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Slave to a Myth

Here’s a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education; (thanks to Lyle Albaugh and George Leef for alerting me to this Beckert essay) :

Sven Beckert struggles to portray slavery as essential to the origins of capitalism (“Slavery and Capitalism,” Dec. 12).  His core argument, it seems, boils down to this: slavery existed at the time of the industrial revolution; textile production was the leading activity of that revolution; textile mills used lots of “cheap, slave-grown cotton” from the U.S.; therefore, slavery was necessary for the creation of capitalism.

Problems aplenty infect Prof. Beckert’s narrative, but none more fatally than his presumption that using slaves to grow cotton made that commodity especially “cheap” (and, thus, an unusually inexpensive input without which there would have been no industrial revolution).  Data from the 1880 U.S. Census show that by the mid-1870s the price of cotton at New York was about the same as this price had been, on average, during the quarter-century before it spiked because of the Civil War.*  And as reported by economic historian Stanley Lebergott, “by the period 1870-79 Southern production [of cotton] was running 42 percent above its pre-war level.”**

If slavery made cotton especially “cheap” (meaning especially abundant) – so cheap and abundant to have supplied the necessary spark for the greatest economic transformation in human history – we can only wonder why this millennia-old institution failed to supply such a spark at any earlier time and only in Britain.  Yet even greater wonder is caused by the data’s failure to show that the price of cotton was lower, and the supplies of cotton higher, with slavery than without it.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* I thank Christophe Biocca for this link – and include below a screenshot of the most relevant part of it.

** Stanley Lebergott, The Americans: An Economic Record (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 249.

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