Most people think slavery is prohibited because it's "wrong".

If that's true, we would have ended slavery thousands of years ago.

It seems that industrialization makes labor more "precious". Each labor now produce more and hence can earn more.

So, industrialization then may have something to do with ending of slavery. Perhaps some industrialized region wants "slaves" to be able to choose employers given that they can pay those slaves better anyway. And that provide political incentives to abolish slavery.

Who wants to own slaves picking cottons if we have machines doing that?

However, I still don't understand exactly how the economy works.

Any economist, say political economist that study this? How technological advances end slavery, for example?

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery - I think this post mixes the modern form of slavery (forced labour mainly) with very old forms when it was institutionally legalized.
    – Alexei
    Feb 18, 2019 at 19:55
  • 2
    I'm pretty skeptical that there are legitimate economic motives for ending slavery in the U.S. If anything, there were economic motives to keep it, moral reasons to end it, and a war because of the strong conflict between these two motives. Some political movements are not motivated by money. However, you said "If that's true, we would have ended slavery thousands of years ago." It seems that the moral side of the equation has likely been evolving over the centuries, which can be seen in many other forms of social progress and civil / human rights progress.
    – John
    Feb 18, 2019 at 19:59
  • Ref: why use (modern) slaves instead of machines. It is still cheaper in some contexts. Somewhat related: careeraddict.com/10-companies-that-still-use-child-labor.
    – Alexei
    Feb 18, 2019 at 19:59
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    (Related) The Free Soilers ultimately formed a core piece of the new Republican Party. They believed that free men on free soil was morally and economically superior to slavery. There was plenty of economic self-interest there: free white men didn’t want to compete with free (as in no cost) slave labor.
    – Daniel
    Feb 20, 2019 at 3:49

4 Answers 4

  1. You wrote:

    Most people think slavery is prohibited because it's "wrong". If that's true, we would have ended slavery thousands of years ago.

    It would be great, if that argument were sufficient and held! The same argument could be applied to many other problems, for example:

    Most people think war is prohibited because it's "wrong". If that's true, we would have ended war thousands of years ago.

  2. The abolition of slavery conincides with industrialization. That is probably no coincidence. One may speculate that the abolition was not the result of improved morals in the 19th century, but that it happened because the benefits from exploiting forced labor decreased as mechanization offered an alternative. If the abolition of slavery had meant a significant deterioration of living standards, slavery would have continued to exist.

  • Yes. The 2 is what I am getting at. As for 1, we do have less war now. Why? Because international trade makes war costly. Because westphalian sovereignity means states can make more money arranging their country well than waging war. Nukes also prevents war. So it's not just "morality". But there is real economic incentives.
    – user4951
    Feb 19, 2019 at 5:23
  • It's worth noting non-slave labor costs were actually often cheaper than slave labor costs, there were laws requiring slave owners to pension slaves & disallowing them from freeing them & simply kicking them out when they were no longer useful due to illness or age, but that was perhaps a minor thing compared to the ability to lay people off to avoid paying wages when you had no work for them, a slave you pay to keep alive, fed, clothed & housed even in the down season, that's a massive overhead for an agricultural economy like the south at the time, seasonal labor is just cheaper.
    – Pelinore
    Feb 21, 2019 at 8:30
  • I'm not sure that your counter-example of war is cogent: war at it's root is contention due to resource scarcity. I'm not sure a system of slavery benefits anyone other than slave owners or has any justification backed by physical reality. I'm not arguing that war is "right" or that avoidable wars shouldn't be avoided, but war is in a sense probably inevitable in a way that slavery isn't. Feb 22, 2019 at 14:00
  • I think slavery is inevitable without industrialization.
    – user4951
    Dec 6, 2019 at 14:08

The short is answer is that there were multiple political forces of varying degrees of powers that caused the ending of slavery. A combination of both economic forces and moral forces contributed to that end.

It is very easy to attempt to color this issue as good vs evil, but the truth is that slavery is a part of human society. From the very earliest settled human societies to some hunter-gather bands have participate in it as both the slave holder and slave. The slave trade was not only practiced by white Europeans on American soil, but also by the native Americans throughout the continent. Slavery continues today in North America, and not just in the obvious human trafficking that is in the news. Several organized criminal gangs practice modified slavery.

To show the complicated tapestry of political powers at the time that slavery was abolished in the middle of the 19th century, you have to be aware of the British influence over the new world. That actual move towards abolition was already several decades old by that time. The slave trade act of 1807 caused echoes in the various colonies and former colonies of the British empire and the other European empires. Examining those that were championing the act through parliament, it can be seen that it was advertised as a moral goal and no so much one of economics. For example, the large contingent of Quaker MPs were instrumental in the act's conception and passage. The British government use it as leverage to get other nations to pass similar acts in the empire, most notable the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves of 1807 in the United States and the Act Against slavery of 1793 from the government of what is now Canada. This led to the complete abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire (with some weird exceptions) with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. This act was purely a grass root effort that had little to do with Economics. This Act served to sow the seeds of the Abolition movement in the United States.

From the point of view of the citizens of the United States at the time just prior to Civil War, being for abolition was a moral stance while being against abolition was an Economic one for a small minority. For most in the states that would secede, the feeling was that of also taking a moral stance. They felt that the change of abolishing slavery would be the loss of their way of life. This flies in the face of endemic problems of high unemployment and relative rampant poverty. It was slavery that had stopped the progress of industrialization that had affected the rest of the country. For a similar contrast of a society stuck in an obsolete era, study the Saudi Arabian society of today. Many of the customs that we westerners see as barbaric were common place and social in 15 Century England. What I mean is the chopping of hands, public hangings, religious law, stratification of caste, etc. All things that we see in the societies of "A Game of Thrones" (minus the magic and dragons) are going on there today. You will find these customs defended by the average citizen of Saudi Arabia. During my time in Desert Shield, I got to talk to the Ceylonian servant of the air strip tower chief who defended his master who he was indentured to. This is similar to the feelings of the man-on-the-street of mid 19th century South Carolina. They never left the 18th century while the rest of the country continued forward.

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    So maybe it's just that slavery is evil, but that evil is part of human society?
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 19, 2019 at 9:18

Most people think slavery is prohibited becausevit is wrong ... If that’s true we would have ended slavery thousands of years ago.

Graeco-Roman slavery actually ended in Europe a long time ago and it more or less morphed into feudalism with people tied to the land and a hierarchy of duties, obligations and rights. It was revived when Europe expanded beyond its borders, it saw the vast resources that lay plentifully in its reach, and it also saw that its military power exceeded that of its neighbours and having surveyed the global scene, it decided to appropriate it for itself, to put it baldly - to steal. Europe became a thief. Though it called itself a conquerer.

A word that might mean something to some people but when Alexander the Great came upon some Jain philosophers in India, they angrily rebuked him. So likewise. They stole land, nations and men. Leaving behind an immense devastation. The Mongolian warriors were called the Golden Horde because of their violence and their military might. Europe had seen nothing like it and it was fearful. Likewise for the world and Europe. The world had seen nothing like this before. The ‘white hordes’ pouring out of their remote peninsula, maddened by gold and greed.

Aime Cesaire, in his Discourse on Colonialism, begins by saying:

A civilisation that proves itself incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilisation.

A civilisation that chooses to choses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilisation.

A civilisation that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilisation.

And later he quotes Renan from his book Refonne moral et intellectuel:

We aspire not to equality but to domination. The country of a foreign race must once again become a country of serfs, of agricultural labourers, of industrial workers. It is not a question of eliminating the inequalities between men butbof widening them and making them into a law.

To which he comments ‘This rings clear, haughty and brutal. We are planted squarely in the middle of the howling savagery. He then goes on further quoting from Renan:

The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races is part of the providential order of things for humanity. With us the common man is nearly always a déclassé nobleman, his heavy hand is better suited to handling the sword rather than a menial tool. Rathercthan work, he chooses to fight, that is, he returns to his first estate. Regere imperio populos, that is our vocation. Pour forth this all-consuming activity onto countries which, like China, are crying out for foreign conquest. Turn Europe into a ver sacrum, a horde like those of the Franks, the Lombards or the Normans, and every man will be in his right role.

Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no sense of honour; govern them with justice, levying from them, in return for the blessing of such a government, an ample allowance for the conquering race, and they will be satisfied. A race of tillers of the soil, the Negro, treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should be. A race of masters and soldiers, the European race.

Reduce this noble race to working in the ergastulum, like the Negroes and the Chinese, and they rebel. In Europe, every rebel is more or less a soldier who has missed his calling. A creature made for the heroic life, before whom you are setting a task that is contrary to his nature. A poor worker and too good a soldier. But the life at which our workers would rebel will make a Chinese and a fellah happy, as they are not military creatures in the least. Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well.

Cesaire himself is shocked that something like this can come from Renans pen. It’s worth deconstructing this: Renan is exhorting his fellow Europeans that the feudal elites had for so long oppressed, to forget their differences, to forget the fact that they had been more or less enslaved and set to work, he is telling that that there are new countries to plunder, to set to work, and over whom together they could lord it over. They are not crying out to be conquered - he is crying out that they should be conquered. That’s some sleight of phrase.

Where once they were despised as peasants, they are now almost set up as equals with the nobleman, he is merely a ‘déclassé nobleman’. In the architecture of racial hierarchy that they were building, the Europeans were to be enobled and set up before all others as the madter race. And so he encourages their fighting spirit, calling his jingoism heroism. This is the heroic jingoism that ended up with over a million dead in the battle of the Somme.

And then he quotes Monsieur Albert Sarraut, a Governor-General of Indochina, holding forth at the Ecole Coloniale, teaching them it would be peurile to object to the European colonial enterprises in the name

name of an alleged right to possess the land that one occupies and some sort of right to remain in fierce isolation which would leave unutilised forever resources to lie idle in the hands of incompetents.

So much for the sancity of property when the property belongs to some other people. And then from Marshall Bugeaud:

We must have a great invasion of Africa like that of the Franks and the Lombards.

And then Cesaire reminds the reader of the ‘remarkable feat of arms’ of General Gerard in the capture of the Algerian village of Ambike, which being a village, ‘would not have dreamt of defending itself.’

The native riflemen had orders to kill only the men but no-one restrained them. Intoxicated by the smell of blood, they spared no-one, not one woman, not one child ... At the end of the afternoon, the heat caused a light mist to rise: it was the blood of five thousand victims, the ghost of a city, evaporating in the setting sun.

Sometimes it pained the conscience of these military men, Colonel de Montagnais, another conquerer of Algeria confessed:

Sometimes when thoughts besiege me I cut off some heads, not the heads of artichokes, but the heads of men.

Then he quotes a certain Carl Siger, author of an Essai sur la colonisation, published in Paris, 1907:

The new countries offer a vast field to the individual, violent activities, which in the metropolitan countries would run up against certain prejudices, against a sober and orderly conception of life, and which in the colonies have a greater freedom to develop, and consequently, to affirm their worth. Thus to a certain extent, the colonies can serve as a safety valve for modern society. Even if this was their only value, it would be immense.

I’ve quoted at length from a scholar of colonialism to show that slavery in the modern era was not some random contingent fact of fate, but a scheme planned, plotted and schemed for. It wasn’t technology that stopped slavery but technology that allowed it, because it increased the military might of Europe.

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    This is just factually wrong. Slavery has nothing to do with European colonialism. While Roman-era slavery did mostly die out in Europe, the slave trade remained alive and well in the Muslim lands. Likewise, slavery was an institution in China from its ancient days, only abolished in the 20th century. (And it could be argued that the "abolition" just made everyone slaves of the Communist state.)
    – jamesqf
    Feb 19, 2019 at 19:34
  • @jamesqf: How could the trans-Atlantic slave trade begin without the colonisation of America which required cheap labour, and the scramble for Africa which had plentiful cheap labour? It looks to me that slave labour has everything to do with European colonisation and imperialism. I’m not tackling here slavery in other parts of the world. Feb 28, 2019 at 3:33
  • While the trans-Atlantic slave trade obviously could not have existed prior to the discovery of the Americas, the African slave trade had existed for centuries prior to that, largely transporting African slaves to the Islamic lands. (And European & western Asian slaves, too: they did not seem to have racial preferences.) The trans-Atlantic trade was nothing more than the opening of a new market. See e.g. the Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_slave_trade
    – jamesqf
    Feb 28, 2019 at 18:17
  • @jamesfq: I don’t see what real difference that makes. Whilst commerce existed existed during the feudal era, no-one mistakes it for odern capitalism; likewise the slave trade wasn’t simply in the same scale. You might want to read Ouladahs Equianos spave narrative to get a better picture of what slavery itself was like in Africa. Mar 1, 2019 at 3:45
  • The difference it makes is that it shows your entire screed to be absolutely contradicted by historical fact.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 1, 2019 at 18:50

Yes, there is a lot of work on the economic aspects of slavery. But it generally does not support the view that slavery was abolished because wage labor was more profitable.

As mentioned in the top answer to a similar question on Reddit, there is a classic (if controversial) study on this by a couple of economic historians called Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974). I haven't read it myself but they apparently show significant evidence that slave-based cotton production remained highly profitable, not in decline, just before the Civil War. Here is a blog post with relevant quotations from that book and other works elaborating the point.

The above is specific to the United States. In other cases like the British Empire, which abolished the slave trade in 1807, the situation was more mixed. Brazil maintained slavery much later, until 1888, so it was presumably quite profitable there.

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