Libertarianism and Slavery

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Libertarianism
has rightly been associated with anti-slavery movements. Slavery
is prima facie the most egregious violation of the libertarian ideal
that no human has the right to use coercion against others, save
to stop coercion. The slave, not being merely "owned"
in some formal sense, is further coerced on a day-to-day basis,
either implicitly, through threat, or explicitly, through the slave-master's
violence. There is no way to justify this level of coercion as merely
being employed to stop potential coercion on the part of the slave;
the slave is someone other than a prisoner, and is controlled for
different motives, principally wealth-seeking ones. As such, the
libertarian ethos doesn’t merely exclude slave practices. Instead,
it offers a clear, well-defined rational basis for condemning slavery,
one that is not directly reliant on the shifting grounds of sentiment
or religious orthodoxy.

However,
the philosopher's mind tends not to rest content with what is clear
or well-defined. Thus, countless philosophers have asked whether
there is some kind of illegitimate restriction involved in outlawing
slavery, in that such actions also outlaw "voluntary slavery."
This seeming oxymoron refers to those cases where a free person
sells himself or herself into slavery, in order, for example, to
gain wealth for a needy family.

It
is not clear why one could not enter into a contract where
one sells all of one's remaining labor to another. Thus, as the
least, a kind of voluntary "indentured servitude" seems
consistent with libertarianism. However, the question becomes: what
rights does the employer have to enforce this contract? If you sell
all of your remaining labor, and then skip town, can the wronged
employer then drag you back to the field or factory in which you
were meant to toil?

This
issue of who owns what at what time during the completion of contractual
exchange will continue to be the source of debate among libertarians
for years. It is a very difficult issue. But I would suggest conceiving
of this issue in such a way as to allow one to condemn an employer's
action of physically coercing an absent employee – even one who has
contracted away all of his remaining labor. Instead, such contracts
should be seen as either non-enforceable, or enforceable only through
the putting up of bonds or the use of non-coercive threats (for
example, the employer could be a member of an organization that
tries to ensure that family's whose members renege on agreements
never get work). Now, in this case, one might see it as immoral
to get involved in such contract – much less try to enforce them.
The point is, however, that individuals are free to pursue such
contract under their own vision of morality, which is only being
legitimately restricted insofar as employer-coercion could itself
be coercively opposed.

However,
there is further the issue of selling parts of the body, up to and
including all of the parts. If one owns one's body, as many libertarian
theorists argue, than doesn't it make sense that one could sell
it? Again, this one is going to continue to be the subject of centuries
of debate. Still, we have some freedom in how we think about these
issues, and can certainly develop lines of argument opposing total
sale of the living body – lines of argument that are as at
least as powerful as anything put out by the pro-body-seller camp.
For example, one very powerful and very credible thesis is that
there is a strong sense in which you are your body. Perhaps the
bodily is not the ultimate of human nature, but insofar as you are
existing as a right-bearing being in this world, you are your body,
and your body is you. Thus, even if one had sold all the parts of
one's (living) body to another, it would still be a rights-violation
for the owner to interfere with your body without your ongoing
consent. This is because any interference with the goods that
the owner bought would be interference with a right-bearing being.
The owner would have some goods that wouldn't be very useful until
you stopped being your body. Another way of putting would be to
say that when it comes to goods that you are, you can't stop owning
them until you stop being them (in which case "the owner"
who bought the body parts would not be an owner, or would a lesser
co-owner). For example, if you decide to have your kidney removed,
the kidney, we might argue, is no longer part of that integral whole
that forms an individual, so it would go to contracted-owner of
your body parts. But it would have to be the bearer of the kidney
who decided to have it removed.

There
is also the thorny question of the proper response to slavery. One
might think that the libertarian is bound to stamp out such a horrible
violation of libertarian principles whenever it rears its ugly head.
But of course this is not the case, as libertarianism is a doctrine
about when it is permissible to use coercion, and not generally
about when it is required. The only kind of coercion that libertarianism
"requires," one might say, is permissible coercion that
one is contractually bound to perform – for example, if one
has been hired as a mercenary. Otherwise, the question of whether
to employ permissible coercion has to be addressed by wider moral
theories than is found in libertarianism proper. Nonetheless, libertarianism
supports an active anti-slavery stance insofar as one has non-libertarian
reasons for doing what libertarianism, all on its own, permits one
to do: coercively oppose rights violations.

However,
libertarianism also places some limits on such coercive "individual
rights campaigns." What these limits are is up for debate, but they
fall somewhere between ruling out any uses of taxation to fund the
campaigns, and ruling out any use of taxation to fund such campaigns
when the prime aim of the campaigns is not the protection of the
rights of the taxpayers. (Here I have outlined the
spectrum ranging from anarcho-capitalism to Lockean and Kantian
classical liberalism.) Indeed, libertarianism applies these limits,
among others, to any kind of large-scale coercive action.

These
are fairly strict criteria, and they prima facie seem to rule out
many the justifications offered for coercive actions claimed to
be focused on ending rights-abuses; e.g., for the American Civil
War, the Kosovo and Somalia interventions, the Gulf War, the recent
Iraqi War, etc. Of course, from the anarcho-capitalist view, all
arguments favoring these actions are misguided, because they are
all performed by coercively-taxing government. However, from the
classical liberal perspective, insofar as one can make the case
that military action would further the defense of the citizens who
would be taxed to support it, then there is nothing wrong with further
claiming that the allegedly useful military violence is further
permissible violence, in that it is coercion proportionally
used against those who themselves act coercively, but in an illegitimate
fashion.

Just
typing out the description of the case that needs to be made was
difficult enough – just imagine actually trying to make the classical
liberal, pro-war case! Certainly, I know of no government official
who has even come close to doing this for any US military action
since the Korean War.

In
short, while there may be a place for governmental "wars of liberation"
within libertarianism (whether these be specifically anti-slavery
or not), there seems much more legitimacy to the idea of private
agents using coercion to end rights-violations. A major problem:
such private actions raise many difficult questions, such as how
responsibility is to be traced, and credible threats offered, when
private agents wrongly use violence merely in the name of
"liberation."

Thus
it seems fair to say that libertarian thought should, in a world
dominated by modern states, support respect for autonomous self-development
of peoples, such that they come, on their own, to stamp out
slavery or other rights-violations. Any other approach is simply
too destructive, engendering far more violations of rights than
it ends. By the same token, libertarian thought (in its classical
liberal, "minarchist" vein) should support a defense policy
that is squarely focused on protecting the property of taxed citizens,
thereby disdaining the rhetoric of "wars of liberation."

January
19, 2004

Marcus
Verhaegh [send him
mail
] is an instructor in philosophy at Kent State University.
Here is his philosophy website.


        
        

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