Why Exactly is Slavery Wrong?
Tibor R. Machan
Hardly anyone in America disputes that slavery is wrong. It’s an institution that must be prohibited, never to be readmitted into society. Indeed, slavery is so wrong that it is very tempting for decent men and women to devote time and resources to ferret it out abroad, wherever it is still being practice in measures large or small.
But why is slavery so wrong, so horrible? It is, simply put, because it obliterates an individual’s self-governance or sovereignty. It takes over that person’s life by others who have not obtained any authority to do this. Of course one can have peaceful relationships with others that could superficially appear like slavery does–when one is employed by another, virtually night and day; the difference is, however, that employment is voluntary. It avoid subjugating another against his or her will but involves coming to mutually agreed to terms. Sure, at times one party might be hard up a good bit and will more easily yield to the terms another wants but still, the employment relationship even at its most unpleasant contains the exit option. You are free to exit it and no one may go capture and return you to the employer. You are free, even if you may go hungry for a while.
Slavery, in contrast, means you are not free even if you’re terribly well fed, even if your health is well taken care of by your master, even if you are being educated at your master’s expense, even if your retirement is guaranteed. If the condition of your existence involves being coerced to perform services for someone, if you may not leave without loss of everything, if you are obligated to others regardless of your refusal to give your consent, you then are enslaved or, at best, suffer the condition of severe involuntary servitude.
Yet, while nearly no one would support slavery, the kind where on person is said to own another–which is morally impossible–millions believe in the idea that you belong to society, that you are not sovereign but in bondage to the rest, somehow. The most forceful expression of this idea comes from the French father of sociology, August Comte, who wrote:
"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[Comte’s favored system,] Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right[s], constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely" (Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion [Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973], pp. 212-30).
And many others promote this kind of collective slavery, all over the modern academy, in prominently published books, at conferences, in Op Ed pages, in prominent political speeches, everywhere. Yes, we are surrounded by loud voices that champion the very idea that used to mar whatever element of morality American culture had going for it, namely, slavery. You do not have a right to your life, to your liberty, to your resources, nothing. This is what is now advocated in books like The Myth of Ownership (Thomas Nagel, Liam Murphy) and The Cost of Rights (Cass Sunsten, Stephen Holmes). Well rewarded philosophers, like Charles Taylor of Canada’s McGill University–recent recipient of the hefty Templeton Prize–proselytize that you belong to your community, that it is the community that has the right to your life and not you. This is the exact outlook that was defended by East German communists who justified shooting those who tried to jump over the Berlin war by claiming that these were, after all, thieves who were stealing the society’s labor! "… In Germany the phrase for chattel slaves or indentured servants was Leibeigenen, for the bodies belonged to their owners; now we have the new concept of Geisteigene, for minds and spirits are also part of the new social property relations. When a bureaucracy considers itself to be the owner of literature, then it has the absolute personal right not only to cultivate its own garden but also to remove ruthlessly such weeds as it deems harmful." [Francois Bondy, "European Diary, Exist This Way," Encounter, 4/81, pp. 42-3] This very thing can be said about when a bureaucracy considers itself to be the owner of all wealth, of what the citizenry earns or comes by through peaceful means.
Collectivism of this sort is in principle the very same thing as slavery. Yet is it now being advocated in the United States of America. And it is terribly wrong and must be stopped however sweet the words are with which it’s championed. When will those of us who refuse to submit to national health service be deemed to be weeds who need to be removed ruthlessly? I am not being paranoid–it has happened in the 20th century in superbly civilized Europe (a place loved by American liberals now for its wonderful welfare states) and can easily happen in the 21st unless Americans refuse to submit. Some already show this kind of disdain toward those who oppose their way!