Saturday, May 11, 2019

Further Thoughts on "Slavery as the Foundation of America?"

I see there is some confusion in the comment section of my post, "Slavery as the Foundation of America?".

For example, one commenter writes:

 I found an article in Forbes Magazine entitled, "The Clear Connection between Slavery and American Capitalism," where Forbes Magazine interviews Harvard University historian Sven Beckert.

During the interview Professor Beckert says,

"There are very many economic links between the southern plantation complex and the development of American and global capitalism, involving trade, industry, banking, insurance, shipping, and other industries. The most prominent link developed around cotton.

"As you know, the cotton industry was crucial to the world-altering Industrial Revolution as it first unfolded in Great Britain and then spread from there to other parts of the world, including the northern states of the Union. Until 1861, until the American Civil War, almost all cotton used in industrial production was grown by enslaved workers in the southern parts of the United States. Slavery thus played a very important role in supplying an essential raw material for industrial production."
But this perspective needs to be expanded far beyond that of Beckert.

Consider this Gedankenexperiment.

Let us assume that there is a flower nursery nearby, where the flowers are put in healthy soil, watered regularly and a yellow bow tied around the stems.

We could recast the Beckert argument this way about the flowers in the nursery:
"There are very many economic links between the yellow bows and flowers grown in nurseries.The most prominent link developed around the yellow bow. It involved manufacturers, middlemen, transport, salesman, accountants, bankers and designers."
Just because something is present doesn't mean it is a necessary or significant factor. Just because a yellow bow was present on each flower does not mean it was foundational to the growth of the flowers. It wasn't.

Likewise, with slavery, it was certainly a part of the economy but it was not the fundamental driver of the growth of capitalism. The fundamental factors were private property, the rule of law and the increase in savings which produced great amounts of capital. None of this required slavery.

Further from Mao's China to Lenin and Stalin's Soviet Union slavey was present but this did not produce a booming capitalist economy.

In Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, in R.J. Rummel writes:
Far above all is Gulag - the Soviet slave labor system created by Lenin and built up under Stalin. In some 70 years it likely chewed up almost 40 million lives, well over twice as many as probably died in some 400 years of African slave trade from capture to sale in an Arab, Oriental or New World market.
The cotton growing industry in America, itself, did not require slavery. Laborers could have just been bid for on the open market. Indeed, the cotton industry in the United States now is a $25 billion per year industry that employs over 200,000 people-none slaves.

This latest claim that slavery is foundational to the growth of capitalism in America is just another con of the free market haters.



  1. I kind of wonder if slavery was more of an impediment if anything. We know that there is no incentive for workers under socialism to be highly efficient producers. If they produce more, they dont get anything out of it, and if they find any ways to streamline production, all the spoils go to others. The same thing exists under slavery, so I would imagine the same inefficiency does as well.

    1. That was basically Tocqueville's observation comparing Kentucky to Ohio.

    2. D May,
      I agree that slavery acted, in some respects, as an impediment. Slaver holders had fewer incentives to search for more efficient methods and better technologies related to production because they had cheap slave labor, relatively speaking. Also, due to a lack of incentives, many slaves were known to slack off and do as little work as possible when the “master” wasn’t watching causing lower amounts of production.

  2. Below is my reply to the commenter RW refers to:


    I'm sure RW could have made a more nuanced argument if that were his intensions here. IMO his intentions were to warn us of the “latest lefty tactics”. As you have probably already seen RW has responded to the Forbes article you linked to in a new post Further Thoughts on "Slavery as the Foundation of America?"

    I see two distinct resolutions being debated. The first that RW brought up: Is slavery the foundation of America . The second from the Forbes article: Is there a clear connection between slavery and American capitalism. Lets limit America to the USA.

    The second is an easy yes IMO. I like nuance as you seem to. This has been offered by RW at his Further Thoughts on "Slavery as the Foundation of America?" post. A connection? Yes, but Sven Beckert and Dina Gerdeman want us to believe this connection means capitalism is reliant on slavery. This is myopic ignorance or just plain propaganda to push their position that capitalist employers are equivalent to big bad slavers and their employees are equivalent to slaves. Which leads to their ultimate position: capitalism bad, socialism good. I'm calling BS. They have it exactly backward as is backed up by history. Including that of the first colonist that tried a socialist commune that resulted in famine. This was quickly turned around after they abandoned their communal distributions and allowed individuals and families to distribute what they produced as they saw fit.

    The answer to the first resolution is an easy no IMO. If the resolution were: Is slavery A PART of the foundation of the USA, I would say yes. But to contend that slavery is or was THE foundation of the USA is ridiculous. In an earlier comment to this post I laid out some stats that can be used by both sides of the resolution but are more indicative that slavery was not THE foundation of the USA. As others have pointed out, freedom was a foundation of the USA, much more so than slavery.

    For the sake of argument lets say that slavery is/was the foundation of the USA and capitalism. Does that make either one bad? Should we abandon an economic system that has clearly been beneficial to the human race because of past links to an initiation of force? No, what we need is to improve society by decreasing as much as possible the initiation of force in the systems used in civilization. That ain't gonna happen under socialism.

    Slavery isn't the bottom line here, that is what RW is getting at in his original post. The agenda is to denigrate free markets, private property rights and freedom in general in favor of a system that leads to bureaucratic control.

    Even the proposed worker owned/controlled companies that some hardcore socialist propose as bottom up will lead to bureaucratic control. Otherwise this worker owned/controlled system would already be a major part of the economy. When I hear someone promoting this system I say, “Okay, then do it. What is stoping you?” Start up funding. Capitol. That is why they also propose state owned and or (even more) controlled banking. People are not going to freely drop their hard earned capitol into a cooperative where all workers have equal decision making authority. They will need and advocate for a bureaucracy to decide who to fund from coffers stuffed with stolen money.

    Every hero has their faults. There is no utopia but when a person advocates for a system that requires the initiation of force they are a villain.

    Alex Zougle

  3. For a very interesting revisionist history of the economics of slavery, consider reading "Time on the Cross" by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman.

  4. Dear Robert Wenzel,

    Thank you for responding to the comment in detail.

    Aaron A.