"A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him"
~ Ezra Pound
Many Americans are under the illusion that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery. Its words certainly sound as if it did: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." The language sounds quite clear. Neither "slavery" (defined by one dictionary as "submission to a dominating influence") nor "involuntary" ("compulsory") "servitude" ("a condition in which one lacks liberty esp. to determine one’s course of action or way of life") shall exist within the United States.
But words are abstractions, and must always be interpreted. As Orwell made clear to us, unless we pay attention to what is being said, scheming men and women with ambitions over the lives and property of others, will interpret words in such ways as to convey the opposite meaning most of us attach to those words. This is true with the American state — particularly through its definers and obfuscators in the judicial system — in telling us the "true meaning" of the 13th Amendment. This provision was only intended to prohibit private forms of slavery; the state was not intended to be bound by its otherwise clear language. Thus, the 13th Amendment did not end slavery, but only nationalized it. The state is to have a monopoly on trafficking in slaves!
Compulsory systems of military conscription, jury-duty, school attendance, and road-building duty, have long been upheld by the courts as not being barred by the 13th Amendment. So, too, has that most far-reaching form of involuntary servitude, taxation. When the state desires your nonconsented services, the courts — consistent with their record of expanding state power while giving very restrictive interpretations to individual liberty — are quick with the "newspeak."
As the war in Iraq continues apace, and with Massa Bush suggesting a seemingly endless presence in that country, proposals for expanding the present state-slavery racket are being voiced. Bills have been introduced in the House (H.R. 163) and the Senate (S. 89) by so-called "liberal" Democrats urging a renewal of military conscription. What is worthy of note is that a number of the sponsors of this proposed legislation are African-Americans — Charles Rangel, Sheila Jackson-Lee, John Conyers, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Elijah Cummings, and Alcee Hastings, among others. Jesse Jackson has also urged a reconsideration of the draft.
On first impression, one might wonder why Blacks, whose identities are so wrapped up in ancestral slavery, would be advocating a return to a system of conscripted labor. But Rep. Rangel and other Blacks have expressed another purpose. They have defended this proposal as a way of focusing attention on whether Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income people would — as in the Vietnam War — bear a disproportionate share of the burden of military service. If conscription was applicable to all, with no special exemptions or deferments allowed, it is argued, the system could be operated in a "fair" manner.
"Fair" is one of those four-letter "f" words that I discourage in my classroom. Within a few days of being introduced to my strange ways, students learn to omit that word from class discussions. The word "fair" is an expression of teenager justice, carrying no more meaning than to say "I don’t like it." "If you consider something to be u2018unfair’," I ask my students, "tell me, specifically, why you think such a state of affairs is wrong." It is more important to ask whether the state should be impressing anyone into forced servitude than it is to debate the "fairness" of who is selected for sacrifice!
And yet, it is to the doctrine of "equality" that many advocates of the "fairness" argument repair. Those who regard liberty and equality as synonyms — instead of understanding their contradictory, irreconcilable nature — tend to believe that, as long as an oppressive measure is forced upon all, without regard to distinctions, there is no problem. Such attitudes are generally shared by statists, whose responses to a tax, a restriction, or a mandate that is borne by only one group, is to urge governmental impositions upon all. The chuckleheaded branch of "feminism" — whose members cringe in terror at any expression of "liberation" — insist that, as a matter of principle, women should share with men the abuse by the state. To egalitarians, the "equal protection of the laws" is to be furthered by universalizing oppression, rather than ending it as to everyone! Had Hitler not singled out minority groups for his tyrannical practices — had he, in other words, oppressed everyone equally — the egalitarians would have been hard put to find grounds for objection.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Black politicians are the principal promoters of this renewed system of state slavery. They are not. Nebraska Senator Charles Hagel is also championing a return to conscription. While Rep. Rangel and others may be somewhat forgiven for their misplaced strategies in using conscription as a way of focusing on other issues, Sen. Hagel has no such ulterior purposes. In expanding his openness to conscription to include other forms of "mandatory national service" — which might include involuntary servitude on behalf of some other governmental function — Hagel made clear his commitment to state collectivism.
Hagel picked up the egalitarian chant about conscription imposing an equal burden upon "the privileged, the rich," not being clear whether he intended these as synonymous or separate words. If he means to attack "the rich," generally, such an appeal to class-warfare rhetoric is rather peculiar from one who, as a Midwest Republican, I assume would not openly count himself a foe of private capitalism. If, on the other, it is his purpose to criticize "privilege," he might want to begin with a definition of that term. One dictionary defines it as "a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit."
"Granted" by whom? As a long-standing member of the U.S. Senate, it should be evident that it is the state, of which he is a key member, that involves itself in conferring benefits and immunities upon its well-connected supporters, just as Congress grants to itself and its members special privileges not enjoyed by the rest of society. If it is his desire to end such special dispensations, he might begin by cleaning up his own house. Rather than universalizing state power over people’s lives, Sen. Hagel might consider joining Rep. Ron Paul — and the seven cosponsors of his H.R. 487 — in a bill that would permanently end the system of military conscription, for the rich as well as the poor.
A conservative Bill Buckley, and a self-styled "progressive" Bill Moyers, have previously clucked the virtues of service to the state, a fact that should help you understand why, in the words of a friend of mine, the late James J. Martin, the political "Left" and "Right" are simply "two wings of the same bird of prey." All political systems and ideologies have, at their base, an implicit belief that human beings are expendable resources to be exploited on behalf of whatever ambitions those in power might have. If the state needs more money, tax those who produce wealth. If the state wants to conduct a war, appropriate the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people to be slaughtered in its service. If the state wants privately owned land, take it, without regard to whether the owner chooses to part with it.
If we wish to put an end to the systematic exploitation and enslavement of people, we must confront the underlying premise upon which all of this is grounded: that our lives belong to the state, to be consumed in whatever manner and for whatever purpose state officials choose. We must confront and move beyond the delusional thinking that a responsible and meaningful life is to be found in participating in coercive governmental undertakings. Sen. Hagel is but one of many overseers on the state’s plantation, whose entreaties on behalf of enforced service must be resisted with the same determined spirit that led many antebellum slaves to walk away from their servitude.
The first case I have students read in my Property Law class is Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which a slave raised the question of whether he ought to be considered a "person" under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he could not, that he was the property of his slave master. I then demonstrate to my students how "ownership" is a function of "control" over an item of property; that whoever is able to effectively control property is its owner, regardless of what some document might suggest.
I go on to ask my students if they claim "self-ownership." "Do you own yourself?," I inquire. I then warn them about their answer to this question, and how we shall have occasion to visit the implications of their answers throughout the school year. "If you do claim self-ownership," I ask, "how do you tolerate the state controlling your life through various laws? And if you do not claim self-ownership, what possible objection can you raise to anything another might choose to do to you? If you do not want to own yourself — and to insist upon the control that goes with such a claim — should you be surprised that others might choose to assert a claim of ownership over that which you have rejected?"
If Sen. Hagel and his fellow slavers have their way, what will be your response when the roundup of vassals begins? Will you — like the people who watch or babble on FoxNews — rejoice at your good fortune to live in a country where you enjoy the "freedom" to be a slave, or will you exhibit the good sense to reject the system? The state will have its modern version of the Fugitive Slave Laws to hunt down, punish, and return you to the plantation; legislation that Sen. Hagel and most other members of Congress will eagerly endorse.
It is frightening enough to hear proposals for our universal enslavement coming from people who pretend to be representatives of our interests. It is equally disturbing that such dehumanized thinking can be defended by so many out of what can only be regarded as a twisted sense of community. Those who embrace such offerings without giving much thought to their meaning should understand that the most important quality we hold in common with our neighbors is a need to defend one another’s individuality. Being converted into humanoid servo-mechanisms of the state perverts, not fosters, our sense of community. There is something very sad about a society whose members think otherwise, and who acquiesce in the collectivist premise that their lives, and the lives of their children, are the property of the state; that they amount to no more, in the political scheme of things, than assets to be collected, counted, catalogued, warehoused, and shipped off to whatever location, and exploited for whatever purposes, serve the interests of their institutional owners.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.