I had an interesting question presented to me Thursday night regarding slavery and its place in a laissez faire economy.
Slavery is definitionally coercive; indeed, ownership of another person is one of the most aggressive acts that can be perpetrated on someone short of murder.
Libertarians advocate self-ownership, the literal antithesis of slavery: we own our lives, we own the product of our lives (property), and we decide what we do with our lives (liberty). Another way of looking at it is that we own ourselves as we exist through time: we own our present (liberty), we own our past (property), and we own our future (life). “To lose your life is to lose your future. To lose your liberty is to lose your present. And to lose the product of your life and liberty is to lose the portion of your past that produced it."
As I said yesterday, “libertarianism itself - the dual tenets of self-ownership and non-aggression - is emphatically and diametrically opposed to any force or coercion, especially such as atrocious as the forced enslavement of other human beings.”
Anarcho-capitalism (or voluntaryism), by extension, is directly opposed to slavery because the free exchange of free, consenting individuals is paramount to a moral, peaceful, and prosperous society.
But I’d like to present a conundrum to mull over.
Since our self-ownership is absolute, does that not then naturally mean we can ‘rent’ our bodies, our minds, and our time for labor or recreation and anything in between? Does owning our selves not mean we can harm ourselves in any way, we can ingest anything, touch anything, and do anything that harms no one but ourselves. If we own our lives, can we not choose to sell, donate, or waste portions of our bodies - a finger, a kidney, an eye, lungs - as we do our time? If our lives and our bodies are our own, can we not end them?
Putting aside personal moral and theological considerations that would regardless be made on an individual basis, sociologically, the libertarian or anarchist answer to each of those questions is, of course, ‘yes.’
As such, should one not also be able to enter into voluntary slavery? Does our self-ownership not mean that our rights may be alienable at our discretion? Is not our understanding of alienability of rights, after all, what rightfully compels us to be against the initiation of force but not against defensive, restitutive, or retaliatory force?
A contract is agreed upon that person A would be indentured to person X for Y years and in return receive Z compensation while maintaining an agreed-upon standard of living (or not). Any breaches of contract have an agreed-upon penalty and settlement. Previous insurance coverages would likely be null and void. If a person’s self-ownership is so unconditional that there is no limit to the harm a person can voluntarily inflict on one’s self, should said person not also be free to turn his/her life literally over to another with only the limitations - or lack thereof - voluntarily agreed upon? Taken to the extreme: if one can kill oneself, cannot the same person allow himself to be killed while having his family be remunerated for the arrangement? In both cases the person is dead of his own volition, but in the latter hypothetical his family gains.
Now, I suppose the voluntary nature of this agreement may semantically mean that it is not, in fact, slavery.
Murray Rothbard explained:
“The distinction between a man’s alienable labor service and his inalienable will may be further explained; a man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced—for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement. The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.”
But the function of turning over one’s life and liberty - even if there are certain limitations - arguably remains a form of serfdom. And of course such unlikely arrangements would naturally require scrutiny so as to prevent actual coercion from being disguised as voluntary vassalage.
Still, it’s an interesting intellectual consideration, one that Walter Block posits as consistent with liberty and important to understanding the depths and potential limitlessness of self-ownership.
We’re used to hearing the word unalienable (or inalienable) with regards to rights since this is what is featured in the Declaration of Independence, which may be considered one of history’s great recognitions of individual self-ownership and the principle of non-aggression, particularly contextualized with the despotism that preceded it and the revolution that followed. And we often take it for granted that inalienable means that rights can’t be taken away - but what about rights being given away?
Alienability, or commodifiability, is the postulate that while people may start out as free self-owners of themselves, they have a right to sell themselves into slavery. That is, if they truly own themselves, they can sell themselves. If they cannot sell themselves into slavery, they are then to that extent less than fully free. If I own my shirt, I can sell it to you. If I cannot sell it to you, then and to that extent my ownership rights are attenuated.
And one must own oneself at least to the extent one owns something as relatively benign as a shirt, no?
Or, as Rothbard suggested, is the nature of the will such that it can only exist in the absolute present and thus no one can voluntarily forsake a future consideration with regards to life and liberty for a past one?
And therein lies the key: what is consent if it cannot be withdrawn?
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