anti slave trade sloganHere is a letter to the editor I wrote recently.

For example, on p. 178 of his Lectures on Jurisprudence, Adam Smith writes of a typical nobleman in ancient Rome owning between 800 and 1,000 slaves… :

22 May 2010

Editor, The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018

To the Editor:

Criticizing libertarianism, you assert that "It was only government power that ended slavery" ("Limits of Libertarianism," May 22).

You're mistaken. Slavery was common throughout history until the age of industrial capitalism. Only then did this heinous institution disappear. It went away chiefly because capitalism puts a premium on creativity, initiative, and good judgment (which even the mightiest slave-master's whip cannot extract from its victims), and because the ethos that gives life to capitalism - free-market liberalism - is hostile to the ownership of man by man. That the first-to-industrialize English were the first abolitionists is no coincidence.

In North America, pressure brought by capitalism to end slavery was countered by the very agency that you praise as slaves' liberator: government. From 17th and 18th century slave codes to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and of 1850, government in America actively deployed force on behalf of slaveholders. Without this force, slavery would never have taken root as deeply as it did in the U.S. and would have died away sooner and with less bloodshed.


Donald J. Boudreaux

Professor of Economics

George Mason University

Fairfax, VA 22030





Speak your mind

2 Comments so far

  1. nelson on May 23, 2010 11:09 pm

    from wiki:
    Effects of the cotton gin

    The invention of the cotton gin caused massive growth of the production of cotton in the United States, concentrated mostly in the South. The growth of cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850. As a result, the South became even more dependent on plantations and slavery, making plantation agriculture the largest sector of the Southern economy.[7] In addition to the increase in cotton production,the number of slaves rose as well, from around 700,000, before Eli Whitney’s patent, to around 3.2 million in 1850.[8] By 1860 the United States’ South was providing eighty percent of Great Britain’s cotton and also providing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton.[9]

    Cotton had formerly required considerable labor to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds; the cotton gin revolutionized the process. With Eli Whitney’s introduction of “teeth” in his cotton gin to comb out the cotton and separate the seeds, cotton became a tremendously profitable business, creating many fortunes in the Antebellum South. New Orleans and Galveston were shipping points that derived substantial economic benefit from cotton raised throughout the South.

    According to the Eli Whitney Museum site:

    Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.[10]

  2. Curmudgeon 4561 on May 24, 2010 4:26 am

    Prof. Boudreaux view is quite different from the consensus of today’s economists. Here is an interesting summary from



    That slavery was profitable seems almost obvious. Yet scholars have argued furiously about this matter. On one side stand antebellum writers such as Hinton Rowan Helper and Frederick Law Olmstead, many antebellum abolitionists, and contemporary scholars like Eugene Genovese (at least in his early writings), who speculated that American slavery was unprofitable, inefficient, and incompatible with urban life. On the other side are scholars who have marshaled masses of data to support their contention that Southern slavery was profitable and efficient relative to free labor and that slavery suited cities as well as farms. […]

    Consensus That Slavery Was Profitable

    This battle has largely been won by those who claim that New World slavery was profitable. […]

    Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross

    Carrying the banner of the “slavery was profitable” camp is Nobel laureate Robert Fogel. Perhaps the most controversial book ever written about American slavery is Time on the Cross, published in 1974 by Fogel and co-author Stanley Engerman. These men were among the first to use modern statistical methods, computers, and large datasets to answer a series of empirical questions about the economics of slavery. To find profit levels and rates of return, they built upon the work of Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, who in 1958 had calculated similar measures from data on cotton prices, physical yield per slave, demographic characteristics of slaves (including expected lifespan), maintenance and supervisory costs, and (in the case of females) number of children. To estimate the relative efficiency of farms, Fogel and Engerman devised an index of “total factor productivity,” which measured the output per average unit of input on each type of farm. They included in this index controls for quality of livestock and land and for age and sex composition of the workforce, as well as amounts of output, labor, land, and capital

    Time on the Cross generated praise — and considerable criticism. A major critique appeared in 1976 as a collection of articles entitled Reckoning with Slavery. Although some contributors took umbrage at the tone of the book and denied that it broke new ground, others focused on flawed and insufficient data and inappropriate inferences. Despite its shortcomings, Time on the Cross inarguably brought people’s attention to a new way of viewing slavery. The book also served as a catalyst for much subsequent research. Even Eugene Genovese, long an ardent proponent of the belief that Southern planters had held slaves for their prestige value, finally acknowledged that slavery was probably a profitable enterprise. Fogel himself refined and expanded his views in a 1989 book, Without Consent or Contract.

    Efficiency Estimates

    Fogel’s and Engerman’s research led them to conclude that investments in slaves generated high rates of return, masters held slaves for profit motives rather than for prestige, and slavery thrived in cities and rural areas alike. They also found that antebellum Southern farms were 35 percent more efficient overall than Northern ones and that slave farms in the New South were 53 percent more efficient than free farms in either North or South.

    -End Quote-


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