Commentary

Slavery and Globalization

In her recent article for the British press, Madge Dresser, a lecturer at the University of West England, linked 19th century globalization and slavery. Dresser was described as arguing that the “slave trade initiated globalization.” In fact, Dresser never made that causal link explicit. Instead, she opted to insinuate it by pouring vitriol over Adam Smith and the free markets he promoted.

As she wrote, “[Slavery] … epitomizes a most exploitative form of globalization, which has since resurfaced in new forms. Will the Bush regime help redress its legacy through fair trade practices and constructive engagement? Or will Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ still hold the whip?”

The link that Dresser drew between slavery and Smith’s free trade is fictitious. The slave trade may have been a type of trade, but it was not free trade. Free trade, as Smith would have it, is based on voluntary exchange and mutual benefit. Moreover, goods and services that are traded must have a rightful owner and men, needless to say, cannot be owned. By definition, therefore, slave trade could never be free trade.

Adam Smith himself opposed slavery on both economic and moral grounds. As he wrote in the Wealth of Nations: “From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work he does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith castigated slavery’s immorality. As he wrote, it is cruel, “to reduce them [people] into the vilest of all states, that of domestic slavery, and to sell them, man, woman, and child, like so many herds of cattle, to the highest bidder in the market.”

Adam Smith aside, globalization of the 19th century was in no way predicated on the existence of the slavery. Even the most cursory knowledge of the 19th century dispels the link between the two. Most scholars associate globalization with the second half of the 19th century. If it is measured by the size of capital flows across the world, then globalization only reached its zenith during the 1880’s.

The British Parliament, however, abolished slave trade in 1807 and outlawed slavery as such in 1833. The French Second Republic abolished slavery in 1848 and the United States followed in 1865. Thus, far from being instrumental to globalization, slavery ended decades before the commonly understood “golden age” of globalization.

It could be argued that slavery in some countries partly coincided with a general move toward economic liberalization, the earnest start of which should perhaps be marked by the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846. But coincidence of globalization and slavery is silent on the subject of causality.

Rather, globalization was driven by tremendous improvements in technology that eased the flow of labor, goods, and capital across the globe. Of course, it could be argued that technological advances that were instrumental to globalization also made the slave trade easier. But, unintended negative consequences of human discovery are common.

Consider the bubonic plague. In the early 1330’s, an outbreak of bubonic plague occurred in China. From there the disease spread. By 1347 it reached the Black Sea, which was a popular destination for Italian merchants, who brought it with them to Italy. In the following five years, Europe lost a third of its population, which fell from 75 to 50 million.

The alternative to risks that come from discovery is to withdraw behind fortified borders and abandon the notion of material and intellectual progress, which — if it were not impossible — would probably be immoral. But delving deeper into her reasoning forces the reader to confront the Luddite underpinnings of Dresser’s work.

Her description of pre-colonial Africa as a place of a “peaceful peasant and communally-run village” is deceptive or, at best, ignorant. There are no written records of what Africa was like before its contact with the Europeans. The early records made by the European settlers, on the other hand, present posterity with an image of uncommon cruelty. One only has to think of the bone-chilling exploits of Shaka, King of the Zulus, or the gastronomical tastes of Lobengula of Matabeleland.

Moreover, singling out the British, the French, and the Americans is a cheap shot. From what we know, slavery is as ancient as humanity itself. Until its effective elimination by the European colonial powers, slavery was both eternal and universal. The very word “slave” comes from Medieval Latin word sclavus [not Greek, as Dresser, a supposed authority on the subject, asserts]. The term seems to have been coined in reference to the widespread enslavement of Central European Slavs in the 9th century AD.

The fact that slavery was devoid of a specific ethnic component until very recently is well documented by the Athenian enslavement of the unfortunate inhabitants of the Island of Melos in the 5th century BC. In that particular case, one Greek people enslaved another Greek people — a common phenomenon.

Dresser glosses over the Arab slave trade along the east coast of Africa, which predated the European contact with sub-Saharan Africa. The offensive term kaffir, which racists used to call a black person in South Africa, is identical with the Arabic word to denote an infidel and indicates the pre-colonial nature of slavery in Africa.

In fact, as Dinesh D’Souza, the author of the best-selling book “The End of Racism,” points out, slavery became such an integral part of African life that “tribal leaders in Gambia, Congo, Dahomey, and other African nations that had prospered under the slave trade sent delegations to London and Paris to vigorously protest the abolition of slavery.”

Of course, insistence on western guilt is understandable in view of the remedies that have repeatedly been proposed to cure Africa’s ills. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and James Wolfensohn of the World Bank, for example, advocate huge increases in foreign aid for Africa. But foreign aid does not work.

Between the end of the Second World War and 1997, the United States alone provided approximately $1 trillion in aid to poor countries around the world. It did not help. Nearly all of the world’s poorest countries have been long-term aid recipients. Many of them have seen their per capita incomes fall to 1980 and even 1970 levels. Ghana, for example, had inflation-adjusted per capita income of $800 in 1967. By 1997 that figure fell to $370.

Unfortunately, the abysmal record of the international redistribution of resources in combating poverty is continuously ignored. But the refusal to face the facts has nothing to do with the poor Africans. Instead, Africa’s poverty is a tool in the socialist struggle to repair some of the damage that Marxism suffered as a result of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

No matter how untrue, the persistent attempts to link slavery [exploitation] and globalization [capitalism] helps Dresser and her fellow-travelers to discredit free markets. It also helps the unscrupulous African leaders to externalize blame for Africa’s poverty, as the Ghanaian-born professor at the American University, George Ayittey, put it.

African leaders are good at playing the victimization game. By furthering the image of Africans as mere spectators, who are powerless to change the “objective reality” of the international economic system, the African politicians use and abuse western sensibilities to extract more money to sustain their corrupt regimes and lavish lifestyles.

African leaders continue to appeal to the theories of exploitation championed by our tenured left-wingers, because they provide a convenient way of explaining away decades of socialist mismanagement, war and tyranny. By using them as persuasive apologists, the African politicians continue to outsmart many of our ivory tower academics.

On the other hand, a wealth of evidence points to domestic arrangements, such as the rule of law, private property, and free markets as the best way to prosperity. According to the Canadian Fraser Institute’s 2003 Economic Freedom of the World Report, to cite just one example, the richest countries in the world also have the freest economies. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Dresser, in her opposition to Adam Smith and free markets, effectively opposes the only way that Africa can take to escape the scourge of poverty.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute