Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

J.B. Say argues that colonial slave labor is really quite profitable for the slave owners at the expense of the slaves and the home consumers (1817)

Say denounced slavery as “this vicious system of production” and argued that slaves were kept in poverty by their masters who pocketed most of the profits of their labor

Indeed, this very exorbitance of profit shows, that the industry of the master is paid out of all proportion with that of the slave. To the consumer it makes no difference. One of the productive classes benefits by the depression of the rest; and that would be all, were it not that the vicious system of production, resulting from this derangement, opposes the introduction of a better plan of industry. The slave and the master are both degraded beings, incapable of approximating to the perfection of industry, and, by their contagion, degrading the industry of the free man, who has no slaves at his command.

But let me ask, in what manner does slavery operate upon production? Is the labour of the slave less costly than that of the free labourer? This is an important inquiry, originating in the influence of the modern system of colonization upon the multiplication of wealth.

Stewart, Turgot, and Smith, all agree in thinking, that the labour of the slave is dearer and less productive than that of the freeman. Their arguments amount to this: a man, that neither works nor consumes on his own account, works as little and consumes as much as he can: he has no interest in the exertion of that degree of care and intelligence, which alone can insure success: his life is shortened by excessive labour, and his master must replace it at great expense, besides, the free workman looks after his own support; but that of the slave must be attended to by the master; and, as it is impossible for the master to do it so economically as the free workman, the labour of the slave must cost him dearer.

This position has been controverted by the following calculation…

Common sense will tell us, that the consumption of a slave must be less than that of a free workman. The master cares not if his slave enjoy life, provided he do but live; a pair of trowsers and a jacket are the whole wardrobe of the negro: his lodging a bare hut, and his food the manioc root, to which kind masters now and then add a little dried fish. A population of free workmen, taken one with another, has women, children, and invalids to support: the ties of consanguinity, friendship, love, and gratitude, all contribute to multiply consumption; whereas, the slave-owner is often relieved by the effects of fatigue from the maintenance of the veteran: the tender age and sex enjoy little exemption from labour; and even the soft impulse of sexual attraction is subject to the avaricious calculations of the master.

What is the motive which operates in every man’s breast to counteract the impulse towards the gratification of his wants and appetites? Doubtless, the providential care of the future. Human wants and appetites have a tendency to extend—frugality to reduce consumption; and it is easy to conceive, that these opposite motives, working in the mind of the same individual, help to counteract each other. But, where there are master and slave, the balance must needs incline to the side of frugality; the wants and appetites operate upon the weaker party, and the motive of frugality upon the stronger. It is a well-known fact, that the net produce of an estate in St. Domingo cleared off the whole purchase-money in six years; whereas in Europe the net produce seldom exceeds the one twenty-fifth or one thirtieth of the purchase-money, and sometimes falls far short even of that. Smith, himself, elsewhere tells us, that the planters of the English islands admit that the run and molasses will defray the whole expenses of a sugar plantation, leaving the total produce of sugar as net proceeds: which, as he justly observes, is much the same as if our farmers were to pay their rent and expenses with the straw only, and to make a clear profit of all the grain. Now I ask, how many products are there that exceed the expenses of production in the same degree?

Indeed, this very exorbitance of profit shows, that the industry of the master is paid out of all proportion with that of the slave. To the consumer it makes no difference. One of the productive classes benefits by the depression of the rest; and that would be all, were it not that the vicious system of production, resulting from this derangement, opposes the introduction of a better plan of industry. The slave and the master are both degraded beings, incapable of approximating to the perfection of industry, and, by their contagion, degrading the industry of the free man, who has no slaves at his command. For labour can never be honourable, or even respectable, where it is executed by an inferior caste. The forced and unnatural superiority of the master over the slave, is exhibited in the affectation of lordly indolence and inactivity: and the faculties of mind are debased in an equal degree; the place of intelligence is usurped by violence and brutality.

About this Quotation:

Political economists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were divided over whether or not the system of slave labor was “profitable”. The Smithian school argued that free labor was more productive than inefficient slave labor because of the “incentive problem.” Say, on the other hand, argued that slavery was immensely profitable to the slave owners who were able to benefit from protective tariffs and to transfer many of their costs to domestic consumers and taxpayers. The outcome of this academic debate would be very important to the problem of if and when slavery would end in the United States.

More Quotations