“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
We fought a very bloody war nearly 150 years ago in this country, in part over the issue of slavery. Can a man be the property of another against his will? Or, do we truly hold “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”? Over 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, dying in part to answer these questions.
There were those that held, as I do, that a man cannot be the property of another against his will; that a man should not be deprived of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness through some slave auction in which he has no consent and over which he has no control. There were others (in the South, generally) that held that slavery was a non-issue. In a purely, narrow-visioned, principled statement maybe it wasn’t so great, but on the whole it was for the best. We were converting Africans to Christianity (that’s good, right?), we were freeing them from their savage history on that dark continent, and besides, the entire economy and way of life in the South would collapse if we just up and set them free. (Remember that last one.)
Well, we all know how it ended, the slaves were freed. As Robert E. Lee said after the war ended – “it probably ended how it should have” (this is a paraphrase). We then passed an amendment to the Constitution (the 13th) that read “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
All told, it’s a heroic story of victory. A nation rose up and stated that no man has a right to forcibly seize, for his own benefit, the life or liberty of another. That no man, has a right to own the productive faculties of another. Or did we?
Let’s try a few thought experiments, shall we? First, what was so bad about slavery? Was it the harshness or physical violence of the slave owners? Was it the difficult working conditions or deplorable living conditions of the slaves? Or was it, more simply, the lack of freedom? I suspect the latter. If we made the slave owners kind and nice and improved the living and working conditions of the slaves they still would not be free. This, I strongly suspect, would not satisfy the moral indignation of the American public – as well it shouldn’t.
What if we just made them “partial slaves,” would that work? What if we said, “for the first 6 hours of the work day, all of your productivity belongs to me – after that you can earn wages for yourself,” would that work? Or maybe “I’ll pay you x dollars an hour, but you owe me y dollars per month for room, board, and transportation fees (from Africa),” would that work? I suspect that even these partial slave arrangements would offend the sensibilities – as well they should.
What if we added just a little bit of freedom? Perhaps “you owe me y dollars per month for transportation fees, but you’re free to go work for any plantation you want (as long as they’ll have you),” would that work? I suspect it would still not assuage the longing for freedom in the human spirit – as well it shouldn’t.
As the boys from Switchfoot said “we were meant to live for so much more.”
What is my point in all of this? Glad you asked.
Today is a holiday but tomorrow is a work day. When I go to work tomorrow I will spend a certain portion of my day working for someone else. A portion of my wages will be taken by the federal and state governments. Now I don’t object to this as a general mode of operation (though I strongly prefer a flat tax). The government must somehow procure the means to provide for the common defense and rule of law. I have no problem with that.
However, a portion of my day (and a rather large one at that) will be spent to pay for the direct benefit of someone else. I’ll be paying for health care, food stamps, rent, daycare, and retirement benefits for other citizens. I’ll be paying for bailouts of private bank bondholders, paving of roads that don’t need paving, and rebuilding of Egyptian mosques. I’ll be paying for education for lots of disadvantaged kids (and then save up more to pay for my own kids). I’ll be paying for lots of benefits that go to lots of individuals – and I don’t have a choice.
As always, you may argue that these are “good” programs and are here for the mutual and aggregate benefit of society. That may be – but slavery is slavery. It is either always wrong or not. Talk of “well, society as a whole is better off with these programs” is hogwash. Even if it were true (and I highly doubt it), it is an untenable argument. It is no different than southern proclamations that ending slavery would be devastating to the southern economy. So what! You can’t oppress and enslave and maintain it just on some notion of difficulty in moving away from the status quo. It is no different than southern proclamations during MLK’s day that “our negroes are happy” – really? Have you asked them?
It is always the slaves, the involuntary servants who most desire freedom. The slave masters will always make claims of what is “good for the whole” without consulting their victims.
Come to think of it, maybe the South did win the Civil War. Maybe the ideals of involuntary servitude are more prevalent today than they ever were under Jefferson Davis.
So what is your slave percentage? We have around $80 trillion in unfunded liabilities – promises that have been made of your productivity on your behalf without your consent. The US had a GDP of around $14.3 trillion in 2009 – so the unfunded liabilities are about 5.6 years worth of labor. US federal outlays in 2009 were around $3.8 trillion, which is over 26% of the GDP – 1/4 of your productivity belonged to someone else. Not all of that was non-discretionary entitlements, but maybe 2/3 of it was. What is your slave percentage? I’ll stay away from double counting (and confer with some better economists than myself), but it seems that those of us who work and have jobs are at least 1/6 slaves. That is the most conservative estimate I can possibly come up with – the true estimate is probably much higher.
We must keep hope alive though. Some day the slaves will be freed.