A Non-Sokratic Dialogue on Social Welfare Functions: Hoisted from the Archives from 2003

Econ 210a Memo Question: Slavery and Serfdom

Week 4 Memo Assignment: Slavery and Serfdom: In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith confidently asserted that slavery was uneconomic–that in commercial society, manumission was the road to higher productivity because the carrot of working for yourself is much more efficient than the stick of being whipped by others.

He went on to say that unfree labor–slavery, serfdom, debt peonage, and so on–could only survive where the rich chose to pursue not the pleasures of prosperous living but the pleasures of domination–and that as humanity progressed morally and also progressed technologically to invent new commodities this love of domination would decline.

This week we have a number of papers that conclude, as I read them, that Smith was horribly wrong. Can we rescue Smith's optimal, Panglossian view of the historical destiny of unfree labor? Why, in history, didn't Smith's argument work?