Why is slavery wrong?

Byline: | Category: Above the Fold, Culture, Economy, Ethics, Government, Taxes & Spending | Posted at: Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Over at the Daily Beast Jamelle Bouie accuses Sarah Palin  of rhetorical overreach by recently likening the national debt to slavery.

It just so happens that the introductory chapter of a book I’ve been working on doesn’t just employ slavery as a simile, but actually asserts that a central feature of modern government is slavery.  Undoubtedly, Mr. Bouie will take umbrage at the equivalence.  But I challenge him and you to refute the assertion on logical grounds.  I look forward to critiques and encourage discussion if you dare to proceed . . .

Why is slavery wrong?  It’s a silly question, right?  Obviously slavery is wrong.  Self-obviously.  So self-obviously wrong on its face that it needs no deeper explanation than that.  And I, for having the temerity to ask so ridiculous a question as “Why is slavery wrong?” am marking myself as an idiot or worse.  For to even ask the question calls into question the motives of the questioner.

And so I will ask it again:  why is slavery wrong?

By now, Dear Reader, you have likely had one of three possible reactions.   The first reaction is to stop reading, confident as you are by now that I am a crank, a fool, or a racist.  If you are about to stop reading, I beg your benevolence and ask you to stay with me a little while longer.  I assure you that the read will be worth the wait.  The second possible reaction is curiosity.  You are interested in where my train of thought might go, much like the motorist who slows down to catch a glimpse of a wreck’s carnage in the other lane.  The third possibility is that I have generally piqued your interest by posing a question so easy to answer that you wonder why I intimate that the answer may be interesting.

Why is slavery wrong?

Let me first propose a few common responses to that question and then show why they are incorrect.

Slavery is wrong because it is based on racism.  The 18th and 19th century American version of slavery certainly contained within it a substantial racist element.   But the history of slavery goes back long before the discovery of the western hemisphere and before Sub-Saharan Africa was the major source of slaves.  Over much of that time slavery had no basis in race.  In ancient Rome, for example, victors imposed slavery on conquered peoples.  In other times (and sadly, even today), slavery was a way to get out from under debt:  one could sell oneself into bondage, or even indenture one’s child into slavery.

In such cases as these, racism is not a motive for slavery.  But still, would it not be wrong to enslave your neighbor, or even your son?  Of course it would.  So, if slavery is wrong even when racism is not its cause, then there must still be something about slavery that is itself inherently wrong.

Another possible answer is that Slavery is wrong because it is based on violence.  Certainly the history of slavery is replete with examples of labor gained at the point of a lash.  However, there are ample anecdotes throughout the centuries of owners who treated slaves with care.  Legion are tales of the slave whose bond with the master’s children was as tight as if the child were her own.  Even romance, dare I say, love, developed between master and slave.  But certainly we would argue today that the inequality of these relationships still made them wrong.  For is it truly love, whether matronly or romantic, if the one giving love has no option to flee?  I submit not.  A mother always has the ability to leave her child.  And most choose not to do so, even as their children—especially when they are teenagers—give plenty of reason why flight might be at least temporarily advantageous.  A wife, too, at least in the modern world, also has the opportunity to flee.  And every husband has given his wife at least one good reason why she might want to flee.  However the slave, whether “mammy” or “mistress” cannot flee.  If she wishes to desert that part of the relationship, she is encumbered from doing so because she does not have ownership of herself.  For her, there is always the consideration, that even if she ceases being lover, she is still slave.  Therefore, even without violence, or even without the threat of violence, can we not say that slavery is still wrong?

Perhaps the reason for the inherent illegitimacy of slavery has to do with remuneration.  Slavery is wrong because it denies payment to the slave.  But that too has not always been the case.  Thomas Jefferson, as was common at the time, paid his slaves for overtime labor during the harvest season or when they performed particularly unpleasant tasks like cleaning out the latrines or sweeping chimneys.  Others owners paid their slaves a piece rate on their labor to encourage productivity.  Still other owners allowed their slaves to hire themselves out.  The slaves paid their owner a monthly fee from their wages and anything above that they kept for themselves.  Slaves with specialized skills like cabinetmaking or joinery often earned as much as white laborers under these self-hired arrangements.  But even in such arrangements would slavery still not be wrong?

So even if slavery is employed in an equal opportunity manner—enslaving those of all races including one’s own,  even if the slave owner cares for—even loves—his slaves and their families, even if the owner pays his slaves a market wage, why then is slavery still wrong?

One might be tempted at this point to seize the moral cop out:  slavery is wrong because it is immoral.  But that bit of circular logic—something is wrong because it is immoral; and it is immoral because it is wrong—does nothing to answer the question.  It only substitutes another word for wrong, changing the question to:  why is slavery immoral?  So why then is slavery wrong?

Dear Reader, I will answer my own question this way:

Slavery is wrong because it steals from a man the only thing that is truly his:  his own labor.

You see, even when the slave is the same race as the master, well treated by the master, and paid by the master, he still is not free to negotiate the conditions of his own labor.  He cannot choose to work or not to work.  He cannot choose where to work, when to work, and what work to do.  He cannot choose the price at which he works, when the price he is offered is not worth his time, or when to give away his labor for free.

In slavery all decisions belong to the master because the master owns the slave’s labor.  I think that you will agree that if the free man has the right to determine how to allocate his labor, that necessarily implies that the free man also has the right to determine when (or even if) to perform his labor.  We, therefore, can employ time and labor interchangeably since the time a man spends laboring plus the time a man spends not laboring adds up to the sum total of his life.

Re-look at the words italicized above:  “his own labor.”   Own, it implies possession and denotes ownership.  We own our time.  It is ours and cannot belong to another unless we give it away or it is taken from us.  But when time is taken, it is akin to slavery.  This cannot be in dispute, since the taking of time is slavery.

But now I am going to introduce a third equivalent, one that is so familiar in common speak that I think that you will agree.  The third equivalence is that of money and time.

“Time is money,” the saying goes.  But the relationship between time and money goes much deeper than that.  It is entrenched in our language.  We buy time, we make time, we spend time, we borrow time, we invest our time, and we waste time.  We are on our own time, losing time, or making up for lost time.  We can use our time wisely or we can run out of time.  If we are good, we give our time.  If we are bad, we serve time.  With so many idiomatic variations on the economic value of time, it should come as no surprise that time is money.  But if time is money and labor is time, then does it not follow that labor is money?  Yes it does.

My parents live on fifty acres of forests and hills full of trophy deer.  Years ago a local plumber approached them about seeking permission to hunt on their land.  My parents have never paid for a plumber since.  The plumber has bartered the value of his labor—his time—in exchange for a product he desires:  access to hunting land.  Both the plumber and my parents could have accomplished the same trade using the intermediary known as money, but since both parties in the arrangement had something of value that the other party wanted, money was unnecessary.

Money becomes necessary, however, when one party has labor and the other party is not able to offer what the laboring party wants.  If my parents lived in a city and had no hunting land to exchange, or if the plumber was a fisherman instead of a hunter, there would have been no equal exchange and undoubtedly the plumber would charge money for his labor.

One could say that because barter was an available medium in the previous example, there was no need for an exchange of money and labor.  But it would be closer to the truth to say that money is actually barter delayed.  If my parents did not have the equivalent of a hunting lease to offer the plumber in exchange for his labor, the plumber would have been paid money and then later exchanged it to lease hunting land.  Money, therefore, is just a fungible intermediary desirable to both parties in a transaction as each tries to get something else later in exchange.  Money has no intrinsic value absent its ability to purchase what the individual wants.  And in a barter situation, both parties already have the desired end.  My parents got serviceable plumbing and the plumber received access to huntable land.

And so now we have a fourth equivalence:  Labor = Time = Money = Things.

This should be intuitive.  So why did it take me two-thousand words to demonstrate the obvious:  that we labor to buy the things we want?  It is to establish the legitimacy of ownership and the principle of “property rights.”  We “own” something because we worked for it.  To take your property is the moral equivalent of taking your labor, the moral equivalent of slavery.  (I also wanted to explore these relationships so as to demonstrate that time is the ultimate measure of value.  But this is the subject for another chapter.)


As fraught as the word “slavery” is with its connotations and history, this is a powerful equivalence but it is nonetheless true.  To steal from a man is to steal his labor just as if you had enslaved him.  And if you are still bothered by that equivalence, consider this hypothetical:

Imagine that there is an average laborer.  Over the course of fifty years, he worked forty hours every week and overtime whenever he could.  And every payday during that half-century of labor he diligently put away twenty percent of his salary to save for his eventual retirement.  Then came the day, when he was nearly seventy years old, that he walked down to the bank to see how large of a fortune he had amassed.  Unfortunately, unknown to the laborer was the fact that the bank manager had just absconded with his funds.  For years and years, the unscrupulous banker had moved our average laborer’s money into his own account leaving the laborer’s account completely dry.

In effect, the banker had stolen 20% of the laborer’s time—the equivalent of enslaving our average worker for ten years of his life.  I am confident that having explained it to you thusly that you see it this way too.  Theft is, in every effect, slavery, and the guilty banker should be treated with all the same harshness as if he had kept the laborer beneath his lash for a decade of his life.

But now having convinced you that theft is slavery, I have to inquire of you when is it okay to steal?

“Never,” I hear you respond.

Really?  You may say that in theory, and you may think that you believe it now that I have demonstrated to you that the theft of one’s money and things is an exact equivalent to stealing a laborer’s most valuable resource—his time.  Still, I suspect that you raise nary an objection to an everyday theft you see all around you.  That everyday theft is called taxation.

“Oh, well, that’s different,” I hear you say.  But is it?

Consider the plight of our common laborer.  Instead of putting away 20% of his salary every year for the length of his working life, taxation takes from him that same 20% and redistributes it wherever legislators believe that his money could be better spent.

Some might argue that it is unfair to equate taxation with slavery since the laborer receives something in return for the labor he is forced to pay to his government.  He receives roads, police protection, and a navy.  But is that not the same argument as the defenders of slavery made when they said that the slave owner provided food, clothing, and housing to the slave and his family?

Another argument in favor of taxation is that there are “some people” who just will not operate in their own self interests.  So for them government must provide services that they are too stupid or lazy to do for themselves.  Again, this was a common defense made by the supporters of slavery who said time and again that slavery was actually doing some slaves a favor by providing for them what they could not do themselves.

Perhaps the argument then is that the value of what the government provides to the laborer far exceeds what the laborer could afford to buy for himself.  But if that is true, it mathematically cannot be true for all.  For every laborer who receives more from the government than is taken from him in taxes, there must be another laborer whose share of the spoils falls short of what he paid in taxes.  And so that justification reduces to, “All must be enslaved for the benefit of some,” which is a rather unpersuasive argument.

But perhaps your argument is more basic:  you object to the characterization that taxation is akin to slavery because the institution of taxation is so historically entrenched in Western civilization that it is inconceivable that it may be wrong?  But is this not again the same argument as that of the slave owner two centuries ago who relied upon even the Bible for documentation that slavery was a routine and normal part of civilization?  Is it not cloaking taxation in the same language that previously was used to justify slavery?

If you accept that theft is slavery—and I think that I have demonstrated that it is so—then you must accept that taxation also is slavery.

And so, Dear Reader, we have probably reached the second point in this introduction when you are ready to fold up the book and walk away.  I have again demonstrated myself to be one of those crazy conspiracy nuts whom you suspect is about to regale you with tales of the unconstitutionality of the Internal Revenue Service and soon will advocate the violent overthrow of the United States.  Rest assured; that is not my plan.  Until mankind invents another way, the taxation of the citizenry is the only practical means of funding government.

That said, I do wish to impart upon you with this introduction the veracity of one half of a phrase that dates to Thomas Paine when he called government a “necessary evil.”  Government is necessary, yes; but let us never forget that it is also evil.  For to fund government requires the involuntary servitude of its citizens.  Taxation is theft, theft is slavery, and slavery is inherently evil.   A dollar taken from any citizen, no matter how noble the intent or how ignoble the individual from whom it is taken, is still taken.  It is still theft.  That tax dollar is the dollar the citizen earned by his own labors and to take it from him is to deprive the citizen of the value of his time.  It is the definition of slavery.

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