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.