The Enabler of Moral Outrage

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 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