Mises Wire

Slavery: The “Broken Window” of American Economic History

The New Historians of Capitalism have unleashed a renaissance in the study of slavery as foundational to American progress. Unlike conservative economists who declaim that slavery impeded industrial development these intellectuals argue that it created multiple economic linkages and fueled the prosperity of Northern states. Such is the thesis proffered by Sven Beckert in an enticing essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “For the first half of the 19th century, slavery was at the core of the American economy. The South was an economically dynamic part of the nation (for its white citizens); its products not only established the United States’ position in the global economy but also created markets for agricultural and industrial goods grown and manufactured in New England and the mid-Atlantic states.”


Like so many of his colleagues, Beckert lacks an appreciation of the parable of the broken window. New historians of capitalism can identify the ostensible economic prowess of slavery, but they have not seen the costs imposed by slave economies. Contra the claims of these writers, as a pollutant slavery retarded America’s economic development in three ways. Let us explore the channels through which slavery polluted the economy.

One: Slavery Deprived Americans of Blacks’ Ingenuity

Since slaves were classified as property, they were precluded from exploiting their inventive capabilities. Therefore, patents were inaccessible to entrepreneurial slaves. In a normal economy, creators irrespective of their race are provided with an incentive to innovate in the form of the patent system. Innovators often reap large sums due to the licensing of their inventions. As such the rewards for inventing spur further novelties. Although the injustice of intellectual property law did not hinder slaves like Benjamin Montgomery and an individual only known as Ned from exercising their creativity, they were obstructed from exploiting the full benefits of the patent system. Furthermore, the efforts of many slaves were appropriated by their owners, who amassed large fortunes. Another insidious feature of slavery is that it hampered the ambition of blacks. The burden of enslavement resulted in talented individuals working as slaves when they should have been adding to the knowledge base of civilization. For example, Thomas Fuller had superb mathematical skills, but they were never usefully employed in an industrial setting. Had Fuller been a free man maybe he would have achieved success as an entrepreneur or an academic.

Moreover, slavery limited the participation of blacks in the economy. Though some slaves were major players in the internal marketing system, the majority of enslaved blacks had no access to an income, hence their ability to purchase consumption goods was meager. Without slavery, entrepreneurs would have been encouraged to cater to the demands of a larger group of black consumers. Innovation in product development would have been a logical consequence of engaging blacks in the market as consumers due to their eclectic preferences. For example, by 1876 the spending power of 5 million black Southerners was $300 million. So, one can imagine the losses suffered by entrepreneurs as a result of slavery. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that in the absence of slavery Americans would have been enriched by the dynamism of black entrepreneurs. Today, we reflect on the legacies of Rockefeller and Carnegie, but slavery robbed us of their black counterparts.

Two: Slavery Deterred Economic Dynamism

Even ardent critics of the New History of Capitalism (NHC) admit that slave societies can enable short-term innovations to bolster efficiency. Like capitalists, plantation owners also invested in schemes to lower operational expenses. For example, historian Robert W. Slenes offers insightful commentary on the capacity of slave economies for organizational innovation:

Andrew Carnegie, founder of a company that eventually became part of U.S. Steel[,] embodied capitalist rationality. Carnegie was particularly famous for the “vertical integration” of his industrial activities. By investing in iron ore and coal mines, as well as in railroads to transport the ore and coal to his steel mills, he was able to reduce dramatically the cost of the final product and win market share from competitors. In Brazil, recent studies by Thiago Campos Pessoa highlight similar paragons of vertical integration: the Breves brothers, coffee planters who, between them, owned perhaps the largest slave labor force in Brazil in the post-1850 period, spread over several properties in the Paraíba Valley.

But despite their propensity for incremental innovations slave societies are innately conservative. Invariably, slave owners are more comparable to aristocrats than capitalists. Capitalists acknowledge that markets are competitive and that hence their businesses are vulnerable to disruptions. In contrast, slave owners feared radical transformations because they uproot the status quo. Under slavery, elites are far less inclined to support Schumpeterian innovations. Radical changes may create lucrative opportunities, but they often produce the effect of displacing labor. Therefore, any alternative that sought to make labor redundant was dismissed by slave owners. Planters recognized that transformative developments could make them wealthier, however they were more driven by a desire to preserve status than to accumulate wealth.

Similarly, Charles Post in disputing the notion that slavery is congruent with capitalism provides compelling evidence that planters lacked a capitalist mindset:

In sum, while capitalists have and do attempt to intensify the labour of wage workers through speed-up and lengthening working hours, the most effective means of increasing output and reducing costs—the mechanization of production—is available to capitalists, but not to slave-owners. The status of slaves as a form of “fixed capital” provided few opportunities for slave-owning planters to introduce new labour-saving technology even when such innovation would allow planters to cut costs in response to market imperatives.

Clearly, the business model of slavery was expensive. If planters had been inspired by capitalist sentiments, they would have jettisoned slavery for a less burdensome enterprise. In short, economic dynamism makes slavery irrelevant since dynamic economies are unpredictable and slavery requires conservatism to succeed.

Three: The Rent-Seeking institution of Slavery Imposed Deadweight Losses on the Economy

To escape brutality slaves usually fled plantations. Planters refused to lose their property, so fugitives were apprehended. However, the onerous costs of slavery’s enforcement percolated throughout the population, thus non–slave owners incurred expenses. Jeffrey Hummel acutely explicates the rent-seeking nature of slavery: “Slaveholders were a minority, even within the southern states. Only one–fourth of white households owned slaves, and about half of those owned fewer than five. This elite was very successful at getting governments at all levels, from local through national, to subsidize slavery’s enforcement.” Unfortunately, in pursuit of its rent-seeking agenda slavery inflicted deadweight losses on the American economy. For example, time invested to obtain runaway slaves might have been spent doing something productive. Hummel expounds on the deadweight losses caused by slavery in greater detail: “Enforcing the slave system required labor and capital. Every dollar that Southerners spent this way, beyond what they would have spent otherwise to protect life and property, was added deadweight loss. This reduction in welfare, moreover, translates unambiguously into a fall in output. In real terms, slavery’s enforcement inefficiency made the entire southern economy, including both whites and blacks, less prosperous.”

The New History of Capitalism is astoundingly popular. Yet the assumption that slavery made a significant economic contribution to America’s development is untenable. Slavery performed exceptionally as a pollutant during its heyday. Instead of energizing the economy, it created an environment that induced stagnation and inefficiency. Left-wing historians are fascinated by slavery, so they should study it objectively. Then they will admit that the unseen costs of slavery exceed its perceived economic contributions.

Image Source: David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006), elycefeliz via Flickr
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