The Oldest Institution

Column by Paul Hein.
Exclusive to STR
No, I’m not referring to the oldest occupation--assuming it IS the oldest. I am speaking of a social institution which must have begun when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, and which has flourished ever since. It is slavery.
In its most obvious and elemental form (which is the only way most people think of it), it consists of the actual ownership of one human being by another. The owned person--the slave--worked for the benefit of the master, and in turn received housing, clothing, food, and some medical care. The wise slave owner realized that, even if he regarded his slaves as subhuman and inferior, they would be more productive if they were reasonably content and healthy, rather than sullen, rebellious, and sickly. However, education was frowned upon, or actually prohibited, lest the slaves, on becoming literate, were to learn something that might arouse in them the flames of rebellion. Slaves who did escape had to be returned, of course, as they were the owner’s property, whose productivity put food on his table—and a few crumbs on their own.
It was a flawed system. No matter how kindly the slave-owner, the overseer, with whip and chains, was never far from sight, and even the most obtuse slave must have bristled at the realization that his hard work was for the benefit of someone else, not himself, and that, even worse, there was nothing he could do about it. If he tried to escape, he would be punished. And if it were profitable to the slave-owner to sell his wife and children, they would be sold, perhaps never to be seen again. A crude system, doomed to failure.
Modern day slavery is vastly more sophisticated. For one thing, the term “slavery” has been abolished, with the modern slave being designated “citizen,” and our children indoctrinated with the concept of “good citizenship.” Today one becomes a slave not by being purchased, but simply by being born in a certain area dominated by a particular master. Since the entire known world is so divided, escape is futile; slavery is universal.
Today’s slave is encouraged to think that he works for himself, and, indeed, he is allowed to keep a significant portion of what he produces, which results in his producing more. He is told that there is an “American Dream,” that consists mostly of home ownership, and upon achieving that “dream” might actually believe that the house he occupies is his. If he might wonder why he should have to pay a yearly fee to be allowed to remain in “his” home, he is assured that there is something called the “public good,” and it is supported by his contributions. This “public good” is extremely important, and can only be protected and upheld by the masters, who, although they never say it, regard the slaves as barely human, inferior, and incapable of living their lives without the benevolent (usually) direction of the masters. Some are born to rule, you see--but not us citizens!
While our modern slave might attend school for decades, he is carefully shielded from unpleasant truths that might upset him, and even present a threat to that “public good” for which he labors. He is inundated with amusements to distract him from thinking about his role in society, with the “intellectual” content of his entertainments in lockstep with the thinking of the masters. Sex and sports have replaced the circus maximus.
Should the need arise, the masters will call upon him to fight for them, risking his life in the process. (But should he be killed, he will be given a very impressive funeral, guaranteed to leave no eye dry!) But even in his ordinary affairs, his very body is treated as property, although subtly and indirectly. He is encouraged to eschew certain foods, for example, but eat plenty of the recommended ones. His water supply may be drugged, and certain substances which he might like to ingest are forbidden to him, or permitted only with permission. He is free to travel about relatively freely, but his whereabouts can be, and are, monitored; and no matter where he is, if he engages in any productive activity, the masters will be entitled (because they say so) to their share.
It occasionally happens that a slave ignores his master, and acts like a free man. In that case, after his arrest, the rulers will guarantee him a chance to justify his radical position, and give him a fair hearing according to their rules, and before an arbiter, or judge, who is one of them. This is entirely proper because, after all, it is the masters who know how a slave is to live, and what he is to do. What kind of society would we have if all the slaves went about concerned only with their own self-interest? Hardly compatible with the “public good”! Curiously, the slaves don’t seem to notice that the “public good” is determined by the masters, and “public property” is for the use of the masters, although maintained by the slaves.
If the overt, crude, slavery we referred to initially had been allowed to run its course in America, it would have died a natural death, as machinery made the expensive and inefficient system of slavery obsolete. Is there something today analogous to the industrial revolution? Hopefully, the Internet serves that role. While the masters artfully control education and the mass media, the Internet remains, at least for the time being, an alternative source of information. Interestingly, it is young people who are both most comfortable with, and adept at, the Internet, and also most interested in the message of freedom. Oldsters may resist change, and be comfortable with the slavery they have experienced all their lives. The natural rebelliousness of youth, however, coupled with the information available online, may be the seed from which a new freedom struggles to grow.
Let’s hope so!

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 150


John deLaubenfels's picture

Excellent column. What I've seen of today's youth does not lead me to optimism, however: most seem to believe that goodies dispensed by government are their birthright. What is today's equivalent to the ritual of initiation into manhood, with its attendant acceptance of self-responsibility (and therefore at least minimal self-governance)? So-called "young men" today area mostly just overgrown boys, still accustomed to suckling off a parental and/or government teat. I sincerely hope I'm being too pessimistic!