The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd


  • S. L. Egerman
Reference work entry


Slavery entails the ownership of one person by another. As a form of labour organization it has existed throughout history, in a large number of different societies. Indeed, while today we regard slavery as ‘the peculiar institution’, by historical standards it is wage-labour markets that are ‘unusual’. Given slavery’s long and varied history a precise definition is not always agreed upon, but there are certain general characteristics found in most societies. The status of slave is generally applied to outsiders – individuals not belonging to the dominant nation, religion or race – although the definition of exactly who is an outsider has varied; Orlando Patterson (1982) considers the basic characteristic of slavery to be ‘social death’, with a loss of honour as well as legal rights by the enslaved. So widespread and acceptable was slavery that in Europe and the Americas no movement developed to attack slavery as a system until the late 18th century. In Western thought slavery had long been regarded as a necessity or as a ‘necessary evil’. The pre-19th-century discussions of slavery often pointed to the desirability (on grounds of religion and morality) of ameliorating the conditions of the enslaved or of facilitating the liberation of individual slaves, but it was only in the late 18th century that widespread thought was given to abolishing the institution itself (see Davis 1966, 1975, 1984).


Cairnes, J. E. Contract labour Indentured servitude Serfdom Slavery Total factor productivity Williams, E. 

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  • S. L. Egerman
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