The Enabler of Moral Outrage

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There is a
growing libertarian movement among black people. It is very small
at present, but cannot help but grow. The emails I have received
and the conversations I have had indicate the seed is germinating.
There are, however, a number of black people who simply do not know
anything about libertarianism. Some feel libertarianism basically
comes down to "I hate taxes" or "I want to legalize
drugs." Others have absolutely no knowledge of libertarianism
at all. They have literally never even heard the word before. You
can find any number of definitions all over, but since you are here
right now, I will give you one. Libertarianism is the philosophy
that no one has the right to initiate force, which is aggression,
by definition, against another. This simple statement has a number
of very powerful logical consequences. I shall attempt to examine
some of them, particularly relating them to the history of blacks
in America.

First, what
is government? Those who frequent libertarian circles will find
some variation of the following definition commonly given: Government
is the organization which is recognized as having a monopoly on
aggressive force in a particular area. That is to say that no one
can just take a portion of your property (or your life) unless in
retaliation for you first doing something similar to them, except
government. Taxes are an obvious example. I can’t just say take
25% of your earnings from you unless we either have some kind of
trade with one another, or you have done some sort of damage to
me which justifies that amount of money. Government is another matter
entirely. The government determines tax rates, determines how to
spend collected taxes, and determines if you have paid those taxes
correctly and on time. They have the guns and aren’t afraid to use
them. Government, in short, claims to be nothing less than the ultimate
earthly power. Once that claim is made and accepted, slavery is
within a stone’s throw away.

The popular
narrative of the black experience in America is that blacks were
kidnapped from Africa, transported to the New World in slave ships,
with many of them dying in the brutal middle passage, and enslaved
on the plantations. This simplification is true. What is usually
very imprecise, however, are the identities of the parties involved.
It usually just comes down to "white people took blacks."
This is a false simplification. Albert Einstein once said "Everything
should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." This
is a great truism. Specifically, oversimplification of human problems
invariably involves the denial of some aspect of the humanity of
those being described.

The slave trade
was a product of government. Most of us are aware of the various
European governments, notably the Portuguese and British, who transported
millions of Africans, causing the deaths of many along the way,
to eventual enslavement in the Western Hemisphere. But many of us
ignore the other governments involved. African kings and Muslim
rulers also played a heavy part in this trade. Consider this; an
African nation wages war against another. The victorious king takes
the survivors among the losers and sells them to traders, who then
sell them either to other governments or to private buyers. Eventually,
the slaves make their way to private buyers in any event. There
is ample wrongdoing in these transactions, but the government is
absolutely required for this to work. Without that monopoly of force,
retribution from the families of the victims is a serious danger.
When we think on the origin of slavery, it should be apparent that
slavery started through government as the initial pusher. War is
the province of government. What did governments do when they won
wars? Initially, slaughter was almost undoubtedly the method for
dealing with the vanquished. However, what if you tire of killing,
or have no place to bury all the bodies? You have these people in
your power, and they may be a future revolutionary force against
you. Well, people always need labor, and these people would have
been killed anyway, so why not just sell them, make a tidy little
sum, and ship what would have been a problem someplace else? I am
sure that not all merchants bit on this offer, but evil actions
don’t require everyone to be a participant in order to become accepted.
Certainly, the merchants involved can be blamed heavily for buying
human beings, but, once the government steals people or property,
it can always find someone to buy (even if that someone is
a business started by people in the government which committed the
outrage in the first place). There will always be a willing buyer.
For a current example of this fact, look no further than Wal-Mart,
which, though a wonder of the free market, is nonetheless all too
happy to receive stolen property which has been condemned by corrupt
governments. In this sense, the African slave trade can be thought
of as an early, dehumanizing, and insanely brutal form of eminent
domain.

What of the
slaves during the middle passage? I was listening to a Mises.org
podcast
by Joseph
Salerno
, in which he discusses, among other things, how prices
are set. He noted that government, for various political reasons,
set prices lower than they would be on a free market. Now, the free
market value for human labor is whatever the particular human who
is laboring and the person buying his labor agree upon. There is
no market for the human being himself, who cannot morally be bought
or sold. Governments, since they have the power to tax and, often
to print money (another kind of tax), offset costs among the entire
population of the governed. As a result, the Africans were very
inexpensive. What did this mean in practice? Well, for one, the
slave traders were less careful with human beings than they were
with livestock bought on the free market. This was not simply a
case of hatred for the black man. It was because of government.
Now, as said before, slavery was simply brutal. I doubt if any of
us can really appreciate just how brutal, but note the difference
in deaths once slaves became private property. Slave deaths on the
plantations, while much higher than whites, was nonetheless far
lower than those on the middle
passage
. Why? The slaves had made the transition from a purely
government operation to a partially private one. When you are pursuing
profits, you have to be cost effective. Even if slave owners did
not think of blacks as human beings, they did think of them as property.
A business does not destroy capital if it can help it.

Finally, the
slaves, once here, were kept in bondage through government. For
most white people, there was no economic reason to support slavery.
For wage earners, slaves lowered wages or eliminated whites from
competing for certain jobs altogether. Planters, rather than pay
fair market wages for field labor and household help, "paid"
slaves in the form of subsistence. This is a major reason Republicans
opposed the expansion of slavery to new territories in the years
leading up to the Civil War. Slaves effectively took jobs from some
whites, and lowered wages for some others. The same force is among
those driving the current anti-immigration movement. What was the
federal government’s role in slavery? Through the Fugitive
Slave Act
, the government made every American citizen one of
two things: a slave catcher, or a criminal. It required that citizens
assist in the recovery of escaped slaves. It also denied those presumed
slaves the right to contest this. It was another government granted
license to kidnap innocent people, and both former slaves and free
persons were enslaved as a result. Private businesses have no ability
to force others to retrieve lost property except through the mechanism
of government. Additionally, the cost of keeping slaves in bondage
was paid for both by the slave owner himself, and the non-slave
owning population, as both groups paid taxes, and law enforcement
helped to keep slaves from escaping. Consider what is really required
to take and hold slaves. You must allow him sufficient freedom that
he can actually be productive. Holding him in a cell 24 hours a
day is a drain on your resources. You must give him no reasonable
method of escape. You must get your neighbors to help you to prevent
his escape and be able to threaten severe punishment in the event
of disobedience. Without the state, what is to prevent a slave simply
running away and never coming back? Why would your neighbors, who
have no economic interest in your slaves, most of them not being
slaveholders themselves, attempt to return a slave to you? The answer
is government. Government forces people to obey laws, even those
which are contrary to both the interest and moral codes of its subjects.

As communications
and literacy have improved, the worst outrages are less politically
tenable. Chattel slavery is unworkable for any government which
wants to remain in power for long and governments have mostly turned
to other means. Taxation, eminent domain, and various laws covering
"victimless crimes" have been substituted for some of
the outright barbarism in this country, and other countries have
political prisoners. These laws are much easier to justify and accept,
which allows the government to further enhance its own power through
popular support. Yet, they are still a type of slavery. They are
the type which conscripts the labor rather than the person himself
without cause, and conscripts the person himself in the event of
some transgression against the law or a national emergency, such
as in the case of the military draft. These types of conscription
are still slavery, however, as they are effected by force. Certainly,
they are not as outrageous as that which has come before, but, anytime
an action must be justified by "at least it isn’t as bad as
. . .," then you know that you are sliding down the slippery
slope towards moral bankruptcy.

A
lot of people apparently think of libertarianism as simply "keep
your hands off of my money!" But it is deeper than that. Government
is more than just some entity which takes money. Thieves do that.
Government is the great enabler of moral outrages. When you think
government, think "the organization which claims the right
to enslave."

July
21, 2006

Robert
A. Wicks [send him mail]
is Unix administrator in Atlanta.

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