NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Of Human Bondage

April 11, 2002

The chains of slavery still bind the human mind, according to sociologist Kevin Bales. In the 21st century, he says, slavery is "growing and evolving."

  • Based on reports from governments and nongovernmental organizations, Bales estimates there are 27 million slaves around the world.
  • It is not confined to parts of South Asia and North Africa where slavery never ended: there are 45,000 to 50,000 women and children trafficked to the U.S. every year -- according to the Central Intelligence Agency -- and more in Europe.

Some pay a fee to be smuggled to the West -- but then are sold to sweatshops, brothels or domestic service; others are kidnapped and smuggled against their will.

Slavery may be called by different names, but still involves loss of free will backed up by violence.

It also involves psychological manipulation. Slaves often know their enslavement is illegal, but accept their role and identify with their master. Constant physical bondage becomes unnecessary.

But where slaves in antebellum America were an expensive investment, today's slave is typically a cheap and disposable laborer.

  • In 1850 an agricultural slave cost $1,500 in Alabama (around $30,000 in today's dollars), and it took 20 years of labor to repay his or her purchase price and maintenance costs.
  • The equivalent laborer can be had for around $100 today; and it takes two years for a bonded laborer in South Asia to repay the "loan" or smugglers' fee.
  • This fall in price has made slaveholding more profitable -- and, while expensive slaves were a protected investment, today's slaveholders have little incentive to care for them.

Slavery persists because the weak rule of law and widespread corruption allows violence to be used with impunity.

Source: Kevin Bales, "The Social Psychology of Modern Slavery," Scientific American, April 2002.

For Scientific American text


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