Horrible but not unique - Public Domain

Here is a rather specialist amusement. Apparently it’s the newest and latest shocking discovery of modern historians that economics had something to do with the abolition of slavery. It wasn’t simply an upwelling of basic humanity which led to the end of the abhorrence of chattel slavery, but was, at least in part, something inspired by that love of pilf and gelt.

Well, yes, but this is hardly a new argument:

While researching the book – Island off the Coast of Asia, Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy – Fernandes sought to test his belief that while humanitarianism was a factor in slavery’s abolition, economic rationalism was at least equally responsible.

Fernandes writes, “By the early 19th century, sugar cane on slave plantations in the British West Indies was so intensively cultivated that there was a crisis of overproduction. The unprofitability of the slave colonies was a major factor in Britain’s decision to abolish the slave trade. Popular understandings in recent years have emphasised philanthropic rather than economic reasons for abolition. But the truth is that economic factors were highly influential.”

Why this is a new idea is anyones’ guess. Possibly just that all too many are so ignorant of economics that they don’t get what has already been said in the subject.

For the standard economists’ explanation is that at anything much above a Stone Age or subsistence society then free and paid labour is more efficient than slave. Thus any society which makes it over that barrier above subsistence will find that slavery is uneconomic and it will disappear. As it has done in every society which has done it.

OK, not all find that entirely convincing but then that’s their problem. But we can go a bit further. Economics is known as the “dismal science.” As a result of Carlyle whining about how the abolition of slavery meant the white man wasn’t going to Lord it over the Negro as he jolly well should:

The phrase “the dismal science” first occurs in Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 tract called Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he argued in favor of reintroducing slavery in order to restore productivity to the West Indies:

Not a “gay science”, I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.[2]

It was “dismal” in “find[ing] the secret of this Universe in ‘supply and demand’, and reducing the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone”. Instead, the “idle Black man in the West Indies” should be “compelled to work as he was fit, and to do the Maker’s will who had constructed him”.[3]

Carlyle’s view was attacked by John Stuart Mill as making a virtue of toil itself, stunting the development of the weak, and committing the “vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature”.

Mill also pointed out the economic implications – that free labour was more valuable.

Standard economic theory says there’s good economic reason why slavery disappears as basic human grunt work becomes less valuable and human skill more so. The economists of the time of slavery’s abolition pointed out that free and paid labour is more valuable than slave. And today we’re supposed to be astonished that there were economic reasons for the abolition of slavery?

What joy there is from the modern historians, eh?

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Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole

See Deathworld 2 (Harry Harrison, pbuh) 1964:
Kill a slave and what do you lose? Very little if there’s another slave in the pens that can push in the same place. But kill me, and what do you get? Brains on your club – and they do you no good at all there.


You also get modern people complaining that the slave owners were paid to get rid of their slaves, ignoring the fact that the easiest and most efficient way of abolishing something en mass is for the abolishers to buy out the thing being abolished. Slavery had been being chipped away by individuals buying slaves “retail” and liberating them for centuries, Britain simply used the power of the state to buy the entire market wholesale, and then followed up by using the power of the state to close the market.


The book why nations fail, takes the other view.
They seem to think that slavery and exploitation stops economic growth and removing it causes growth to happen.
It is a fascinating read.


There is also a belief that embracing renewable energy and writing Environmental Impact Statements causes growth to happen. And any union hack can show you why employing twice the numbers of unionized workers will lead to prosperity. Me, I think that there would be instant milk-and-honey if everyone else just adopted my positions.


Abolition of slavery in the US was also political: The agrarian South was consistently getting outvoted by the industrial North, and the Confederate States of America defended its own enterprises and its concept of property (which included Negroes). Rhoda had it right a few months ago: Unskilled labor was inexpensive, and having to pay for it in cash rather than with room/board/burials was not a big change. Of course when brainwork comes to dominate, you have to treat it right rather than just own it.


The Romans were well above stone age, as were/are the Arabs. Africans were well into the iron age when Europeans stopped them from taking slaves. A slave had advantages as well as disadvantages. He was guaranteed subsistence which the free man was not. He didn’t face starvation, if he didn’t work he faced the lash- the former kils, the latter hurts. OTOH the slave could never rise above subsistence, the free man could. When 95% of the population lived at subsistence, and starvation was a real possibility slavery was less resented by the slave and less pitied by the free.… Read more »