"Look not to the politicians; look to yourselves." ~ Richard Cobden
To Govern and Enslave
Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
Given the axiom of self-ownership, there's very little difference between those two verbs. To govern someone is to override his own wishes; he wants to do X, but government commands him to do Y. Likewise, to enslave someone is to override his own plans; he wants to be an Econ Professor and columnist, but the slave-owner commands him to pick cotton, and gets his friends in government to return him for a whipping, should he manage to escape.
Such close similarity of meaning ought to give the one verb an entry in the thesaurus for the other--but I found none, at thesaurus.com--and my hard copy of Roget is no better. Under "govern," the site shows various words of similar meaning including "call the shots," "hold dominion" and even "tyrannize"--but not "enslave." Under "enslave," it shows among others "coerce," "compel" and "subjugate," but not "govern." I wonder why not, but discount any theory suggesting that thesaurus compilers got together to deceive students of the language. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity; and here, the error may even be innocent. Everyone is so conditioned by government's propaganda machine to believe that governance is beneficial but slavery is shocking, that nobody thought to place the words side by side. I'm happy, here, to repair the omission.
It might be said that there is a difference, in that governing is for the public good while slavery benefits only the cruel, greedy master; but that falls apart when we probe a little deeper. Governing brings such a rush of intoxication that men spend fortunes to get elected; its purpose is to enjoy ruling the governed, not arranging for tidy streets and low crime rates. Holding slaves, in contrast, was done to make money, there being no other visible way to find labor to plant and harvest crops (there really was, and they didn't look hard enough, but at least slaves weren't held just for the pleasure of dominating other people). Consider also what happens when governing power is under threat. Rather than surrender some in 1861, Lincoln waged a war that killed one American in 60, and today Syrian President Assad is killing as many dissidents as is necessary to keep them down, last week by systematically bombing one of "his" own cities. No doubt recalcitrant slaves were executed now and again in the Antebellum South, but such wholesale slaughter was not practised by slaveowners--because to do so would have destroyed what they (falsely) regarded as their own productive assets. So it could even be argued that governance is actually more cruel and vindictive than slavery. At least, the opposite belief is simply not true--however widely held.
Recently there was an interesting discussion in an STR forum, about whether anyone can volunteer to become a slave, were he so foolish as to wish it. My reasoning--for the negative--was that no such transaction is possible because humans are self-owning entities; a person is indivisibly an organism who controls himself. Thus, the vendor would be a self-owning person just before the proposed transfer, and a self-owning person just after the transfer; his offer (of a person to be owned by the buyer) would therefore be fraudulent, or at least void. Thanks to Per Bylund for part of that perception. Out of our discussion, however, came an unexpected result: I realized that total slavery cannot exist--not just in the hypothetical (and oxymoronic) case of voluntary slavery, but also in that of regular slavery enforced by kidnapping and chaining.
The reason is that a self-owning person, an integral whole, consists of his mind as well as his body. He may be forced to do things he does not wish, under threat of violence, but ultimately he remains himself, with his own thoughts and opinions and aspirations and will. No tyrant has yet managed to dominate the inner self. Total slavery would happen if the mind were somehow shorted out--if the body took directions from the new owner, bypassing the brain located between its ears. Try as they have, nobody has quite done that, except in fiction such as The Manchurian Candidate and in theories about the death of RFK.
Test this, if you will, in a couple of real-life examples: the antebellum South, and in the German government's prison camps of the early 1940s. In the former, slaves were terribly treated and exploited. Most of the decisions we take for granted as our own to make, they were forbidden to make. However, they did have some free time to themselves. They could talk together, sing and worship together, usually keep or form families, have children, hold opinions. Sometimes they were even taught to read and write. So, was the self-directing will of a black slave totally taken over? No! He obeyed orders, but only because he was so forced. His mind, or spirit, was still his. In the latter case, much more horrible yet, Elie Wiesel's book Night tells us what it was like. He was in Auschwitz, as a teenager. People were used for slave labor and when not in the factory were kept like animals; this boy was surrounded by death every day. And yet he, like all others until they died, stayed in possession of his identity, his will, his life. He kept a moral compass. His body was grossly maltreated, but his mind was his own. Brutal and inhuman though it was, his enslavement was not total. And when his companions died, in the gas chambers or through exhaustion, they weren't slaves then either, because a dead body does no work for any slave-owner.
So slavery is never total, it is always partial. Now we can consider degrees of enslavement, and compare it with being governed in various degrees.
Clearly those two examples are as near as it gets to complete slavery, in modern times. At the other end of the scale might be the kind of society prevalent in 19th Century America and much of Europe, where government enforced relatively few laws; this was the minimal government favored by Classical Liberals and which laid down, because of its relative freedom, the foundation of America's prosperity. It's the kind of slavery implicit in the program of Ron Paul, were he to be elected and have his way fully. A great degree of liberty would be restored but government would still remain and overrule the wishes of everyone in several ways, denying the absolute right of each person to determine the whole course of his own life.
Somewhere in between those is what we have today. It's very hard to measure or place on it a percentage share of control. In terms of labor, one might say that whereas a literal slave was enslaved for 100% of the time he worked, we are enslaved for only 50% of the time we work, because all taxes add up to only that much. But then, we also have freedom to decide what kind of work to do and where to do it, and have quite a lot of control over how we spend its fruits--so by that measure our enslavement is less than 50%. When the huge forest of laws, intrusions, inspections, rules and regulations over our conduct is also taken into account, however, the percentage shoots up again though is not easily expressed as a number. But it might be fair to say that in this country--the most free developed society in the world--we residents are somewhat over 50% enslaved. It's a pretty sick situation. How can it be fixed?
Black slavery in the South could have been ended by economic education. Adam Smith reckoned slavery was never viable, though the owner obviously thought it was. It seemed easy--just pay a price to the kidnappers and shippers, and then pay the cost of feeding, clothing, imprisoning, supervising and maintaining the health of those purchased, and one has a "free" labor force; but it wasn't that simple. A significant part of the total cost of keeping slaves--that of patrolling for escapees and returning them under the Fugitive Slave Act--was borne by the planter's neighbors, via government taxation; in effect, he was enslaving his work force and government was enslaving everyone else to help him do so. So, when he counted his costs, he was only counting some of them; he was not operating in a free market and was therefore receiving false price signals.
Smith's argument was simple, and assumed (of course) that a free market was in operation; he concluded "the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves" and the reason came down to motive. The slave has no motive to work hard--on the contrary, his motive is to do as little work as possible without being whipped. The wage earner does. So whereas the costs of running an enslaved labor force seemed lower than those of employing a free one, the free one always produces more work, so the cost per unit of work is lower...provided all costs are counted, which can be done only when the market is not distorted by the presence of government.
The education needed would have shown that to the planters--and to the rest of the white community, which was paying some of his bills through taxes. The natural result would have been to abolish government or at least curtail it severely, so that the whole cost of enslavement was borne where it belonged; and then the planters would have had good reason to explore other ways to recruit a labor force. It would not have been hard. Europe was full of peasants eager for a way out of generations of poverty, and so were wide open to a good offer including help with travel expenses. That this did not happen is attributable directly to the existence of government; and so is the ensuing disaster of war and all the resentment since.
Can something similar be done now, to end the partial slavery of government? I rather doubt that education of the slave holders (i.e., top politicians) will be able to show them much advantage--for they are in "business" to enjoy the perverted thrill of power, not to make money by growing crops. To reduce that slavery would cut that enjoyment, not raise it. However, educating everyone else will have the desired effect. "Everyone else" has two components: the slaves (us) and the overseers and drivers (drivers were themselves slaves, trusted to help the overseer--a bit like the Judenrat, in the ghettos.)
The purpose of today's needed education is twofold: to prepare the slaves to live free (most folk are reluctant to admit they are enslaved, so are ill equipped to take responsibility for themselves) and to persuade the overseers and drivers to quit their jobs. The same program should suffice for both, and my Transition to Liberty visualizes how it will take effect.
That's how it must be done, in my opinion. It's not the way used in 1861, though abolition was never an objective of that war--just one of its results, and its "justification" after the fact, rather as ending the Holocaust was never the reason WWII was waged, but merely its "justification" after the fact. The violence of the War to Prevent Secession ended America's "peculiar institution," but it was followed by at least a century of resentment and bigotry, forming a much more subtle kind of exclusion, for blacks, from the American promise of freedom and opportunity for all.
Systematic, universal re-education is an infinitely better way.