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Slavish Myth

Here’s a letter to Slate:

Reviewing Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Eric Herschthal argues, apparently in line with Beckert, that “slavery was not a hidebound institution that capitalism destroyed, but an integral one that made capitalism possible” (“The Fabric of Our Lives,” Dec. 2).  Herschthal’s evidence for this argument is that much of the cotton used in 18th- and 19th-century British and American textile mills was grown on plantations manned by slaves.

Although it’s true that before the U.S. civil war textile mills on both shores of the Atlantic got most of their cotton from slave plantations in the American south, Herschthal’s argument is built on triply dubious reasoning.

First, as Herschthal himself notes about the mid-19th-century, the percent of its raw cotton that Russia got from America’s slave plantations was higher than was the percent of its cotton that Great Britain got from these plantations.  If slave-grown cotton were a key spur to capitalism, it’s difficult to understand why a booming capitalist revolution never occurred in Russia.

Second, after slavery ended in the U.S. capitalist industrialization in the U.S. accelerated, and in Britain it continued nearly apace, for the rest of the 19th century.  And in the 20th century, both countries – especially the U.S. – continued to witness magnificent capitalist innovations and rates of growth of industrial outputs.

Third and most fundamentally, by the time of the industrial revolution slavery had been around for many millennia without coming close to creating capitalism.  So clearly something else had to occur to spark the emergence of capitalism; slavery wasn’t sufficient.  But was slavery, as Mr. Herschthal asserts, necessary?  Doubtful.  Slavery did, again, produce some inputs used in early capitalist factories.  Yet this fact no more shows that capitalism required slavery than does the fact that Christianity was then the dominant religion of factory owners (and of slaves) show that capitalism required Christianity.

A far more compelling account of the origins of modern capitalism is offered by the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, who – in addition to debunking the “slavery-made-capitalism possible” assertion – argues that the key change that created capitalism was the growing social admiration of bourgeois pursuits and an increasing toleration of the changes wrought by open, competitive, entrepreneurial markets.*

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

* Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

I thank Alberto Mingardi for the pointer to Herschthal’s review.