≡ Menu

Capitalism, Slavery, and the State

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

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.  Slavery was killed by capitalism because that institution 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

Here’s a column I wrote several years ago on this topic.