Archaeologists in Giza have just discovered an ancient document summarizing the social science evidence on the effects of freeing people from slavery. Given that many people will be celebrating Passover next month, perhaps they should stop just repeating ideological talking points and consider what the evidence has to say. Here is a translation of that ancient document:
The confirmation of Moses as leader of the Hebrews was a signal moment for the Exodus movement. For the first time, the Hebrews are being led by someone fully committed to making the end of slavery and departure from Egypt the centerpiece of the Hebrew agenda.
But even as ending slavery is poised to go global, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that freeing people from slavery may harm the people who are freed. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.
While many policy ideas have murky origins, ending slavery emerged fully formed from a single, brilliant promise Abram received from G-d, the literal godfather later to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics (check this?). G-d declared: “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.”
The freedom idea sat dormant for nearly 400 years before taking root in a few places, most notably Goshen. As people began to experiment with ending slavery researchers were able to collect data to compare freed people with similar people who remained as slaves. Many of the results were released over the last 18 months.
The first results came in late 1446 BCE. Researchers examined the initial results of departing Egypt. “In mobility” they found, “freed slaves experienced a significant increase in wandering the desert.” They also saw a marked decline in food production, with Hebrews having to rely entirely on food assistance programs.
The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of civic order. They found large negative results in both idol worship and lawlessness. Former slaves who started as devout followers of G-d and then were freed dropped to forming a golden calf in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.
This is very unusual. When people try to improve human behavior, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve human behavior having the opposite result. Thethi Neferti, a professor at the Luxor Graduate School of Social Science, calls the negative effects “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature”
In June, a third freeing-slaves study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of ending slavery (but only if it produces good outcomes and there are sufficient regulations in place). The study, which was financed by the pro-freedom Hatshepsut Family Foundation, focused on a large ending slavery program in Memphis. “Subjects freed from slavery fared worse economically compared to their closely matched peers who continued as slaves,” the researchers found. Freed slaves often became share-croppers and experienced public discrimination, leading social scientists to conclude that they would have been better off on the plantation, where food was more reliably available.
Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new freeing-slaves programs, found that ending slavery hurt people’s outcomes. Researchers and advocates began a spirited debate about what, exactly, was going on.
Meriptah Djedptahaufankh of the Brookings Institution noted that the performance gap between freed people and slaves had narrowed significantly over time. He argued that stronger incentives for masters to provide slaves with food, clothing, and shelter were proving effective. The assumed superiority of freedom may no longer hold.
Some freedom supporters observed that many farms in Memphis chose not to employ freed slaves, and those that did had recently experienced declining crop production. Perhaps the participating farms were unusually bad and eager for labor. But this is another way of saying that exposing freed slaves to the vagaries of private-sector competition is inherently risky. The free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the freed slaves — see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many neighborhoods with former slaves.
Others have argued that the reliable supply of food is the wrong measure of whether ending slavery is desirable. It’s true that ending-slavery programs in Cairo and some others elsewhere, which produced no improvements in access to food, increased the likelihood of freed slaves experiencing dignity and autonomy. One study of freeing slaves in Giza found positive results for feelings of self-worth among freed slaves.
But research has also linked the availability of food to a host of positive outcomes later in life. And freedom advocates often cite poor food supply for slaves to justify freeing slaves in the first place.
The new studies about freeing slaves stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated indentured servitude in Heliopolis and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on the availability of food. But while freeing slaves and changing slaves to indentured servants are often grouped under the umbrella of “freedom,” the best indentured servant programs tend to be run by well-meaning aristocrats, open to all servants and accountable to public authorities. The less “free” that ending slavery programs are, the better they seem to work.
The new evidence on ending slavery does not seem to have deterred the Moses administration, which has proposed the departure of all Hebrews from conditions of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ enthusiasm for freedom, which have been the primary focus of his plague-bringing efforts and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.