The inadequate economics and history of the slavery reparations movement

We've another of those calls for reparations to be paid for the Atlantic slave trade, this time in The Guardian:

It is clear that it would be just to pay reparations, and it is also possible to calculate the amount that Britain and other nations owe. A lot of work has been done in the United States to determine the damages owed to African Americans. The figure owed comes to far more than the “forty acres and a mule” that were promised to some African Americans who fought in the civil war. The latest calculations from researchers estimates that for unpaid labour, taking into account interest and inflation, African Americans are owed anywhere between $5.9tn and $14.2tn.

That is rather to visit the sins of the father upon the child of course. But the underlying argument is that it was slavery itself that enabled the industrial revolution to take place, therefore we who benefit from that revolution should cough up.

Which is, we feel, rather to get things the wrong way around, for it was the Industrial Revolution which did away with slavery itself. It was precisely the replacement of human muscle power with that of steam and machines which did away with the vileness of chattel slavery and forced labour.

This is not exactly a new idea either - it's a commonplace argument that the Roman Empire never did mechanise simply because human labour was so cheap in the form of all those slaves. Similarly, it's a common enough argument that Britain mechanised first because labour was expensive - there not being chattel slavery in England in any great numbers from the 12 th century onwards, definitely not after Somersett in England and Knight in Scotland in the 1770s.

Our important point here being that pretty much everywhere before the industrial revolution had if not directly chattel slavery then something at least akin to it, and pretty much nowhere has had anything like it since a successful industrial revolution. It being that mechanisation of human grunt work which made the abolition of slavery happen.