Various forms of slavery were nearly universal before the industrial revolution. After industrialization, it would naively seem forced labor would continue to be widespread, as there is no way to compete against it. But it only remained or became entrenched in a few locations and market sectors. Even current non-industrialized economies rarely involve slavery. I can't find a convincing explanation of why.

I find it impossible to believe it was because of lofty values for human rights. But imagining US/English history without a labor movement, for example, seems like it was resulting in the kind of sweathouse economy I would have expected to be typical. It is hard to believe labor movements have really been effective enough to have so dramatically shifted the equilibrium world-wide for a century. Am I wrong?

I also find it impossible to believe that most work requires education incompatible with being indentured, or that maintaining discipline and motivation would be prohibitive. Do the data say otherwise?

Maybe workers create so much more profit when they are themselves maximal consumers that capital creates political pressure to inflate wages above subsistence, to create (investment) markets? I think this would be capitalists' explanation, but coordination among capital would be susceptible to being undercut, prisoner's-dilemma style, by competitors willing to use slaves. I think the only thing that prevents that in an international context are trade agreements, but again, it is hard to believe those have been so dramatically effective.

I haven't been able to find this question addressed with data, it is always completely overwhelmed with ideology.

Here's the best answer I see on this site, but they claim slaves cost more to feed than they produce (under most circumstances). That can't be right -- workers make enough to eat, profit their employers, and buy comforts unavailable to slaves (including time off, medical care, and retirement), considering redistribution of course. So why hasn't capital driven those comforts to zero?

I asked on economics stack exchange, and this answer contained an insight I find plausible: you can fire/exchange a wage worker, but you can't sell an unproductive slave. So capital is willing to pay to insure against sinking costs into future labor of uncertain value. Do data support this idea?

The kind of studies I'm looking for that I think would be most convincing:

  • Cases where capital invested in slaves was lost when their labor depreciated due to some market shock.
  • Higher profits in wage vs slave economies that were otherwise similar.
  • Cases where wage workers utilized more of their capacity (were more productive) than slaves doing similar work.
  • Cases of capital lobbying against slavery/for higher wages in order to create customers.
  • Attempts to lower wages or coerce labor that failed for some reason, like unionization, violent revolt, etc.
  • Observation among otherwise similar economies of correlation between slavery index and social stability/unrest, growth/development, longevity, robustness to shocks, labor productivity, capital investment, etc.
  • 3
    The obvious answer here is slave isn't as productive as a free worker. If you believe in economic theory at all, that should be immediately obvious: if you aren't paying someone and they don't otherwise want to be doing what you're making them do (they aren't doing it for the joy of the activity), they are going to do as little of it as they can get away with. If this weren't the case, there'd be no incentive to pay anyone.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 19, 2020 at 20:29
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    Fogel and Engerman are generally seen as the pioneers in analyzing the economic data on this question, and they found that slavery was in fact efficient for southern plantations.
    – Brian Z
    Sep 19, 2020 at 21:33
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    Also, forced labor is widespread even today. The reasons it is not even more widespread are far more political than economic.
    – Brian Z
    Sep 19, 2020 at 21:41
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    I think your question is based on a misconception, that slavery "only became entrenched in a few locations and market sectors". On the contrary, slavery was common in most, if not all, advanced societies prior to the Industrial Revolution. (Especially so if you include de facto things such as medieval serfdom.)
    – jamesqf
    Sep 20, 2020 at 2:56
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    @user1441998 My point about politics over economics is very simple: all else being equal, stealing labor is obviously more profitable than paying for it, and so of course forced labor would be even more common if it weren't illegal.
    – Brian Z
    Sep 20, 2020 at 19:37

3 Answers 3


Roman slavery in Sicily was vastly economically profitable. As was semi-slave relations in Roman Egypt, or slavery in Roman mines.

Unfree labour in capitalism has been profitable (but below the prevailing rate of profit) in the rum isles and cotton. Both of these industries had owned truck paid wage labourers who their bosses could kill. Cotton was profitable because it destroyed existing more complex markets and temporarily increased the over all rate of profit in the sector even though cotton growing was below rate. Rum similarly smashed British brewers and the drinking class was thereby forced into work.

Unfree labour in the Soviet Union and Germany was marginally loss making, and produced an overall social decline in gross product, but the cheap labour enabled GuLag and the labour camps to return an investment for their owners in marginal areas that would have been even worse if using free labour.

In these latter four capitalist examples bizarre social rituals reinforced slavery separate to its market returns: actual humans aren’t maximising marginalists.

In Rome value maximilalisation was not generalised.

The questions assumptions are wrong: market relations of wage labour are none of: ahistorical; universal; nor utterly determinant.

  • 1
    what were the key dynamics that made slavery profitable for romans that aren't present in most other circumstances? what caused the rum/cotton slave economy to underperform contemporary free alternatives? what made high cotton profits "temporary"? how did the cotton economy "destroy [more profitable] existing markets" if it was "below rate" even with slaves? the question does not make the assumptions you assert, in fact your examples affirm the question's premise: slavery's efficiency rarely outcompetes other systems. the question is why. a good answer could be various case analyses. Sep 20, 2020 at 1:56
  • I’ll expand. But the concept of a unified singular form of unfree labour being unproductive is ahistorical. Sep 20, 2020 at 1:59
  • a theory that renders observations "bizarre" rather than explaining them is in need of replacement. :) value maximization goes quite far in explaining social rituals, but this question about whether it renders the decline of slavery as bizarre, and if so, whether there is a better explanation. Sep 20, 2020 at 2:02
  • the question no where asserts a unified singular form. it is a matter of observation that it is only rarely and temporarily productive, as your answer corroborates. Sep 20, 2020 at 2:05
  • Except for the second sentence. Sep 20, 2020 at 3:22

Ancient unfree labor (in Roman times first largely foreign slaves and later domestic serfs) was "profitable" because wage labor was NOT the alternative. The alternative was the free peasant farm, which routinely underutilized its capital (land) to make the peasants as comfortable as they needed to be and no more. So a magnate with comparable land having slaves work it would extract more value.

  • why would wage labor have been even more profitable than slaves? and if so, why didn't it develop in that context? Sep 20, 2020 at 20:02

Here's the crux:

That can't be right -- workers make enough to eat, profit their employers, plus buy comforts unavailable to slaves.

A worker works a number of hours for his boss, and get paid for those hours only. It varies amongst cultures and time periods, but usually when the worker gets sick or old, he has to take care of that himself - as well as for his family.

A slave has to be maintained 24/7. The employer has to provide food, shelter and medical care. Very often slaves were discarded when reaching old age. That wasn't a benefit. It was something slaves dreaded: if they could no longer work for their owners, they usually lacked the capability to fend for themselves.

In effect, a worker is like a machine. You pay mainly for operational costs. The maintenance costs are very low. Slaves are more like farm animals. The operational costs are low, but maintenance costs are very high.

As a whole debate sprang up, with a lot of downvotes, some clarication:

An employer pays for a certain job. Not because that employee is married and has children. That's a problem for the employee. And usually corrected on the free market. Few workers + lots of work = better conditions, and vice versa.

You can get paid more if you have more experience, or better qualifications. Not because you now have children, or decided to get married. In modern times you can get different tax rates or state benefits for having children/being married, but that is not controlled by the employer, therefore not relevant to the question.

Various different forms of slavery existed. From slaves condemned to mines up to ministers serving a royal. The first group was going to die within a year or two. The latter group would live very comfortably. Naturally, the first group weren't motivated to work hard. The latter group didn't need much motivation. Roman household slaves often got a bit of money, call a stipendium. Some slaves were able to save enough to buy their own freedom that way. But again, it wasn't the question.

I only address the bare bone basics. Which is that in general slaves are less productive than free labourers doing the same job. I've read somewhere even Cicero himself wrote a treatise in which he proved slavery wasn't economical. I can't recall the treatise, perhaps someone can put it in the comments?

  • the economy currently generates enough value to pay both maintenance and operational costs, in your terms. workers as a whole generate enough value to provide for their retirement (and time off), either through savings, insurance premiums, or taxation/redistribution. as you say, it would be more efficient (purely economically speaking) to stop "maintaining" them once they can't create value beyond their own subsistence. so my question is why/how does 99.5% of the world economy fall into some other equilibrium? Sep 20, 2020 at 0:33
  • @user1441998 That's an entirely different question.
    – Jos
    Sep 20, 2020 at 3:36
  • what distinction do you see? slave or not, the owner has to pay enough to keep the worker alive and productive; the worker has to generate at least that much value, plus profit for the owner. your only point was that in slave economy, owners didn't pay for worker retirement. but in non-slave economy, employer must pay as much as for slaves, plus worker retirement/comforts. in your terms, operation costs are equal, but free workers have higher maint costs. my q is how could this be a stable equilibrium - why do employers offer comforts/retirement when they could use slaves instead? Sep 20, 2020 at 4:12
  • @user1441998: But the slave owner has to support the slave regardless of whether or not he happens to need the labor at that time, or whether the slaves happen to have the particular skills needed. In the slave economy, the owner typically provides bare minimum necessities, in a non-slave economy, the workers use their income to purchase excess goods. But if most workers are slaves, there's no market for those goods. (Unless you're say North Korea, and can find an external market.)
    – jamesqf
    Sep 20, 2020 at 17:05
  • @jamesqf, those sound like the directions proposed towards the end of the question. are there data that support these explanations? for instance, cases where capital invested in slaves was lost when their labor depreciated due to some market shock? higher profits in wage vs slave economies that were otherwise similar? cases where wage workers utilized more of their capacity (were more productive) than slaves doing similar work? cases of capital lobbying against slavery/for higher wages in order to create customers? Sep 20, 2020 at 22:40

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