Revisionist History – Economics Killed Slavery

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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?