Saturday, April 20, 2013

Virgil Henry Storr, Enterprising Slaves and Master Pirates

I have been reading Virgil Henry Storr's Enterprising Slaves and Master Pirates: Understanding Economic Life in the Bahamas. Storr is an economist at George Mason University. His book is an economic history of the Bahamas, and is of interest both in terms of its content and its methodology.

Content-wise, the Bahamas are a fascinating case; for example, slavery in the Bahamas operated differently than in other places in the West Indies, due at least in part to the poor Bahamian soil, which prevented plantations from being as profitable as elsewhere. Bahamian slaves were permitted to work for themselves on Saturdays, to relieve their owners from having to feed and clothe them. This allowed (or forced) slaves to engage in farming and crafts for their own benefit, and they had the right to sell their labor to others (though, predictably, their owners still received a cut). Storr argues that the peculiarities of slavery in the Bahamas introduced a spirit of enterprise among Bahamians, which is still a part of the culture today. Storr also argues that the Bahamian culture and economy was influenced by piracy and other piracy-like practices over the centuries, including wrecking and salvaging, blockade-running during the U.S. Civil War and bootlegging during Prohibition, all of which played a salient role in the economic life of the islands. There is thus a connection between profit and plunder (or at least, illicit activity) in the Bahamian culture.

Methodology-wise, Storr's work is a fascinating synthesis of two different research programs: Max Weber's economic sociology and Austrian economics (i.e., Mises, Hayek, and so on) on the one hand, and cultural studies and theory more generally on the other hand. Perhaps the root of this synthesis is Max Weber's own economic approach to sociology, but the later Hayek also placed great emphasis on the role of culture in the development of economic institutions. In any case, Storr makes a powerful case for the view that economists should pay more attention to culture in order to understand how economic agents and whole economies actually function. If this puts pressure on the methodological individualism of classical and neo-classical economics, it also pressures cultural and critical theorists to pay more attention to economic factors when producing their analyses of cultural and historical factors. For instance, an understanding of slavery and its legacy in the Bahamas is incomplete without an analysis of the Bahamian plantation economy, including the farming and piecework practices of the slaves there. Storr's research program is probably just beginning, but I hope it has an influence both on economists and on cultural theorists.
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