Capitalism VS Slavery

If the American Civil War had never happened, would Capitalism have eventually made slavery obsolete? A few of my friends recently discussed this question on Facebook.

One argument claimed that during the 19th Century so many new technological advancements were being created under Capitalism that slavery would have become unprofitable and obsolete within a short period of time, perhaps a generation or two. This went along with an argument that the net result of slavery was to hold the economy back, especially in the American South.

The other side argued that slavery was economically beneficial to slave-owners and that, even with technological and economic progress, slavery would have still been profitable to a slave owner, and the institution would have continued.

(Keep in mind, all parties considered it obvious that slavery was evil, and it did not even occur to anyone to call any of the other people involved a “racist.” Looking back, no one even seemed to consider becoming angry as a result of the conversation.)

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The question went back and forth in my head. Had slavery never been outlawed, would it have continued to be profitable? Would Capitalism and new technology have made slavery obsolete?

Checking My Premises

As I was considering this question, I realized the fallacies of my thinking. A lot of issues were being conflated into one question, and these had to be separated from one another in order to clearly address each issue at hand. The two issues I found to be the most important were separate, yet intersecting.

The first issue had to do with definitions. If we want to ask whether Capitalism would have made slavery obsolete, then we need to be clear on our definitions, especially with the terms “Capitalism” and “slavery.” What exactly is meant by those terms, and what is the proper definition?

The fallacy was in the terminology. Far too often people have conversations in which words are not properly defined. Words are given a vague, nebulous, “wishy-washy,” ill-defined meaning, and a fallacy is created from a lack of definition.

So, let’s define a couple of words.

“Slavery” in this case refers to the American institution where individuals (especially individuals from Africa) were forced to work for another man against their own free will. Their freedom, including their economic freedom, was taken away. And this institution was enforced by the government.

Slavery in other contexts could refer to indentured-servanthood and other forms of voluntary “slavery,” but in our case, we are talking about chattel slavery, in which people are enslaved unjustly and against their own free will.

“Capitalism” here ought to refer to “Free-Market Capitalism.” This is an economic system in which human beings are free. Economic trade is done by consent, or not at all, and the government exists to protect the rights of individuals. Every individual is protected from those who initiate acts of force, or who use fraud, or coercion.

The Second Fallacy

When these terms are defined, the second fallacy becomes obvious.

Slavery and Capitalism are polar opposites. Capitalism represents a system in which men are completely free to live their lives without force, fraud, or coercion, and also without government subsidies. Slavery is essentially the exact opposite. The two could not be more different.

Under Capitalism, men are free. Under slavery, they are in bondage.

Amazingly, America had an economy that in many ways was very free. If a free white man wanted to open a business, he was able to do so, with little fear of oppressive taxes and regulations, and yet slavery was legal. The economy was a mix of polar opposites and contradictions.

While editing this article, I came across a clip of the economist Dr. Walter Williams making the same argument that I am attempting to make here.

Dr. Williams was challenged by an interviewer with the objection that the Free Market created slavery. Part of his response was as follows:

“Well, I don’t think slavery is consistent with the free market. That is, the free market has something to do with private property rights and self-ownership. And, slavery is a violation of the essential principles of free markets. So, slavery is more, it’s something like the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another. And, that has to be offensive to anybody who believes in personal liberty.”

The System of X

Of course, this brings us back around to the original question, but with slightly different wording. Would technological and economic progress have made slavery obsolete? This is a valid question.

One might wonder what would have happened in the historic thought experiment, and rightly so.

For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s imagine an economic system (and moral system) that we simply call X. If we define X as striving to gain wealth at all costs without regard to the rights of individuals, then whatever X is, it is not Capitalism and it is not the free market.

To answer the question of whether X would have made slavery obsolete: I think that with that formulation, the answer is a clear and resounding “No.” Even today, there are sex slaves, agricultural slaves, and domestic slaves, regardless of legality. The forced exploitation of another human being may always be a potential way of gaining money or goods and services, even with technological progress. I hope that human beings will actively fight against this evil potentiality in every generation, should the need arise.

Even in fictional worlds, such as that of Star Trek, where everything you need can be made with a magic “replicator,” including food, clothes, and most household items, the place for slaves is still there in some societies. Even the Federation is not entirely without sin in this regard.

The solution then is individual rights. To echo the Founding Fathers, these truths are self-evident: every individual is endowed with unalienable rights from their Creator. These include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human beings ought to be free from force, fraud, or coercion, and that is why Collectivism (including Socialism) and slavery are evil. This is why Capitalism is the only moral system of economics, and why the government is obligated before God to protect individual rights.


I do not believe that technological or economic progress alone would have made slavery obsolete. I think that even in a technological utopia, such as the world of Star Trek, there would still be those who might find some profit in the abuse of their fellow man. And that is why this is ultimately a moral question, not an economic one.

Capitalism, properly defined, on the other hand, is a system in which human beings are free to live their lives as they see fit and no individual is allowed to initiate force against another. Even if there is some “greater good” that “society” wants to achieve, a man’s life and property are his own. Under Capitalism, the notion that one individual is the property of another or that he is the property of “society” is abhorred and outlawed. No individual is forced to pick cotton for another, and no individual is forced to bake a cake for another.

Under pure Capitalism, government and economics are separate. The courts will enforce contracts, but there are no special favors given by politicians to favor one man over another, rich or poor, black or white, male or female.

The mere pursuit of profit without regard to the rights of individuals is not Capitalism.

Capitalism, properly defined, is the system in which men are free. It is a system built on a set of moral principles. And that is why Capitalism stands against slavery and any form of system where one man is the property of another.

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