Libertarianism and Slavery

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