Photo: Ralf, Flickr, some rights reserved

The temerity of the Left! One of today’s leftists’ characteristic charges is that capitalism and slavery are a package deal, somehow, and that American capitalism depended upon the institution of chattel slavery for its success, and that the wealth Americans now revel in is tainted by the institution of slavery that was abolished over a century and a half ago.

An astounding assertion, and utterly without merit. But some of the scholars associated with Project 1619 are adamantine in their linkage.

Their arguments make much of not clarifying between capitalism, capitalism, and capitalism, as it were. That is, what we advocates of free markets are for is laissez faire, which is a policy quite distinct from that of mercantilism — and against which laissez faire was first advanced — and that it is mercantilist capitalism which is quite compatible with chattel slavery.

Now, later forms of anti-laissez faire practice, such as neo-mercantilism, progressivism, fascism, social democracy and other forms of statism, are not usually associated with chattel slavery, for the point of statism is to turn the masses into wards of the State, and to encourage a kind of servility all around. Laissez Faire Liberalism opposes all statism as well as mercantilism and institutions of chattel slavery. Ideological projects, like those that flying under the banner of 1619, muddy up this — trying to tar private property and free labor with slavery! — and must be argued against, and perhaps ridiculed out of existence. These people are generally socialists, and for that reason have no grounds to criticize we who oppose all forms of slavery, socialist as well as chattel.

Most bizarre is the notion that a good way to redress past harms caused by slavery is to oppose freedom generally.

What leftists cannot confront is that it is their policies that are “reactionary,” atavistic, retrogressive. Slavery is bad. Yes. Evil. Yes. It must be stamped out. But it is bad in both chattel and political/collectivist forms. Socialism is bad.. Yes. Evil. Yes. It must be opposed in all forms.

Socialism is slavery for all.

A few years ago I answered a question on Quora that touched on this issue. Here it is:

Why is capitalism not the root cause of slavery?

Because, perhaps, the root cause of slavery is the opposite of the root cause of capitalism?

Slavery is a very old institution. It appears that it was often a result of warfare: the conquered, instead of being slaughtered, were enslaved. There are many accounts in ancient literature like this. And it has been argued that slavery is moral because of this, because “at least we are not killing them all.”

At least!

Interestingly, the account of the salvation of the Manchurians after being conquered by the Mongol Horde is not very dissimilar. Temujin demanded that the Manchurians be slaughtered en masse. One of his generals suggested that letting them live, and taxing them, instead, would be more profitable. Temujin assented. And so the Manchurian Chinese became tax-slaves.

And it is no shock: taxation often proves itself the easiest form of slavery to manage. Indeed, if one limits one’s slavery over others to just such a simple tribute, the “slaves” will manage themselves. It is all so very efficient.

Capitalism is a rather different set of institutions. It features widespread private property, including land holdings, but especially in raw materials and the results of productive processes. These institutions go hand in hand with low rates of expropriation (criminal theft as well as government confiscatory practices, including taxation), a division of labor with free entry and exit from wage and service contracts, and markets in productive goods. Prominent features of capitalism thus include money, banking, and a stock market.

So, note the obvious: Slavery is not free labor.

Slavery is, instead, a political/micro-political limitation on exit from master-worker relations. It requires heavy degrees of coercion (force and threat of force) to maintain.

Capitalism, to the contrary, is marked by low levels of coercion to maintain. A rule of law, however provided, is capitalism’s foundation. Slavery, on the other hand, has existed where no real rule of law exists, proving more than merely compatible with the rule of the strongman’s threat. Slavery is the natural coexistent with tyranny.

Historically, there is a strong association between capitalism and the policy of laissez faire. It is generally agreed-upon that the more laissez faire the government, the more capitalist the society — so long as there is also widespread respect for private property and freedom of contract. A weak government without at least customary private property will not be capitalistic, but (most likely) merely pastoral.

And it is worth noting that the laissez-faire economists (Adam Smith, J.-B. Say, Destutt de Tracy, Frederic Bastiat) were, on the whole, among the most persistent voices against slavery as an institution. Laissez faire was never really about weak or no government. It was a policy of defense of basic rights under a rule of law, and not much more. After such basics were maintained, the idea is then to let business and labor and the people in general interact freely. It was “hands-off” or “let-alone” only after the basic set of standards have been established and maintained.

And those standards were anti-slavery in principle. They were thought of as the laws of a free people.

The conflict between those new and liberal standards with the ancient institution of slavery was widely recognized in the heyday of liberalism, c. 1776–1860. It was the liberals who opposed slavery, by and large (though the word “liberal” was not much used in America, probably for obvious reasons). Thomas Carlyle, for example, hated “political economy” because it was associated with breaking down the old order, the pre-capitalist ancien régime:

Carlyle labeled the science “dismal” when writing about slavery in the West Indies. White plantation owners, he said, ought to force black plantation workers to be their servants. Economics, somewhat inconveniently for Carlyle, didn’t offer a hearty defense of slavery. Instead, the rules of supply and demand argued for “letting men alone” rather than thrashing them with whips for not being servile. Carlyle bashed political economy as “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing [science]; what we might call . . . the dismal science.

Carlyle, as summarizes the writer for The Atlantic just quoted, “couldn’t find a justification for slavery in political economic thought, and he considered this fact to be ‘dismal.’”

And then there is the apologist for slavery, George Fitzhugh. Contemplate his arguments in Sociology for the South (1854) and Cannibals All! (1857). He identified slavery with socialism and free labor (which he pilloried as “wage slavery”) with liberal capitalism, arguing that only a few people were fit to run their own lives. Liberalism was a curse upon society, because free markets allowed the masses to be enslaved at low rates, not benevolently under class socialism of slave-owning South. These are quite amazing books. Even if some elements of his arguments can only be regarded as preposterous, he is utterly convincing in showing that laissez-faire liberalism and its support of capitalism had nothing to do with the spirit of slave-holding. He was very forthright about this, and he, also, like Carlyle, had contempt for the social science that wasn’t named “sociology,” as economist Pierre Lemieux explains in his introduction to a recent ebook reprint of Fitzhugh’s 1854 work:

Fitzhugh disliked “political economy” (as economics was then called), which he saw as “the science of free society,” as opposed to socialism, which is “the science of slavery.” He was totally ignorant of economics and had almost certainly not read Adam Smith or any of the other economists he attacks, such as David Ricardo and Jean-Baptiste Say. Fitzhugh denied that an increase in the money supply normally leads to a higher price level. He was hopelessly confused between money and wealth. He did not understand comparative advantage. And so forth.

But however much genius there is in Fitzhugh to recognize an important identity — between socialism and slavery, a point often made by advocates for laissez faire in the century-and-a-half since — his own defense of slavery and against freedom are incoherent. “Fitzhugh had no idea how free markets work,” Lemieux, again, explains. “He believed that competition reduces individuals to economic cannibals, making the weak freeman no better off than slaves, and in reality worse off because the freeman lacks the protection of a master. . . .” But there is a lesson in his mishmash:

Fitzhugh’s writings brew a strange mixture of socialism and conservatism. “Extremes meet,” he notes. This saw is not the deepest aphorism in the history of mankind, but it is at Fitzhugh’s level. A better way to express his idea would be to say that authoritarian power is the common denominator of socialism and conservatism.

Capitalism rests upon principles of individual sovereignty; slavery rests on the repudiation of such principles, at least for some (the slaves). There are many kinds of capitalism, of course, many degrees of freedom, so to speak. Just as there are many kinds of slavery: chattel and political, to name just two. And it is certainly possible to combine the two principles, the two institutional forms. It is what our modern conservatives and progressives do.

We call the current mixture “the mixed economy.”

There are reasons some of us prefer laissez faire rather pure: because we want our capitalism without the taint and evil of exploitation and slavery.

While it is true that capitalism grew out of previous institutional arrangements, which included slavery, it is not true — and can in no way be demonstrated — that capitalism gave birth to slavery. The history is clear: with the rise of capitalism, then and only then was it possible to array the political forces necessary to abolish slavery worldwide. The claims we often hear to the contrary are by ignorant and desperate propagandists, people who want to parlay your instinctive love of freedom as an excuse to enslave you in some way you are not expecting.

The usual method is to fixate on chattel slavery and ignore other forms.

So I suggest we be really scrupulous about those other forms. Like the huge burdens promoted by today’s socialists to increase levels of taxation and regulation, as well as add on evermore new mandates to do specific things.


N.B. The image of Marx, at top of page, should not be construed to imply that the old commie was stupid enough to believe current leftist b.s. about slavery. He may have been evil and wrong about most things, but he did not fall for that.