Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The economics of slavery. PJ's email, which I reproduce below, is, I think, deliberately provocative but makes some good points. PJ writes:
"Maybe a little late in coming in on the end of slavery issue but:

"Think economics. Unless you're getting your slaves free as a by-product of war you either have to buy your slaves or breed them. Slaves are perishable goods and attract either considerable costs in transporting them to market or an acceptance that a high proportion will succumb on the journey and the survivors will be in poor condition.

"Breeding slaves, likewise, carries considerable overheads. Humans have small litters (ie usually1) after a relatively long gestation period followed by a lengthy maturation. In effect they don't reproduce much faster than the slaveholders. Nobody is going to get rich breeding slaves although a family might if the economics remained stable over a multi-generational timescale.

"All in all then, a strong slave is a considerable investment. And a considerable financial burden because slaves have to be fed, quartered and constrained irrespective of their productivity. If there's a slackening in demand for whatever they're being used for -say sugar or cotton production- the overheads don't go away. The slaves have to be looked after all the same. Selling's difficult because they'd be selling into a depressed market and if they're simply slaughtered then a replacement workforce is a couple of generations away. Slaves just can't compete with hired labour in anything else but a totally static economy. Hired labour requires no initial outlay, breeds itself, needs no guards and if no longer required, can be fired.

"Incidentally, don't confuse slaves with serfs. Serfdom was a response to the anarchy following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the serfs got as much out of it as the lords did. That's why so many freemen became serfs voluntarily. What's the point in raising crops and herds if the mob up the road can just come and take them away from you whenever they feel like it? Better to put yourself under the protection of the local hardman who'll keep them off of your back for a share of the produce. The going rate was about two fifths which, when you think of it, was a bit less than our government takes off of us in taxes.

"And what ended serfdom? Money. Feudal Europe had essentially no money supply and that produced some really weird economics. The local lord might have the income from all his lands but that income was made up of boon labour and crops and hides. Consume it or lose it. You get anomalies like the rent on an entire farm being 30 shillings per annum yet a meat pie in the town costing 3 pence. (1/120 if you've forgotten how pre-decimal coinage worked.) Enter capitalism and repeat last line of preceeding paragraph.

"Just one more shot at slavery. Slavery as the humanitarian alternative.

"If you're a community of people living an agricultural subsistance lifestyle things are damned precarious. Every year you get in just enough crops to carry you through to the next harvest. Now let's say you have a dispute with the bunch the other side of river. You have yourself a little war and by luck you win it. Now you've got yourself a bunch of prisoners and wounded. What do you do with them? You can't just let them go or they'll come back next year and do it all over again. You've got enough problems feeding yourselves, bearing in mind that you lost some of your workforce in the battle, so you can't just keep them penned up under guard. Best thing is to kill them and just to make sure of things you nip across the river and slit the throats of their women and children who'll be starving to death soon anyway. Tidiness is a virtue.

"There is an alternative. You make some fetters and you put them on the prisoners and their families and you put them to work. Now you've got enough labour to farm their lands as well as yours and even have a little surplus left over. So you get time to invent the wheel and writing.

"Oh and civilisation whilst you're about it. Return to start."

It's true that the Romans considered themselves enlightened because they enslaved their defeated enemies, rather than sacrifice them in the sacred groves as Arminius did to the legions of Varus.

But civilisation a result of slavery? Hmmm. I don't like that idea, but ... Discuss it among yourselves. I won't be blogging for the next couple of weeks.