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Eloquent opponent of slavery

Adam Smith, of All People

Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh. Photo: Wikipedia.

Adam Smith should be the last person to be cancelled for ‘racial injustice’....

It is now being reported that in Edinburgh a ‘Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group’ led by Jamaica-born activist Sir Geoff Palmer, a retired expert on cereals, is deliberating whether or not the grave of Adam Smith in the city should be regarded as a site linked to ‘historic racial injustice’.

I had to read the report thrice to believe it. Smith was a firm opponent of slavery, on two distinct grounds. First, he thought it was cruel and inhumane, indeed dehumanising, as many eloquent passages in his writings demonstrate. I need not quote them. But in the second place, Smith was a realist. He believed that pious exhortations did not have much effect, unless coinciding with self-interest. He recalled that so early as the twelfth century, Pope Alexander III had published a bull for the general emancipation of slaves, without any impact.

The second argument against slavery was indeed that it was not efficient as a social institution for one simple reason. The slave is usually worth more as a free man than as a slave, because as a free man it pays himself not only to work harder but also to reveal and develop his special abilities and skills. Others benefit as well from the access they gain in a free society to his special abilities and skills. If you are a baker, capitalism is not interested in the colour of your skin. It is interested in the quality of your bread. Is it a coincidence that in the era of strong racial prejudice in the United States, the two most competitive sectors of the economy, entertainment and sports, were open to African-Americans?

Smith memorably observed in the Wealth of Nations: ‘The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to set at liberty all their negro slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great. Had they made any considerable part of their property, such a resolution could never have been agreed to.’

Consider the fifty states of the United States. If slavery was really an efficient social institution, then before the Civil War the slave states in the Deep South should have been richer than the Northern states. But this was not the case, and the Deep South is still the poorest part of the United States.

Indeed, slavery is neither profitable for society as a whole nor for the slave-owners themselves. The reason for this is that it has many negative side-effects, also affecting the slave-owners. It encourages brutality: no tender-hearted person would get the job of a whipping-master at a slave plantation, as Smith’s distinguished disciple, Frank H. Knight, observed. It limits freedom of thought, as it requires censorship of emancipation literature: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in the South. It restricts trade (such as the purchase of freedom) and other mutually beneficial social interactions, such as mixed marriages. First and foremost, slavery hinders the discovery and development of human faculties and the subsequent enrichment of all our lives. Imagine all the talent wasted on drudgery in Mississippi cotton fields!

It is a myth that the wealth of the West is largely derived from slavery, or from colonial exploitation. This is best shown by the example of the richest countries in Europe, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway and Iceland. Why are the activists so vocal these days not concerned about the (inexcusable) enslavement of white people by the Arabs in North Africa which began earlier and ended later and claimed more victims than the (equally inexcusable) enslavement of Africans brought to the Americas? Why do they ignore the fact that one of the most powerful states of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, applauded by many Western intellectuals, operated slave camps where millions were worked to death?  

Since slavery is an inefficient social institution, if it is not actively maintained by government it should be expected to disappear. In some cases, however, it is defended by strong special interests, and then a concerted government action may be inevitable. The United States abolished slavery in an imprudent way: the Civil War cost 700,000 lives and after a while, pervasive racial discrimation was reintroduced in the South and lasted for a century. The United Kingdom behaved more sensibly when in the nineteenth century she compensated slave-owners for their losses. While Brazil, where slavery survived the longest, did not compensate slave-owners financially, she moved gradually and relatively peacefully towards emancipation: first the slave trade was restricted; then all children of slaves were proclaimed free; then all those over 60 were set free. In 1888 when slavery was formally abolished, only one-fourth of the coloured population was still enslaved. This may be the reason why racial prejudice has been less prevalent in Brazil than in many other countries (although it is now disappearing everywhere).

When I attended primary school in Iceland, we were all made to read a telling tale from the middle ages about slavery, and its abolition. In his chronicle of the power struggle in Norway between kings and local leaders, Heimskringla, composed in the 1220s, Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson described a wise old local leader, Erling Skjalgsson, one of the king’s opponents. He owned some slaves but what he did was to allow them to work for themselves in their free time, in the afternoon and evening. He gave them ploughland in which they could sow grain, and allowed them to use the crop for their own profit. Thus they slowly accumulated some holdings. Then he assigned tasks to each of them by which they could earn their freedom. Consequently, his slaves became free, some in one year, others in the second year, whereas all who had some capacity for work would make themselves free within three years. With the money Erling earned from these transactions, he bought other slaves who later became free in the same way. Some of his slaves learned to harvest herring; others became craftsmen; some cleared fresh land for themselves and built themselves farmhouses. ‘In this way he set them all on the road to personal advancement,’ Snorri wrote.

Why did Erling Skjalgsson not simply free his slaves? This is a simplistic question. Of course we cannot judge him on the moral principles which have become generally accepted in our part of the world in the last two centuries. As Adam Smith observed, slavery has been pervasive in history despite its inefficiency. But Erling showed a way out which at least was not unsurmountable in his day and time.