I’ve been thinking about slavery recently. Smokers are often described as ‘slaves’ to their ‘addiction’. And Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom could have easily been The Road to Slavery ( a slave, it seems, was owned by somebody, while a serf was tied to a location).

But also I came across a piece by the economist Paul Krugman, Slavery’s Long Shadow. which ended with the words:

Every once in a while you hear a chorus of voices declaring that race is no longer a problem in America. That’s wishful thinking; we are still haunted by our nation’s original sin.

This seemed to suggest that slavery was a sin, and that it was uniquely America’s ‘original sin’. As if Americans had invented it, just like they invented atomic bombs (presumably another original sin).

But quite obviously Americans didn’t invent slavery. Slavery had been around for thousands of years. Ancient Greece and Rome were dependent upon it.

No. If anything America was a country that woke up to the sinfulness of slavery (about the same time as Britain did). Because the ancient world had a very different attitude to it:


Slavery was ‘completely accepted’ as ‘an inevitable and unavertable condition’! And nobody could even conceive of the possibility of its abolition!

So how come Americans didn’t regard slavery as inevitable and unavertable? Or, why did the ancients regard slavery as inevitable and unavertable? Did Americans have uniquely high moral standards? Or did the ancients have almost universally low moral standards?

My proposed solution to this puzzle is to suggest that the ancients needed slaves, and 19th century Americans didn’t need them. And to explain why, I’d like to discuss horses instead of slaves.

Horses may be regarded as slave animals. They are usually owned by somebody, and they are used, among other things, as a means of transportation. Yet it seems that in the early 20th century, there was an emancipation of horses which took place without there being a accompanying moral crusade for their liberation. And this happened because horses and horse-drawn transport were largely replaced by cars and trains and buses, which were much faster and could carry more, over a period of a few decades. They were simply no longer needed. Technological innovation had rendered them redundant.

Returning to human slavery, I’d like to suggest that the same thing was happening as with horses, except that the emancipation of slaves was accompanied by a vociferous moral campaign. On one side of the argument was the newly industrialised American North, where slavery had largely been rendered redundant. And on the other side was the rural South, where slavery had yet to become redundant – because farm tractors and combine harvesters had yet to be invented. Cotton and sugar and tobacco farms were labour-intensive, and they needed the cheap labour that slavery provided.

If the emancipation of slaves had followed the same course as the emancipation of horses, slavery would have died out in the South a few decades after it had died out in the North, with no great fuss being made about it. Instead, after a bloody civil war it was forced on the South by the newly moralistic North, which could happily oppose slavery precisely because it no longer had any need of it.

And if we want to understand the ancients’ attitudes to slavery, we can find it in our attitudes to food. We kill and eat plants and animals because we have no option but to do so. But should we ever become able to manufacture proteins and carbohydrates independently of, and more cheaply than, the plants and animals that now provide them, then there will follow the emancipation of wheat and oats and cattle and sheep. And you can bet your bottom dollar that, as soon as they’ve switched over to the new artificial foodstuffs, their consumers will be wagging moralistic fingers at people who still eat traditional farm-produced plants and animals. They’ll be calling them ‘mass murderers’. In fact, you can bet they’ll force them to stop eating traditional food, quite possibly after another bloody civil war.

Returning to tobacco, and smoking bans, antismoking zealots quite often compare the introduction of smoking bans to the emancipation of slaves. And they do indeed see smokers as slaves who need to be emancipated. But where is the technological innovation which rendered smoking redundant? It can’t have been the e-cigarette, because the zealots want to ban that too.

Holier-than-thou moralists always see themselves as hastening the forward march of history, speeding what would inevitably happen. But there is no law of nature which demands steady progress in one direction. The natural world is cyclical, and demonstrates both ebb and flow. So the march of progress, in the form of technological innovation, might well first be stopped, and then reversed. It is not inconceivable that our modern technological society could go into reverse, and that we start to need to use horses and oxen to draw ploughs again.

And the reviled institution of slavery might re-appear.

And, of course, smoking as well.

About Frank Davis

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28 Responses to Slavery

  1. harleyrider1978 says:

    So how come Americans didn’t regard slavery as inevitable and unavertable?

    Actually back after the Revolution it was regarded as that Peculiar institution we had inherited from generations before. Once slavery is established its a hard economic standard to break let alone abandon all at once. The North had the first slaves and they sure weren’t black they were white bonded bondsmen. If you look back at early census forms from the 1800s you will see many types of people listed,slaves,freemen,land owners,bonded individuals etc etc.

    People don’t seem to understand slavery was both good for the south as well as the industrial north with its fast flowing rivers to power industrial output for looms and other manufacturing of cotton from the south.

    It wasn’t until Holy rolling nutcases got involved and became abolishionists that things got out of hand altogether. These same abolishionists are todays same prohibitionists/Progressives.

    Americas CIVILWAR solved nothing we still have every political problem that caused the war today as back then only worse as today its like the whole damned country is under RECONSTRUCTION as the south was from 1865-1873.

  2. DenisO says:

    Speaking of slavery, coincidentally:
    “…Instead of romanticizing the culture that bought slaves, they romanticize the Middle Eastern and African cultures that sold them the slaves.

    When Obama condemned Christianity for the Crusades, only a thousand years too late, in attendance was the Foreign Minister of Sudan; a country that practices slavery and genocide. Obama could have taken time out from his rigorous denunciation of the Middle Ages to speak truth to the emissary of a Muslim Brotherhood regime whose leader is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. But our moral liberals spend too much time romanticizing actual slaver cultures.

    It’s a lot easier for Obama to get in his million dollar Cadillac with its 5-inch thick bulletproof windows, a ride Boss Hogg could only envy, and chase down a couple of good ole boys than it is to condemn a culture that committed genocide in our own time, not in 1099, and that keeps slaves today, not in 1815.,,”
    Good read:

    • Joe L. says:

      Denormalize and criminalize tobacco in the name of “health” while simultaneously normalizing and legalizing marijuana … Burn thousands of gallons of jet fuel to fly dignitaries and “experts” around the world to attend climate change conferences … This hypocrisy extends to pretty much all of the current “progressive” movements. Thanks for the link, Denis.

  3. jaxthefirst says:

    I’ve often wondered whether, in order for a country to become extremely economically successful, slave labour – or at least very low-paid labour – is a necessity. A quick look at the economies which have experienced great “booms” throughout history shows that all were dependent on paying their workforce as little as possible – from the free labour provided by slaves in the United States and, as you say, Frank, the mighty empires of Rome and ancient Greece, to the poorly-paid (often child) labourers in the British Industrial Revolution, right up to the boom in recent years of countries such as India, China and other parts of the Far East, who have many millions of poor people who can be called upon to provide a dirt-cheap and often badly-treated labour force – again often children – to fuel their own economic growth. It seems to be that the moment the inequality of this situation becomes apparent, i.e. the large numbers of people working long hours for rubbish pay in order to make factory-owners and businessmen very wealthy indeed, and the workers start demanding more decent conditions and better pay, the country’s economy takes a downturn – as Britain’s did and as the US’s has; in recent years China and, to a lesser extent India’s, are starting to show the strain, too, as their own workforces start to wake up to the fact that they are spending a huge proportion of their lives working to make someone else very, very rich, with very little to show for it themselves.

    As an aside, I wonder whether Governments are actually quite aware of this situation. The US’s economy for example, I understand, relies quite heavily on their large prison workforce to benefit their own economy because they pay prisoners virtually nothing for the work they have to do, and I strongly suspect that the same is true here in UK, although I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. And the current suggestion being mooted here to make benefit-claimants undertake some form of “voluntary” community “work” in order to receive their benefits also hints at a level of awareness of this need for cheap labour – it could easily be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a means of getting round our minimum-wage legislation.

    But I digress. I guess it’s inevitable, to an extent. After all, the more you pay your workers, either in larger salaries or better conditions, the more expensive your products will inevitably become, and the less competitive you will be against other countries who are holding out better against any workers’ demands for better pay or conditions.

    It’s perhaps this which anti-capitalists cite when they talk about the ultimate unworkability of the capitalist system. I’m certainly no anti-capitalist myself, by a long chalk, but perhaps they do have a point. If the capitalist system can only work when it has to exploit its workers, and it fails the moment it starts to treat its workers well, then perhaps there is a fundamental flaw in the whole system. The alternatives, of course, i.e. socialism and communism, as we all know, don’t work either, for very different reasons. So perhaps the solution is a kind of middle road – “capitalism lite,” if you like – whereby private enterprise remains the foundation-stone of wealth-building, but whereby there are controls on how much more (Five times more? Ten times more?) the best-paid/wealthiest people in an organisation can make/earn comparative to the lowest paid workers in the same organisation? Might work. Maybe. After all, it would give all the top-dogs in companies an incentive to pay all their workers well – not just their cronies and shoehorned-in family members – because their bottom-of-the-pile workers’ salaries would be directly related to their own. The trouble is, of course, that such a system would have to be worldwide and I can’t see any of the nouveau riche multi-millionaires in the Far East (or, indeed, here in the West) embracing the idea with any great enthusiasm!

    Just a little late-night musing before bedtime. Sweet dreams, all!

  4. waltc says:

    That’s a stunning insight, Frank . Wish I’d thought of it. To an extent, of course, as jax points out, the economic conundrum is still with us, race quite aside. Today’s dirt-cheap domestic US labor is illegal immigrants –often migrant farm workers–and the same economic/political forces akin to the plantation owners want to keep them coming, while political progressives want to keep them coming and get them voting–progressive. And, again as jax points out, “global trade” is just another source of dirt-cheap labor. At least some of the fault lies with US trade unions which started out with a righteous purpose and got carried away with themselves. OTOH, technology is soon to replace almost all labor and then everybody’s screwed and dystopia, here we come.

    But i have to take exception to this comment if I read it on its plain face: “It wasn’t until Holy rolling nutcases got involved and became abolishionists that things got out of hand altogether. These same abolishionists are todays same prohibitionists/Progressives.” I don’t think abolitionists were holy rolling nutcases; they were genuine humanists (though yes, as Frank points out, they could afford to indulge their humanity. ) Prohibiting slavery is not the same thing as prohibiting alcohol or tobacco and it represented genuine moral “progress.”

    But getting back to dialectics and Newton’s Third, America, from even before its founding as a confederacy or nation and right up til now, has always swung back and forth between puritanism and liberalism (in the old sense of Liberal.) and between iron hands and invisible ones. In fact, so has much of western civilization for the last three centuries–all those arguments between Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill. And sometimes we seem to choose one from Column A and one from Column B: Restrictive government and social anything-goes.

    BTW, I think the banners would claim that they’re liberating nonsmokers (from expisure to deadly fumes,)

  5. Some French bloke says:

    By order of appearance on today’s page: Friedrich Hayek, Aristotle, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill: all dead white European males (DWEM)!
    Should not foxy contemporaries be allowed to chime in from time to time? I could not find anything by Salma Hayek on today’s subject, but Kate Beckinsale’s take will do just fine: “No one is more enslaved than a slave who doesn’t think they’re enslaved”.

  6. Some French bloke says:

    Maybe it’s not so much a pendulum, moving back and forth

    In a similar way, perhaps too neatly cyclical conceptions of historical trends simply miss one essential dimension. From Jérôme Deshusses’ The Eighth Night of Creation” (1978):

    “Etymologically, a catastrophe is something that turns or returns against me. Every obstacle is thus catastrophic in nature, though not necessarily in extent. Now, a living or mechanical system cannot enrich itself unless it obtains information, and it cannot obtain information except by a retroaction – an action that retreats from an obstacle.”
    “If the idea of a cyclical world gratifies mediocrity, it is because the circle is a flat figure whose exact middle is a center and whose total enclosure is a perfection. Everything recovers there: the present is superimposed on the past, and the lessons of History are reduced to recipes. All we lack is one dimension – but that is a serious lack, the only one that counts. The third dimension turns this circle into a spiral. History continues to revolve but grows larger as it does so; it overlaps itself, rising upwards the while; it lives – and thus it respires.
    Its journey appears as a perpetual obstacle, since only a difference in inclination distinguishes a rising slope from a vertical wall. Moreover, its very path is a series of obstacles overcome – and in the world of the irreversible, that which once overcomes rises forever. Looking at things on the Universe’s scale, we can see how closely its progress resembles the ascent of a ladder. The first cells combined only in the face of a material and logical obstacle: the growth of their surfaces implied a similar increase in their volume, and the latter forced them to choose between extension by symbiosis and extinction by isolation. The young Earth knew dragonflies with a meter-long wingspread; a change in the atmosphere eliminated them. Each glaciation erected an unscalable wall in front of giant species; thus died the dinosaurs and the mammoths. The present biological balance is created by innumerable forces, each of which, in the absence of the others, would become a scourge. Every previous catastrophe has merely enriched the vital current of reflexes and then of reflection, so that from each eclipse Life has surged back more vital than before. Thus Chance, the absolute enemy of Awareness, has ultimately worked only on behalf of the latter, which itself has worked only through the former.”

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Because the tobacco-free initiative enforcement plan is not as effective as it should be, smokers will never listen to anyone and stop smoking on campus for many reasons. One reason is that students don’t have the power to apply the new rules on smokers. What is next to be done is the common question that might come up in a student’s mind when seeing smokers on campus facilities. The plan tries to encourage everyone to remind smokers not to smoke on campus, so if students asked smokers to stop smoking, smokers might always listen to their hearts and never listen to anyone asking for the opposite. Therefore, special employees need to be hired to catch smokers and take the appropriate action toward them.

      Another reason is the absence of a committee handling the policy ensuring that the new rules are complied with. Generally, human beings like to be led by someone taking care of regulations and ensuring that everyone is following, otherwise, nobody would probably listen. For example, regulators in Saudi Arabia found that rules of banning smoking in restaurants’ indoor areas are still being disobeyed. Therefore, the government decided to close any restaurant as a punishment if it’s found serving smoking products or allowing smoking in indoor areas. So, it seems that regulators have an important role setting up punishments needed, improving regulations to be obeyed effectively and updating these accordingly.

      In conclusion, the tobacco-free initiative needs adjustments to be made effective enough to completely abolish smoking on campus.

  7. harleyrider1978 says:

    Panicked residents stock up on essentials…
    Quartet of crises threatens Europe’s core…
    Merkel, Hollande Call for Summit…
    Brussels weighs next steps…

  8. harleyrider1978 says:

    China to begin buying shares in effort to stablize stock markets…

  9. nisakiman says:

    Going off-topic here, it would seem that the Greeks have voted a quite resounding “OXI” in the referendum.

    I have to admit to being surprised. I thought it would be much closer run, and I thought that the ‘yes’ vote would edge into the lead. So interesting times await.

    • smokingscot says:

      I’ve quit completely with any pre-election poll. I never ever tell pollsters which party I really intend to vote for and with the Scottish referendum, it was best to say I was undecided.

      I expect that of many others and, with the Greek vote, I expected the vast majority who intended to vote NO to just keep quiet about it.

      MSM got it dead wrong, however the Guardian’s also running a blow by blow of it and the final figure is very likely to be 60% NO and the rest, well they can simply sit back and watch the action.

      They’re forecasting turmoil in the equity markets tomorrow as well as the Euro taking a bit of a pounding. Emergency meeting called for Tuesday and a whole bunch of talking heads bleating about being disappointed.–eu-euro-bailout-live

      I’d wager some of this will gravitate to Spain and possibly Italy.

      And do please be very wary about the UK referendum pre-election polls; those intending to vote NO in the UK ain’t going to swayed, but many intend having fun in the lead up to the big day. Me amongst them!!!

  10. harleyrider1978 says:

    British government to double austerity cuts in emergency budget

    A new report says the British government will double the amount of austerity cuts in its “emergency budget.” The cuts will affect housing benefits, reduce the state’s.

  11. harleyrider1978 says:

    The public want smoking rooms in pubs…could it happen?

    By Helen Gilbert, 03-Jul-2015

    It has been eight years since the smoking ban was introduced in England, yet the thorny topic has reared it head once again after recent research unearthed public support for amending the legislation. PMA reports.

  12. harleyrider1978 says:

    Sugar, flour, rice: panicked Greeks stock up on essentials

    Greeks were hoarding cash and food Saturday amid mounting fears the economy could collapse, cracking open their wallets only to stock up on essentials and…;_ylt=AwrC1CkJSJhVLU4AhhjQtDMD;_ylu=X3oDMTBydDI5cXVuBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwM2BHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg–

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