Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Slavery, brought to you by the free market

As usual, one of the books I'm currently reading is helping boost my knowledge of American history to aid in my genealogy research. Right now I'm tucked into Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction by Eric Foner.

I was struck by the following passage--not just because it highlights the complicity of the North and England in the South's "peculiar institution," but because it so perfectly demonstrates the problem with the modern-day conservative worship of a society where business operates unchecked, except by supply and consumer demand.
The first mass consumer goods in international trade were produced by slaves--sugar, rice, coffee, and tobacco. The rising demand for these products fueled the rapid growth of the Atlantic slave trade. The profits from slavery stimulated the rise of British ports such as Liverpool and Bristol, and the growth of banking, shipbuilding, and insurance, and helped to finance the early industrial revolution.
Slavery not only survived the American Revolution, but also soon entered a period of unprecedented expansion. As in the colonial era, the economic interests of the North, and of England, remained intertwined with slavery. The industrial revolution in England, soon replicated in the antebellum North, created an insatiable desire for cotton, the raw material of the early textile industry. Cotton had been grown for thousands of years in many parts of the globe...But in the nineteenth century, cotton assumed an unprecedented role in the world economy. Cotton production grew from fewer than three thousand bales in 1790 to nearly five million bales on the eve of the Civil War. By then, cotton was by far the most important export of the United States. [Pages 7, 11]
The free market is amoral and it will tolerate much--even holding human beings in bondage--if doing so benefits the economic or social interests of the majority, or even a powerful few.

And so, when Rand Paul suggests that the free market can do the work of the Civil Right Act, it is not just laughable, but ahistorical. The free market, without intervention, often abides abuses against humanity and works against American ideals of liberty. And we needn't refer back to the 18th century for evidence of that.

Photo Credit: Slave Site


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