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Smith on Slavery

Ten years ago today the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published the first of my twice-monthly columns for that paper – a column that I’m still thrilled to write.

In light of the subject of this first of my columns – slavery and capitalism – consider this editors’ footnote on page 388 of the 1981 Liberty Fund edition of Adam Smith’s 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; in this footnote, which appears in a section of the book where Smith argues that slave labor is very inefficient, the editors reference an early draft (“ED”) of The Wealth of Nations:

In ED … Smith argued that the colonies dealing in sugar and tobacco could only afford slave labour because of the ‘exhorbitancy of their profites’ [sic] arising from the monopoly of the fro trades.  He added that ‘the planter in the more northern colonies, cultivating chiefly wheat and Indian corn, by which they expect no such exhorbitant returns, find it not for their interest to employ many slaves, and yet Pennsilvania, the Jerseys and some of the Provinces of New England are much richer and more populous than Virginia, notwithstanding that tobacco is, by its ordinary high price a more profitable cultivation.’

So – insofar as Smith is here correct – slavery thrived because of restrictions on free markets and was not itself a fuel for free markets.

(This editors’ footnote does not appear in the on-line version of The Wealth of Nations linked to here.)