Did capitalism end slavery?

Don Boudreaux thinks so

The fact is that slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged. And it disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain. This was no coincidence. Slavery was destroyed by capitalism.

To begin with, the ethical and political principles that support capitalism are inconsistent with slavery. As we Americans discovered, a belief in the universal dignity of human beings, their equality before the law, and their right to govern their own lives cannot long coexist with an institution that condemns some people to bondage merely because of their identity.

But even on purely economic grounds, capitalism rejects slavery because slaves are productive only when doing very simple tasks that can easily be monitored. It’s easy to tell if a slave is moving too slowly when picking cotton. And it’s easy to speed him up. Also, there’s very little damage he can do if he chooses to sabotage the cotton-picking operation.

Compare a cotton field with a modern factory — say, the shipyard that my father worked in as a welder until he retired. My dad spent much of his time welding alone inside of narrow pipes. If you owned the shipyard, would you trust a slave to do such welding? While not physically impossible to monitor and check his work, the cost to the shipyard owner of hiring trustworthy slave-masters to shadow each slave each moment of the day would be prohibitively costly. Much better to have contented employees who want their jobs — who are paid to work and who want to work — than to operate your expensive, complicated, easily sabotaged factory with slaves.

Finally, the enormous investment unleashed by capitalism dramatically increases the demand for workers. (All those factories and supermarkets must be manned.) Even if each individual factory owner wants to enslave his workers, he doesn’t want workers elsewhere to be enslaved, for that makes it more difficult for him to expand his operations. As a group, then, capitalists have little use for slavery.

History supports this truth: Capitalism exterminated slavery.

It is entirely possible that capitalism as we know it was only made possible by slavery on the American continent, implemented on a scale rarely, if ever, seen before. One of the areas in which it was used, extensively, was in the labour-intensive production of cotton. This cotton in turn provided the inputs to meet the insatiable demand for raw material from the textile industry of early-industrial Lancashire. Without the cotton, the textile industry could not have existed and it’s workers and capitalists would have had to remain on the land.

However, once advanced market systems had been established and large numbers of people escaped from a Malthusian subsistence farming existence, could it be that capitalism and commerce is a force for increasing human freedom?

Certainly industrialisation and the increase in productivity via through the use of machinery and fossil fuels would have rendered this inhumane practice much less economically valuable. For some people the very idea of capitalism helping to end oppression may seem counter-intuitive and perhaps even distasteful. But is it possible, that the ever-rising tide of prosperity, powered by compounding annual (recessions excepted) economic growth from ever-more sophisticated trade, creates ever more scope for progressive causes to achieve success? Do periods of market-led growth lay the foundations for further human-emancipation, perhaps by freeing the hands of campaigners for just causes?

And what are the most pressing causes of our time? Are they the issues that affect us only in the West? Or should we broaden our horizons to include those afflicting several billion of the world’s population still languishing in poverty?

William Gibson once said that “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet”. The last 20 years have seen an unprecedented explosion in innovation in telecommunications and internet technologies connecting people around the globe as never before – distributing the sum total of the world’s knowledge to anyone with a mobile phone or computer and broadband connection. It wasn’t that long ago that economists thought developing economies couldn’t sustain industrial economies. The introduction of 3 billion new citizens into the capitalist system since 1990, and the surge in growth rates across South East Asia and Latin America have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of subsistence poverty. Although often experienced as a threat by us in the West, it must surely feel incredibly liberating for them.

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