Slavery Is Alive, but Unwell

Robert Wright, author of The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes The Economy, writes about the continued existence of slavery today and its impact on the global economy.

About 46 million people worldwide today are enslaved. In absolute terms, that is more than at any other time in recorded history. In terms of percentage of the total population, though, slavery is less important today than during any previous epoch, raising the hope that it might soon be extirpated once and for all.

That any significant number of people remain enslaved today runs counter to the widely taught but erroneous belief that slavery ended thanks to a wave of Great Emancipations by Britain, the United States, Brazil, and others in the nineteenth century, and the outlawing of domestic slavery by nations throughout the globe over the course of the twentieth century. While slavery did end de jure throughout the world, it never ended de facto anywhere.

In the United States, for example, the Thirteenth Amendment allows for the enslavement of convicts, a loophole that white bigots leveraged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to enslave large numbers of African-Americans, most convicted of minor crimes like loitering, on plantations and in coal mines and factories. Such practices formed the basis of today’s carceral state. Meanwhile, so-called “white slavery” was perpetrated in most major urban areas throughout the nation and over time morphed into today’s sex trafficking.

Although the term slavery has lost some of its precision over the years due to its misapplication to a wide variety of heinous practices, the 46 million person estimate is legitimate, referring only to people who are physically or psychologically prevented from seeking employment elsewhere. Unlike slaves of yore, which were valuable assets, today’s slaves are cheap and hence disposable. Enslavers regularly work them to death or until they are no longer able to function, then discard them unceremoniously.

Despite its illegality, slavery persists because enslavers find it profitable. Enslaving others entails only a minimal purchase price and the biological minimum needed to keep the enslaved at his or her assigned tasks. It is said to be the third most profitable illicit business in the world today, after drugs and arms dealing, but few enslavers are ever convicted because they are able to buy off law enforcement officials or intimidate witnesses.

Over the last twenty years or so, however, antislavery NGOs and governments have recognized the size of the problem and taken steps to raise public awareness and to strengthen antislavery laws and enforcement. Their efforts are strengthened by the conviction of all but a few fringe groups, like ISIS, that slavery is morally unacceptable in today’s world.

Unfortunately, a bevy of historians has recently broken the 150-year consensus that slavery is also economically bankrupt by arguing that slaves, slavery, and/or the slave trade spurred British and American industrialization. Their works are popular in some circles because they provide the descendants of slaves with a source of pride and fodder for reparations claims.

Ultimately, however, the notion that slavery can be good for the overall economy is deeply flawed because enslaving others creates large negative externalities, or costs borne by society (and not by enslavers). Those externalities are myriad but not easily seen. Where slavery is legal, they include the cost of returning runaways, special slave codes, and slave patrols. Where slavery is illegal, the costs include corruption, environmental degradation, and lives ruined by rape, drugs, disease, and torture.

The negative externalities, or pollution, caused by the enslavement of others pervades every known slave society throughout the globe and throughout history, proving that slavery has never, anywhere, induced economic growth or development. African-Americans in search of economically powerful forbears should look to early West African empires, like Timbuktu, rather than to slave regimes like the U.S. South.

While the inability to accept alternative employment (or not to work at all) is a key indicator of enslavement, a new 20-point freedom scale details the myriad ways in which individual workers suffer loss of freedom. The freedom index helps to differentiate chattel slaves, who generally score 2 or less on the scale, from other forms of bonded or coerced laborers, who typically score 3 to 5 on the scale, from workers, like interns, apprentices, and long-term contract workers, who enjoy more freedom than bound laborers but considerably less freedom than most modern employees, their bosses, or proprietors. The freedom index also explains how NBA players worth millions can equate themselves with slaves.

The index is important because less freedom (more slavery) leads to larger negative externalities, so policymakers interested in increasing economic output should strive to help workers achieve as much freedom as they can, consistent with the available technology set. Technological advancement reduces unfreedom in the workplace by allowing producers to replace labor with capital whenever the latter becomes cheaper than the former, even in its cheapest enslaved form. But those concerned about modern slavery cannot wait for technology to produce viable sexbots or machines that can roll bidis or weave carpets cheaper than enslaved children can. Slavery is simply too morally reprehensible, and too economically costly, to ignore.

Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana University and the author of 18 books, including The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes The Economy.

NB: All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Palgrave Macmillan.

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The Poverty of Slavery

This ground-breaking book adds an economic angle to a traditionally moral argument, demonstrating that slavery has never promoted economic growth or development, neither today nor in the past. 

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