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Slavery and capitalism

December 19, 2016

Beckert’s Empire of Cotton an interesting read on how King Cotton came to be that. But, it also is an example of the contested ground between economists and historians looking back at slavery:

Most economic historians have argued that “cotton textiles were not essential to the Industrial Revolution,” and that cotton production did not necessarily depend on slavery, according to Douglas A. Irwin, an economist who held and moderated the Dartmouth debate. Summarizing economists’ thinking for the debate audience, Irwin points out that cotton was grown elsewhere in the world without slaves. Cotton production continued to rise in the United States even after slavery was abolished. “In this view, the economic rise of the West was not dependent on slavery,” Irwin says, “but came about as a result of an economic process described by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations — a process that depended on free enterprise, exchange, and the division of labor.”

That seems to me too facile an attempt to patch over real history. The capitalism of the industrial revolution made quite profitable use of slavery. Would capitalism going forward be less efficient at using people as resources, when political arrangement allows it? An economic system of free enterprise does not require that all the people involved participate as economic agents. If we want to secure liberty, that requires political effort apart from just cheering capitalism.

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