’s a reason all those Northern princes embraced the Reformation: they wanted a cozier partnership of church and state.
This is certainly not the history I was taught in my Protestant private schools.
Similarly, most of us were schooled to side with the Union in the Civil War, to see Lincoln as a savior and the Confederacy as pure evil. But as much as the war may have resulted, however accidentally, in emancipating slaves, it also obliterated civil liberties, centralized power, strengthened central banking and fiat currencies and — to borrow from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s great book title — enslaved free men.
“Father Abraham,” as the pietists called him after his assassination, was a tyrant whose primary goal was always what he actually achieved: central power over an involuntary union. Recasting this guy as an abolitionist hero is one of the many perverse legacies of America’s official history. But it’s a mistake to simply reverse the Establishment’s verdict and claim that the Confederacy was heroic. Plenty of Johnny Rebs were fighting a righteous battle against what they rightly deemed to be foreign invaders, but even if you ignore the little problem of the South’s “peculiar institution,” the Confederate government was no more liberal than its Northern rival. “While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism,” writes Hummel, “it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.”
Reading history without taking sides may fit some scholarly ideal (actually, it seems to be a journalistic ideal created by the Progressive Movement to masquerade their views as the only unbiased ones), but it is not a realistic option. We cannot do value-free history. If we try, we instead hide or repress our biases, which makes them a greater threat to intellectual integrity.
Neither can we say, “a plague on both their houses,” and retreat to the realm of pure theory, libertarian or otherwise. We have to live in the real world, and even if we are not activists or revolutionaries, the same intellectual integrity that must reject “neutrality” also requires that we occasionally explore the question of second-best or least-evil options.
BK Marcus, “When evil institutions do good things”, Libertarian Standard, 2014-06-12.
February 14, 2015
At Strategy Page, Austin Bay talks about the unexpected modern-day relevance of distant historical events:
President Barack Obama didn’t intend to make the Battle of Yarmuk (636 A.D.) a 2015 news item.
However, his bizarrely incomplete sketch of the Crusades, delivered last week at a national prayer breakfast, did just that.
The president’s media defenders contend he intended to make a justifiable point: Throughout history, people have corrupted religious faith to self-serving, murderous ends.
That, however, is an oft-repeated truth — something everyone already knows.
But our president, while repeating something we already know, equated medieval Christian crusaders with 21st-century Islamic State terrorists. See, man? They both committed atrocities.
Obama started solid, dubbing the Islamic State “a vicious death cult.” Yes, sir. IS burns alive Jordanian Muslim pilots. But “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition,” Obama said, his solemn, deploring tone reminiscent of a preacher instructing benighted fools in the pews, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Obama then added that Christianity was used to justify slavery and segregation. While verifiably true, if you indict cross-burning Southern bigots, Mr. President, why neglect to mention that the 18th- and 19th-century worldwide anti-slavery movement was driven by Gospel-guided Christian abolitionists?
Christian abolitionists condemned slavery as evil and waged relentless political war on the slave trade. This inspired activism had policy effects and poetic drama (for example, the hymn “Amazing Grace”). Royal Navy anti-slaving patrols had global punch. The Jack Tars couldn’t shut down every Persian Gulf Islamic slave market, but they certainly deterred slavers operating in the Atlantic.
If only for the sake of fairness, Obama should have mentioned this Christian-led liberation instead of going knee-jerk and playing his worn-out leftist academic multiculturalist racism guilt-trip card.
I briefly considered putting up a poll for the readers that went something like this:
- Who was President of the United States at the time of the First Crusade? (Washington, Madison, Lincoln, FDR)
- Which American forces participated in the First Crusade? (US Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Air Force)
Trick question, as everyone knows it must have been George W. Bush, right? Right?
Trick question, as the USAF wasn’t a separate service until after World War II.
February 11, 2015
…but Jerry Toner says that modern employers can learn from the management techniques of Romans. Roman slave-owners, that is:
Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.
Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.
The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.
January 5, 2015
The latest issue of Libertarian Enterprise included this selection from Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action on how government restrictions on prices and trade contributed to the downfall of the western empire:
Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.
It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.
What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.
The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing. The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand. The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses — the villae — the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord’s estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.
The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government’s interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit [deserted the cities, preferring to live in the country]. The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities’ supply of agricultural products.
The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.
From: Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) , Chapter 30. Online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1895#lf3843-03_head_036, the Online Library of Liberty, A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets.
December 11, 2014
David Friedman discusses a few of the legal systems under which torture was not only possible, but omnipresent:
The use of torture to extract information is not a new idea. Under both Athenian and Roman law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture. Presumably the theory was that slaves were interrogated in order to get evidence against their owners, the owner had ways of putting pressure on the slave, so torture was needed to get the slave to tell the truth. In Imperial Chinese law, not only the defendant but also witnesses could be tortured. In that system, and I think also in some legal systems of medieval and renaissance Europe, a defendant could only be convicted by his own confession. Torture was one way of getting it.
The argument against torture, that the victim will say whatever he thinks will end it whether true or false, is also old — people in the past were not stupid. Our main source of information on Athenian law consists of orations written by professional orators to be memorized by a party to a law suit in a legal system where there were no lawyers and each party had to represent himself. There is one oration which claims that slave testimony under torture is perfectly reliable, that there has never been a case where it turned out to be false. There is another making the obvious argument on the other side, that such testimony is worthless since the slave will say whatever the torturer wants him to say.
They were both written by the same orator.
People in other legal systems that used torture were also aware of the problem. There is a collection of Chinese cases compiled in the 13th century for the use of magistrates. Many of them are cases where a clever judge realizes that an innocent person has been forced to confess under torture and figures out who is really guilty.
That raises an obvious question — if they saw the problem with torture, why did they continue to employ it? One answer is that extracting information might only have been an excuse, that the real purpose was to punish someone without having first to convict him. That is a possible explanation in some contexts, including the current case of torture by the CIA. But it does not explain contexts where the person being tortured was not the suspect but a potential witness.
A second possible explanation is the belief that a competent interrogator could distinguish a real confession from a fake one. That strikes me as the most likely explanation in the Roman and Athenian cases, where it was the defendant’s slave, not the defendant, who was being interrogated.
A third explanation is that torture might produce information that could be checked. That is the situation in the hypothetical cases sometimes offered in defense of the use of torture — the suspect is being forced to say where the kidnap victim, or the terrorist time bomb, is concealed. More plausibly, to say where the loot is hidden.