Slavery and Economic Protectionism

Two selections from a lesser-known classical liberal.

Editor’s Note

The following selections are taken from Des Causes des Crises Commerciales et Industrielles (1840) by Adolphe Le Hardy de Beaulieu.

The first selection deals with the economic rationale for slavery. The abolition of slavery was one of the greatest accomplishments of the classical liberals, but like modern political struggles it was fought not only on a moral front but also a practical front. In this passage, Le Hardy de Beauliue reassures his audience that abolishing slavery would not be economically disasterous—quite the contrary.

In the second selection, Le Hardy de Beaulieu discusses economic protectionism—specifically, sugar tariffs. He likens domestic growers of sugar beets, the beneficiaries of the tariff, to the warlord plunderers of less civilized times, and traces out the far-flung consequences of the destructive tariff policy. Students of the liberal tradition will find most of these arguments similar to Bastiat’s. Le Hardy de Beaulieu doesn’t have quite the same comic flair as his contemporary, but his style has its own charms. He writes with admirable clarity, conviction, and force.

Translation credit goes to Dries Van Thielen, a member of the Antwerp chapter of Liberaal Vlaams Studentenverbond (a classical liberal student group), and to Jason Kuznicki, a Research Fellow at the Cato Institute.

Grant Babcock
Associate Editor

On Slavery

What is the role of slaves in the manufacturing of goods? Often there have been discussions on this topic. In this brief contribution, I will therefore provide neither philosophical nor humanitarian arguments: this problem has already been solved [by Condorcet, Grégoire, and Bastiat, among others in the francophone world]. We dwell upon more economical grounds using plain numbers and results.

Generally speaking, one can argue that slaves are the most expensive servants for two main reasons. Firstly, you have to purchase them for a non-trivial price (around 4000 – 10000 Fr.) before they produce one single unit. This investment capital must be obtained at a high rate of interest and amortization, in direct proportion to the chances of the loss of the slave, whether by natural death, by escape, or by abduction.

Every day, the owner risks the loss of his servant, and moreover he must pay for the frequent illnesses that attack these unfortunates.

The second reason why slaves are in most cases more expensive than free laborers or maids is their job, which they often perform as machines and without intelligence. Furthermore there is the active and incessant surveillance of which they must be the object, and finally the master is often obliged to deprive the most mutinous among them of all work by imprisoning them for the purpose of preventing their disorders.

Here is the approximate situation of one plantation with 200 negroes. In the group we have:

  • More or less 80 children below the age of 14
  • 60 adult women – capable of working
  • 50 adult men of strength and maturity
  • 10 ill and elderly slaves – unable to work

We have to keep in mind that we lose around 12 or 18 slaves yearly due to decease and escape, and a daily average of between 4 and 10 illnesses varying seasonally, and it is above all during work season that there are the most illnesses.

To accelerate the work, slave owners goad their remaining and healthy slaves – which brings a considerable loss.

We conclude from this calculation that from a collection of 200 slaves a planter really only gets the services of 100 at the most, which means that in general the expense of two slaves is had for each one that works. Keep in mind that in few countries do free laborers earn double of what they produce. So it is safe to assume – again – that free employees cost the same [but produce more]. But if moreover we consider that the slave, despite the whips and chains, can hardly produce but 2/3 of the output of a good [free] worker, that he is apt to take flight, and that he demands considerable surveillance expense, I think we can affirm without fear that slaves are more costly than free laborers; As a result wherever slaves are employed, their purchase has proven to be a bad investment.

Even setting aside the affront that slavery presents to the rights of mankind, it has thus been proven that working the earth with slaves is more expensive than the use of animals and free men. Now, it has been argued that it would be impossible to cultivate certain parts of the earth without negroes, and that they would not want to work if they were made free.  Unfortunately, the objection is in a sense true; certainly the unhealthiness of most tropical countries is all too well known, and the constitution of northerners is weak when it comes to facing the harsh sunlight. It is also true that if the negroes were liberated, they would think themselves dishonored if they returned to the same manual labor. But at least, and so as to recognize the interests of all parties, we could free all enslaved children and raise them to think otherwise; milder methods than those now employed could also be adopted for the existing slaves; better farming equipment could likewise be used, analogous to that which has been invented for farming in the north. All would win thereby: the owners, by saving labor and by cultivating better and more quickly; the negroes, by suffering less useless exhaustion; and humanity, by the termination of a crying abuse, done by enlightened force against ignorant weakness.

On the Unnaturalness of Protectionism

No one will doubt that local factors such as climate, soil, and geographic position are essential in general to the production of raw materials. Wiser in her determinations than the most adept of human legislators, Nature has marked the place where each product must excel, where each thing must be produced in abundance, with the least expense possible, and with the fewest risks of failure. In a word, if Nature had written the laws, she would have said: “We will grow vines here; there the plains will be covered every year with wheat and rye. There the soil shall be favorable to flax; there, for sugar, cotton, and tobacco; there shall woods for dyeing find the sun needed for their development, there the arid, whiteheaded mountains will grow nothing but briars and moss, but in their depths the intelligent and active man will find countless resources.” Then, taking account of the audience; she would have added: “go forth and multiply.”

Man is proud and vain by nature; he is usually animated by the spirit of contradiction and seeks to overthrow these wise laws; he would have it that each country, that each climate could produce all things, without a thought to effort, or expense, or return on investment; and so he sets to work. It is well and good to be sure, this struggle of the weak against the strong, of the pygmy against the giant; but humanity cannot help but weigh in here, in this drama where she pays for the actors and the sets. For her what matters is that the productions are all at the lowest price possible, and thus that she can enjoy everywhere the advantages we have earlier mentioned.

It would have been but half a misfortune, this rebellion of individuals against the natural order, if they had only fought fairly, with equal arms. But, knowing their own weaknesses, the crafty among them invented protectionism. Feeling themselves likely to fail before the attack, they believed it was necessary to resort to dirty tricks, and thus the tariff was born.

If mankind had just followed the natural course that seemed to have been set before it, it is likely that it would never have been fractured into such a large number of distinct and hostile communities. To fulfill its interests properly understood, mankind would join forces into the largest associations possible so as to profit from all the advantages it could. Yet down through the ages, human life has been an accumulation of conflicts amongst peers and equals, in which it seems that the good or bad fortune of men depends on the number of enemies they have overcome or even murdered.

Unhappily, we have inherited the sad results of this struggle against the will of nature: if today there are so many borders between countries, it is because in years past there have been just so many enemies. But all things decay with time, and today this struggle no longer takes place among peoples, but rather among their professions.

To deprive neighbors of a product that they obtained fairly and at a good price, we prohibit them from joining our market or only allow it after the payment of a humongous taxation. And what is the result? First, people have tried to produce the same products, only in countries where one would never have dreamt of doing so otherwise. Next, the products so produced have been more expensive and less good. And finally, the countries deprived of their production have been forced to abandon their natural growth in favor of substitutes so as to get any worth from their lands at all.

To cite just one example out of thousands, consider beet cultivation in Belgium and France. One would have to hold shares in a beet factory to think that sugar refined from beetroot is of equal quality to cane sugar. And only the factory director could possibly claim that it is equally economical. Unfortunately, though, these opinions have won out.

And what did they have to do to win? Firstly, they banned the import of “exotic” sugar. Later, they allowed the import of some exotic sugar, but only under high tariffs. And what is the result of this ban? Well, we have to admit that the beet production has blossomed. But what is the cost of this idea? All of France has to make unnecessary investments, in the form of the difference that exists betrween the prices of cane and beet sugars.  Our colonies, as well as all places that cultivate cane, are victims as well: since we protect ourselves in Europe, they cannot produce to the extent and with the perfection that they otherwise might attain, if they had not faced this obstacle in their development.

But one could immediately object that lowering the tariff on exotic sugars would ruin all the beet sugar factories. To this I will answer: If the cultivation of this root is really more profitable than the other grains or plants that could be grown in the same soil, then it will continue despite the added competition. The owners and the cultivators seek above all the greatest product from their lands, and if the return is less than that, they will seek out other undoubtedly profitable crops, because even in a soil less giving than the one demanded by the beetroot, these other crops will bring to the owner a return of which he will be content, and to the cultivators a benefit much less risky than that of the sugar beet.

Thus from this example we see, first, that by supposing a freedom of trade in exotic sugars, we obtain a larger share of land under cane cultivation in the colonies, and in consequence the growth in production of a product that is necessary in the current state of our civilization; and second, we find a considerable growth and perhaps a greater than proportional growth in the consumption of manufactured goods furnished by the country the least exposed to tropical heat [Belgium]. Moreover, much of our land will probably be returned to grain cultivation, which the introduction of substitute crops had tended to diminish day by day, to the great detriment of the needs of our population. But that isn’t all. A product of mass consumption will decline in real price, and in consequence consumers will save several million. Perhaps this savings, added to the general welfare will do its part to make them less fearful of the sinister businessmen of which they complain so much today.