The development of capitalism and the rise of humanitarianism occurred around the same time – from the mid-18th century continuing into the present day. Clearly there is some sort of causal connection that historians and economists have attempted to describe and identify. Recently, some academics have argued that, while slavery obviously contributed to the growth of industrializing economies and capitalism as a mode of production, capitalism was ultimately the system that was able to finally end slavery and the slave trade.
What many fail to realize when examining capitalism in an historic context is that it is more than a system of economic production. Sure, much of what capitalism is boils down to a how it organizes markets – but the mode of production it creates is necessarily informed by the philosophical side of capitalism as an ideology.
From Friedman to Krugman, many economists have agreed that capitalism is more than just economic – it is informed by classical liberalism ideas, such as property rights. This small distinction can easily change the narrative of capitalism throughout history but is lost on many academics. There can be various forms of capitalism but all proper definitions are derived from the central ideas of property rights and individual liberty.
Capitalism was a force that was able to push the moral boundaries of society better than any government or revolution prior. The existence of relatively free markets in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century allowed for the expansion of moral responsibility and for individuals to address society’s values while providing an avenue for others to listen. The expansion of markets and moral boundaries encouraged promise keeping (strengthening contract law) and engaged individuals with the consequences of their actions.
Thomas Haskell has argued that if there was a technology, such as a button, which individuals around the world could use at no cost to the end the suffering or negative utilities of others, most individuals would use that button. He was illustrating the idea that, while we are passively aware of suffering around the globe, we don’t act because we are not confronted with how our actions affect the situation of others. Likewise, free markets forced individuals to contemplate their role in the slave trade.
Take for example, Mr. John Wollman – a Quaker on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Born in the 18th century, Mr. Wollman owned many businesses spanning across different industries. What ultimately drove him to oppose the slave trade was his direct dealings with the bills of sale for slaves. He abhorred the dehumanization of others, even if they were not Quakers, and ultimately decided to join the clergy and travel the United States to oppose the slave trade. Increased globalization and free markets ultimately enabled Mr. Wollman to be exposed to the horrors of the slave trade and help inform him of his fellow man.
Put simply, capitalism compounded enlightenment thinking and provided more avenues to end slavery. Capitalism, at is core, is a system that promotes free exchange and voluntary association with other parties. Countries have twisted this system to suit their own political needs, like modern day China, but ultimately lack the core tenants that are necessary in a capitalist system. As a system of production and political thought, capitalism enabled the end of slavery and can be used to end similar systems of oppression around the world today.