In a recent study, Nunn (2008) examines the long-term impacts of Africa’s slave trade. He finds that the slave trade, which occurred over a period of more than 400 years, had a significant negative effect on long-term economic development. Although the paper arguably identifies a negative causal relationship between the slave trade and income today, the analysis is unable to pin down the exact causal mechanisms underlying the reduced form relationship documented in the paper. In this paper, we examine one of the channels through which the slave trade may affect economic development today. Using fine-grained individual-level survey data, we test whether the slave trade caused a culture of mistrust to develop within Africa. Early in the slave trade, slaves were primarily captured through state organized raids and warfare. By the end of the trade, because of the environment of ubiquitous insecurity that had developed, individuals - even friends and family members - began to turn on one another, kidnapping, tricking, and selling each other into slavery (e.g., Koelle, 1854, Hair, 1965, Piot, 1996). We hypothesize that in this environment, where everyone had to constantly be on guard against being sold or tricked into slavery by those around them, a culture of mistrust may have evolved, and that this mistrust may continue to persist today.
Our hypothesis builds on the well-established result from cultural anthropology that in environments where information acquisition is either costly or imperfect, the use of heuristic decision making strategies or ‘rules-of-thumb’ can be an optimal strategy (Boyd and Richerson, 1985, 1995). These general rules or beliefs about what the ‘right’ action is in different situations saves the individual from the costs of information acquisition. Of course, these norms or rules-of-thumb do not develop in a vacuum, but evolve according to which norms yield the highest payoff. Our view is that in areas more exposed to the slave trade,...
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