Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Nation of Slaves...

Originally written: March, 2011

Slavery is universally abhorred in 21st century America. But it is poorly understood. The nature, or crux, of slavery is thought by many Americans to be the cruel treatment of blacks by whites in the antebellum South. But slavery need not be cruel to exist. And there need be no racial difference between owner and slave. Certainly there was not in the case of Roman slaves, often ethnically and racially identical to their owners, enslaved as a consequence of war. Let us now investigate the result of another war, an intellectual one that spanned the 20th century, and the slavery that resulted.
Four decades ago, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, in his National Book Award winning Anarchy, State, and Utopia, created a puzzle that highlights the nature of slavery, and compares it, ominously, with democracy. Most would consider these notions polar opposite. But let’s review Nozick’s Tale of the Slave [1], retold 7 times:
1. You are a slave, one of 10,000, beaten every day by your brutal master.
2. You are a slave, one of 10,000, treated well by your master. You all work for him 100 hours a week.
3. You are one of 10,000 slaves; your master gives you SOME choices as to where and how you work, allowing you to increase your skills and focus on those things you enjoy doing. He takes your earnings, and he limits your actions to the extent necessary to preserve your value to him, preventing you from bungee jumping, for example. [This is not a mere philosophical counterfactual. It was not uncommon for a slave-holder, in Rome and in America, to allow some talented slaves to choose their line of work.]
4. Your master allows you to work outside the plantation, taking whatever job pleases you. But you have to work unless you have a good reason not to. Your master takes a percentage of the income you make at your employment. You are allowed to spend the remainder on what you wish. Your master reserves the right to change the percentage taken—to raise or lower the amount—as he sees fit in future. [This, too, is similar to arrangements made with slaves both in Roman times and during America’s slave era, when slaves could make extra money on their own by working extra jobs.]  
5. Your master allows the other 9,999 slaves—but not you—to have some say in various aspects of their lives. They vote on certain things—whether one can marry; what one may eat—and the result of these votes, applying to all, impacts on you. In a sense, you now have 10,000 masters.
6. The 10,000 masters are willing to consult with you on the decisions they make that impact your life. After consulting with you, they vote. It is never clear, looking at the results of the vote, whether or not they took consideration of your concerns.
7. The 10,000 masters record your sealed vote. If there is a 5000/5000 tie, they promise to open your vote and abide by it. That has never happened before and is never expected to happen in future.
8. The 10,000 masters throw your vote in with theirs. If there is otherwise a 5000/5000 tie, your vote will carry the day. Otherwise, the results will be much like your not having voted or being allowed to vote.
The task—the puzzle—per Nozick is to determine just when, as this story is told and re-told, it ceased to become the tale of a slave…
It is thought—indeed, it is a commandment of 21st century political dogma to fervently believe—that no one wishes to be enslaved. Yet psychiatrists are well aware that many people like aspects of slavery. They like the relinquishing of responsibility. They like the renunciation of accountability. They very much like the ability to avoid blame. Slaves are property. Mere property is not responsible. The avoidance of responsibility explains slavery’s weird attraction, as well as the horrors seen in the Nuremberg trials [2] and the Milgram experiments [3], two little phenomena that came to attention in the century following slavery’s attenuation.
Issues involving slavery are more nuanced and complicated than many now appreciate [4]. In 1937, as part of the New Deal, FDR initiated a Federal Writers Project. Government employees manned with tape recorders interviewed, among others, over 2,300 ex-slaves, capturing their memories for the ages before they died. These people were no doubt quite old, and presumably were slaves only in their childhood and young adulthood. But the problem was not that memories had succumbed to the passage of time. The problem was that the memories were so disturbing to modern ears. Certainly they told tales of slavery’s pain and anguish, of families broken apart, of whips and lashes. But, to the surprise of many, they also told stories like this:
“I has worked harder since de war betwixt de North and de South than I ever worked under my marster and missus.”
“Dat marster would take good care of them; give them plenty of good vittles, warm clothes, warm houses.”
Ex-slaves told of regret when freedom came: “We was free but we didn’t know what to do.”
“I was better off when I was a slave dan I is now, ‘cause I had ever’thing furnished me den. Now I have got to do it all myself.”
According to Russell, of those interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project, a majority of the ex-slaves held positive views of slavery. Many wished to return to their slave days. Some recalled hating, even attacking, Northern soldiers who came to free them.
After slavery ended with the passage of the 13th-15th amendments, only 9% of slaves left their plantations immediately. Over 22% stayed and worked on the plantations, working for their former masters, for more than 5 years. It would seem to follow they felt they would be more happy there than anywhere else they could be.
Why would slaves like slavery? Economists know one aspect of this puzzle. Slaves did not have to work for their living. Food, clothing, shelter, child-care, health-care, retirement comforts were all provided. And here is the point—they were all provided at the same level independent of how hard one worked “for de marster.” So slaves quickly learned how to game the slave system, working only as hard as needed to avoid beatings or other punishment. 
And the slave-holder’s responses were limited. Although beating was a legal option, it had the downside of harming valuable property, so it was not done all that often, and not for minor violations. Furthermore, a beaten slave was an angry slave. To beat a slave and then put him in control of your valuable crop, or your child, was a risky choice. Theft and destruction of property was a common complaint among slave-holders before the Civil War, and more than one child under the care of a slave mysteriously died. 
There was also the risk of slaves running off after a beating, or for other reasons. Often they returned after days, weeks, or even months away. Although fleeing to the north, or to Canada, was difficult, sometimes they found the Underground Railroad and escaped. Escape was a large financial loss to a slave-owner. Why, though, did the slave ever voluntarily return? This in itself implies the contemporary truth of what the old ex-slaves told FDR bureaucrats decades later: “I was better off when I was a slave…”
Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel takes a passage from a famous Lincoln quote for the title of his Civil War text: “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.” [5] Hummel’s thesis is that even while the Civil War succeeded in ending slavery it also ended the secular trend toward less government and planted the seeds of government growth that extend to this day. Before the Civil War, federal government spending was 1.5% of GDP. After the Civil War, it was 3%. It has never since had a sustained downward trend, and is now, under Obama, at 24%. Even this doesn’t tell the entire story, as federal and state government regulations progressively restrict how we may choose to live even while government benefits place us in a state of dependency similar to that of the slaves freed 146 years ago.
Slavery places slaves in a state of dependency. Many don’t like dependency, but many more do. And all seem to grow used to it. We have allowed, since the Civil War, and progressively so in the last century, the government to make us all dependent on it for more and more aspects of our lives. Consider some common examples:
  • The US government has been providing unemployment insurance for workers for many decades. With the 2008 recession, unemployment claims skyrocketed, and the unemployment rate more than doubled to almost 10%. Though in the past very few made claims for more than 6 months, Congress jumped to extend, extend, and extend again the duration during which people could collect money for remaining unemployed. It now extends beyond 2 years. “I has worked harder since [I was free] than I ever worked under my marster and missus.”
  • In the past, free people saved for their own retirement years. For the last 70 years the government has forced people to depend on DC for a monthly check for the elderly. The system is now financially bankrupt. People worry that they will not be able to survive without the government providing for them. “Dat marster would take good care of them.”
  • People now expect the federal government—not local governments, not friends and family, not churches or charities—to provide food stamps for the poor, housing for those who can’t otherwise qualify, education for all. “Dat marster would … give them plenty of good vittles, warm clothes, warm houses.”
  • Medicare and Medicaid are two of the federal government’s largest expenditures. Most poor and most elderly Americans do not pay for their health care. It is a bounty provided by the government, just as it was provided by the overseer and slave-owner in the past.
  • A front page article in February, 2011 in the Wall St. Journal noted that more and more occupations are licensed. 23% of Americans now have to get government permission to perform their jobs. Not just surgeons and lawyers…tree surgeons, yoga instructors, hair braiders. Not just teachers, but fortune tellers. Fewer and fewer jobs can just be done. More and more, permission is required to do them, just as good slaves could work off the plantation, as long as they were given permission. Though economists find the claim risible, the government asserts this is all required for consumer safety. “Dat marster would take good care of them.”
Economists have long known—a recent Nobel Prize in economics went to economists who published on just this—that unemployment insurance tends to make people work less. Extend unemployment insurance and you ipso facto extend the duration of unemployment. People guaranteed 40 weeks pay if unemployed tend to find work around the 42nd week. But I speak not merely of economic incentives. I speak of a growing culture that, like the slaves on Southern plantations, has learned to live with one set of rules and cannot bear to see them change, cannot believe in a better life with less dependency, cannot imagine a better future if guarantees are not attached, cannot fathom how to feed, clothe, and care for itself without the government. 
To paraphrase Nixon’s comment about Keynes, we are all slaves now…
This is today the relationship of the citizen to the State: we are told that we can’t cut entitlements, that people must have their health care and monthly government FICA checks, that unemployment insurance must be continued for multiple years, that childcare must start earlier and be made universal, that food stamps are vital, and that government-guaranteed loans are a necessity in obtaining mortgages for all who desire one. This is the dream of the slave. This is the slave’s solution to the following problem: “We was free but we didn’t know what to do.”
The United States—land of the free, home of the brave—incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country on earth. More than Russia. More than Red China. More than Iran. More than North Korea. More than Saudi Arabia. Over 2 million Americans are held in a form of involuntary servitude, properly processed of course. It’s all done legally, just as slavery was once done legally. Many are there for good and justifiable reasons—murder, rape, assault. Many more are there for victimless crimes of one sort or another, as many in the former Soviet Union were imprisoned for acts against the State, for what Nozick called “capitalist acts among consenting adults.” The point of mentioning these millions of Americans is not to address the issue of the fairness or justice of their imprisonment. It is to address another way to look at the issue of slavery.
As prisoners in the United States, these men and women have their room and board provided. It is not great room and board. But it likely compares well to that provided in the antebellum South. For many prisoners, it likely also compares well to what they can get outside, on the streets.      “I was better off when I was a slave…, ‘cause I had ever’thing furnished me den.
Clothing is also provided [6]. So is health care. Again, it is not great healthcare. People often die in prison of ailments that hold much lower morbidity and mortality “on the street.” Nonetheless, prison doctors routinely treat chronic illnesses like diabetes and congestive heart failure; malignant diseases like cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma; post-traumatic problems like amputations and prosthetics. Dental care is available, as are prescription eyeglasses. As government healthcare goes, it is likely better than that found in Cuba, where antibiotics are not routinely available, or North Korea, where anesthesia often cannot be had and surgeries are done without. 
In prisons, medications are handed out daily. Anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs flow like milk and honey. “Dat marster would take good care of them.”
In many US prisons, prisoners are “forced” to work. Of course, no one is beaten for not working, but privileges are lost, including “good time” reductions on their sentences. Prison Industries throughout the country make furniture—benches, desks, conference tables, chairs, name plates—for state and federal officials. The prisoners are even paid for their work, though the salaries are quite low, much like the earnings of chattel slaves were low [7]. And like the slaves of two centuries earlier, inmates quickly learn what constitutes the minimal amount of work required to get paid and not fired. Doing more leads to no more pay. So many do minimal work, inefficient work, poor quality work…just enough to pass inspection by government supervisors/overseers not overly concerned (having, as they do, a government monopoly) about issues of quality control. That is, in short, inmates act like slaves. They are slaves. And like slaves on the plantation, they learn dependency in prison. And on release they often find they preferred the good ol’ days: “We was free but we didn’t know what to do.” So they violate parole or commit another crime and end up adding to the recidivism rate. 
Some who end up in the prison system have skills allowing them to earn a good living, though if those skills are for the 23% of all jobs requiring licenses, the life-long felon status will likely make such work impossible in future. And so these people also become dependent. 
But most in the system are poor, with limited skills. This is true almost by definition; those with money and skills can usually hire lawyers good enough to keep them out of jail. For those who have limited skills and limited prospects, the prison is a second home. They know most of the guards and many of the prisoners. They are in and out, much like slaves who leave the plantation for a time but then return, often to great fanfare.
This is a bad system. But worse is modeling our society after it. Worse is setting up matters so that virtually all citizens are forced to trade restrictions on what they can do and how they can live for dependence to one degree or another on government largesse, on government favors, on government benefits. Worse is setting up matters so that virtually all citizens become to a degree enslaved.
And this is the dirty little secret of slavery that Nozick focused on but that most Americans fail to notice: it is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Like freedom, it is a matter of degree. Since it’s a matter of degree, one can become a slave without even knowing it. One can become a slave even while thinking one is still free.
Today America is in a financial crisis. The federal debt approaches $15 trillion. Deficits are over $1 trillion per year. A WSJ op-ed by industrialist/philanthropist Charles Koch on March 1st paints an even bleaker picture. Koch notes, correctly, that the unfunded liabilities of our entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—total over $106 trillion, an unfathomable amount. Entitlement payments make up approximately 40% of the federal budget. Tea Partiers are demanding something be done. Yet a March 3rd WSJ poll indicates that even now the American public objects 2 to 1 to any effort to rein in entitlement spending. Even a majority of Tea Party members object to balancing the budget by modifying entitlements. The idea that it is not the role of the federal government to pay for people’s retirements or health care expenses is not even considered, let alone debated. That would be like demanding that slaves, after hoeing the field and planting the crop, take the responsibility to feed themselves as well. Clearly that is the owner’s responsibility.
Conservative pundits have noted for a generation that blacks vote as a block—more than 90%—for the Democratic Party. They refer to it, somewhat derisively, as blacks condemning themselves to the “Democratic plantation.” And there is a great degree of truth in this. But they seldom refer to corporate CEOs as trapped on the Republican plantation. Looked at through the lens of slavery, however, both parties stand condemned: both hold in thrall segments of the population who have become dependent on their largesse, be it racial preferences or government-guaranteed contracts; be it welfare increases or protection from competitors. Both parties gain the allegiance of those they hold down by offering them a pittance and convincing them that it is more than they could ever get on their own. “Dat marster would take good care of them.” 
And just as some slaves attacked Northern soldiers who came to free them, many today attack any suggestion that cutting the size and scope of government would lead to a rebirth of entrepreneurial freedom, would lead to greater opportunities, now unimagined. For the slave mentality, if it is not guaranteed, it is of no value.
The relationship of citizen to State today is similar to that of slave to owner in the 19th century. Just as the slave was expected to work for the slaveholder, the citizen is supposed to work for the State. This is seen not merely in the fact that Tax Freedom Day—the day one finishes paying one’s taxes and begins to work for oneself—falls further in the calendar each year [8], but also in the ready acceptance, even reverence, of political slogans like President Kennedy’s inaugural statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” [9]

In return for his labor, the State provides the citizen with food, housing, healthcare, retirement benefits. Those who are capable can earn more than the State-provided minimum on their own, just as talented slaves could earn their own money and enjoy some luxuries. But minimums were guaranteed to the slave, as they are guaranteed to the citizen. And the slaves were grateful for what they were given, as are the citizens. 
None of this was free, of course. It was a cost to the slaveholder. In the professional economic literature, there has been a long, detailed debate as to whether the slave system, as a whole, was or was not profitable, did or did not benefit the slaveholder. [10] But the weird logic of slavery is that, whether it benefited the slaveholder or not, there was, clearly if surprisingly, at least a class of slaves who benefited. We know this, because they didn’t want to leave. Just as today many citizens don’t want to leave the guarantees provided by the State. 
The issue is not about helping the poor, any more than slavery was about helping the African. The issue is about how people are helped. Free people help one another through charity and other voluntary efforts. But the incentives of a charity are to end dependency quickly, saving charitable funds. The incentives of the welfare state are to maintain dependency indefinitely, growing one’s clientele and budget. In fostering such chronic dependency, the State acts as the slaveholder of yore. The State acts as the slaveholder of you…
The budget battle is heating up in Washington. Democrats claim it would be extreme to cut the budget back merely to what it was 3 years ago. Republicans appear bold when they ask for $100 billion in cuts in a $1.7 trillion budget, a less than 6% cut. No one calls for ending Cabinet departments, even recent ones like Homeland Security or Education or Energy, though Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of eliminating the Education and Energy departments. No one calls for cutting the budget to what it was in Reagan’s day, though some remember Reagan thought at the time that budget was too large. Certainly no one would be so outr√© as to call for cutting the budget to what it was prior to, say, World War I, less than a century ago, within living memory of some, a time when there were no federal income taxes, a time when our land attracted immigrants from around the world.
No one calls for such things because cutting the budget is hard in the context of our modern world. The point of this essay is to make clear just what that context is: It would be much easier to cut the budget if we were a free people…a people who took the responsibility of freedom seriously. It would be much easier to cut the budget if we weren’t slaves.
It would be easier to cut the budget if people said:
“End entitlements. You have taken money from us in order to give money back to us for far too long. Let us keep our money and we’ll take care of our elderly. Let us keep our money, and we’ll save for our retirements ourselves. 
End entitlements. Stop hamstringing doctors and patients and hospitals. Let them compete for our health-care dollars. Healthcare is too important for the government to be involved. Return our money and we’ll pay for our healthcare ourselves. Stop taxing us to death and we’ll contribute to charities for those who can’t manage these things on their own. Stop making us dependent on you. 
“We yearn for freedom, even knowing that means we may fail. The government’s job is to maintain order, not to prevent our failures. It’s not that we want to fail, but dependency costs too much. We’d rather be free. Leave us alone. 
Free us. We’ll figure out what to do.
For such a people, cutting the budget would be easy. But we are not such a people. Many of our ancestors were. But we are not. And we may never be. Perhaps our descendants might…

[1] Nozick, R: Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974: Basic Books), p. 290-2. The version in this paper paraphrases Nozick.

[2] Held in Nuremberg, Germany after World War II, these trials condemned Nazi leaders for following orders they knew to be wrong.  See

[3] Stanley Milgram, psychologist, found people eager and willing to be exceedingly cruel to other human beings who had done nothing to harm them if only told to do so by an authority figure. See

[4] See Thaddeus Russell’s recent work, The Renegade History of the United States, (Free Press, 2010), esp. Chapter 2, “The Freedom of Slavery,” from which the following FWP quotes are taken. I take it as obvious that the evil of chattel slavery is in no way mitigated by the statements of some slaves that they accommodated to the institution. The reader should also appreciate that, as historians recognize, comments blacks made to white interviewers in the 1930s did not always correspond to contemporaneous understandings they had among themselves. Nonetheless, the frequency and similarity of these statements must give pause…

[5] Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Open Court: 1996. The Lincoln quote appeared in a January 27, 1838 Lyceum address Lincoln gave in Springfield, IL. “Towering genius…thirsts and burns for distinction, and if possible it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving free men.” It has been suggested that Lincoln’s reference to towering genius was self-referential; if so, he succeeded at the expense of both, beyond his wildest imagining.

[6] Russell notes [chapter 2] that slaves often wore fancy and distinctive garb. That they stood out. While not fancy, prison garb is also distinctive, and stands out.

[7] $0.40 to $0.90/hour is typical, with 20% taken out to cover prison costs

[8] In 2010, the date fell, depending on the state in which one lives, between June 30 and August 1

[9] At the time, not all were swayed by this oratory. Economist Milton Friedman said in response that both aspects of the statement were objectionable in a free society, while, based in part on this speech, writer Ayn Rand labeled Kennedy’s administration the “Fascist New Frontier,” but today few object to Kennedy’s rhetoric.

[10] See Robert Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989)


  1. "Government defined: an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself" Ibn Khaldun, Tunis, Historian 14th Century.