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Slavery and the British Economy

In response to:

How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying from the January 12, 1995 issue

To the editors:

In his cogent review of Thomas Sowell’s Race and Culture [NYR, January 12], K.A. Appiah writes that Sowell ignores the best recent scholarship in arguing “both that New World slavery made little contribution to the growth of Britian’s industrial economy and that British abolition was, nevertheless, economically irrational.” Is the reviewer taking issue with both arguments? Appiah himself cites no scholarship against the latter proposition. The consensus among recent scholars is indeed that abolition was irrational in economic terms. Indeed, the Nobel prize for economics was awarded in 1993 to a leading proponent of that proposition.1

Logically, the more that British industrialization was indebted to slavery, the more abolition was irrational. The British abolition process (1780s to 1840s) coincides precisely with the conventional timing of the industrial revolution. If, in Appiah’s terms, it is hard to know what counts as economic achievement if not “the building of the first industrial economy,” it is hard to know what counts as economic irrationality if not the simultaneous destruction of a basic component of that economy. In short, insofar as one is unjustified in absolving capitalism from nurturing slavery, one is even more unjustified in giving capitalism the credit for ending it.

Regarding the first proposition, however, it is important to note that some of the best recent scholarship does support the assessment that slavery contributed to British industrialization, but only marginally, and that British abolition was, nevertheless, economically irrational. It is precisely this position that is supported by some of the authorities cited by Appiah himself.

Seymour Drescher
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Anthony Appiah replies:

What Professor Drescher says is mostly true; and it is, as he suggests, broadly consistent with what I wrote in my review of Thomas Sowell’s Race and Culture. But I didn’t say that Sowell “ignores the best scholarship in arguing ‘both that New World slavery made little contribution to the growth of Britain’s industrial economy and that British abolition was, nevertheless, economically irrational.”’ I did say that “on the general subject of slavery, Sowell’s account of the current state of scholarship is, to put it politely, one-sided.” With that claim I stick: as I pointed out, much of the best recent scholarship argues, contra Sowell, that the slave trade was important to Britian’s industrial development and Sowell largely ignores that work. When I pointed out, in effect, that Sowell wanted to say both that slavery was not (economically) good for Britain and that it was nevertheless (economically) bad for Britain to give it up, I meant readers to make exactly the inference that Professor Drescher does in his second paragraph: that this was an instance of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. What Sowell was ignoring, in other words, was not scholarship but logic. I think, however, that some people are arguing somewhat at cross purposes in this debate; and it will perhaps help clear up what is at stake if I explain why. Economists, in considering whether the slave trade was important to Britain’s industrial development, tend to focus first on the financial value of its profits as a proportion of British national income. Discovering that this ratio was small (and that the capital invested could have made close to the same income elsewhere), they infer that slavery was of marginal importance. But, by this argument, car-battery production contributes “only marginally” (in Professor Drescher’s formulation) to the auto industry: it accounts for a small proportion of the profits to be made from motor vehicles. Nevertheless, as I hope everyone will agree, that is, in one obvious sense, the wrong conclusion. (And car-battery profits are, I am sure, a smaller percentage of the income of the total auto-industry than slavery’s profits in the late-eighteenth century were of British investment income.)

I believe almost every competent person now thinks—contra Eric Williams—that profits from slavery were a small percentage of British national income in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of the authors I cited—especially Professor Solow—argue, however, that slavery played a crucial role in the economy, even if its profits didn’t make up a large percentage of national income. (It is also true that slavery’s profits, though they look small expressed in such relative terms, were pretty significant absolutely, and were extremely important to those people—some of them extremely influential—to whom they accrued.)

It may also be worth observing that the economic questions in dispute here are of less moral significance than they are often taken to be. Some people think that this calculus of profits and losses is the way to decide whether “British capitalism was built on the backs of African slaves.” But even if, in some sense, it was, what moral significance does that have? Capitalism, not being an agent, can hardly be expected to bear any moral burdens. Nor is it easy to think of any current action that would undo the wrongs done (by the Africans who captured and sold them and the Europeans who traded and enslaved them) to the long-dead victims of the Middle Passage and New World slavery.

Others care about this issue in large measure because they want to know whether abolition was the triumph of morality over economic self-interest. But whose morality or self-interest? Since I don’t think the answer here should be “Britain’s”—for nations, like capitalism, are not, in my book, moral agents either—I maintain that the more interesting question is whether those individuals who argued (and voted) for abolition did so in the belief that it would cost them (or those they represented) nothing. The answer here could be “yes” even if abolition was economically irrational, in the sense that many economic historians now claim that it was. Economic history is important, but Clio has other strings to her bow.

  1. 1

    See, inter alia, Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh, 1977); David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York, 1987); Robert W. Fogel et al, Without Consent or Contract, 4 vols. (New York, 1989–1992). Nobel Laureate Fogel reaffirmed the “economic irrationality thesis” in his Gettysburg College address, November 19, 1994.

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