The Pope Takes on Slavery, But What’s in a Name, and When Will It End?

“Consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest of happiness” – John Adams

Pope Francis, who I hold in high esteem despite our theological and political differences, made noises last week about the need to step up the fight against modern slavery. I agree with the sentiment, though I suspect he and I would disagree on the proper way ahead. First, when it comes to slavery, I think definitions matter. Second, when dealing with a horrific offense against man (created in God’s image), outcomes matter and winning is important. But, alas, winning likely comes against great resistance and upheaval.

What is Slavery?

The first definition that pops up on ye-old-internet is this: “system based on enslaved labor: the practice of, or a system based on, using the enforced labor of other people.” Two things that jump out here, relevant for our discussion, are the notion of force (or the threat of violence) and the intent of extracting labor.

First, the labor part. It has always been in some sense “preferable” to eat the fruits of someone else’s labor. If you choose to til the field, sow the seeds, irrigate, harvest, grind, kneed, and bake the bread before consuming then good for you, but if you can get someone else to do all of those difficult steps for you – but you still get to eat – you’ve got it made. Slavery in this context has an economic component (not to be confused with something like “sexual slavery” where a victim is kidnapped and repeatedly abused). It is a means of consuming what you did not produce. A means of using the lives of others to feed your own desires.

Then there is the use of force, and the threat of violence. I should point out here that nobody can force you to do labor that you decide against – at least not in any economically viable form. What they can do is present you with ever increasingly bad alternatives if you choose not to do the labor they demand. They can beat you, torture you, torture your family, and eventually threaten to kill you (and possibly follow through). The idea is that at some point you will find labor from which you receive little-to-no reward is preferable to the pain they can inflict. And so you choose the labor as the best of the bad alternatives.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that this description of “slavery” (extracting labor via threat of violence) bears a great deal of resemblance to other forms of economic transfer functions. For instance, there is no real distinction between forcing you to plow my fields all day long so I can sell the crops at harvest, and allowing you to work in the fields for fair wages before stealing your wages at gunpoint on payday. We may debate whether it matters that you know ahead of time you will be robbed of your labor (and I suspect it does) but the economic result is the same. You have produced something but you were not allowed to keep it – someone else has taken it from you and consumed it themselves.

Going a step further, one could argue that an organization of people who by threat of violence take the labors of others for their own consumption are in fact participating in slavery – no matter how pious they are in defending their actions as just and noble. (Bear in mind that slave masters in the antebellum south convinced themselves that they were actually doing their slaves a favor by freeing them of their “backwards” native cultures.)

I’m getting a bit off topic here, but I contend that modern taxation and spending programs of federal, state, and local governments have a great deal in common with slavery. People do labor and have a portion of the proceeds extracted by force to be spent on the consumption of others. The obvious distinction is that the threat of force only comes after the fact … nobody will make you get up and go to work, but once you have worked they will make you give up your production under threat of force. (This small distinction is what leads defenders of the modern tax-and-spend government to conclude that paying taxes is “voluntary” – because you knew ahead of time that your labors would be taxed.)

So what is slavery then? I think the internet definition says it well. It is the use of force to extract the labor of others for your own purposes. That men would inflict this on each other is hardly surprising. We are given to self-worship and can justify all manner of evil if it goes to the benefit of self. That it should ever happen, even in “soft” forms, in a nation of predominantly Christians, a nation of democracy where the people get to vote on the laws (or the legislators), is shocking and dismaying. Yet here we are.

(“Are you saying that tax objectors have it as bad as slaves?” Of course not. Throughout history there have always been degrees of suffering for the slaves, depending on how wicked their masters were. The same is surely true now.)

With What Shall We End It …

One would imagine that the Christian ideal would be to drive slavery out of existence as much as is possible. I know, the Bible does discuss (tolerate?) slavery at a number of places – but this is often more reasonably translated as “bond servant” than slave. That is, prior to the establishment of a subsidiary relationship, the two parties reached a mutual agreement. (That agreement may not have been mutually beneficial, and the lesser may have only agreed because his empty stomach was driving him on, but his entry to the agreement was not coerced by violence from external forces.) As for using force to capture the productive labors of others and convey the benefits to oneself (or one’s pretensions of altruism) we don’t see that as a Biblically justified theme at all.

How then? How do we eradicate or even reduce slavery? At the forefront I suggest we must teach the principle that a man has a right to own his own life, and that others may not take it from him. If he chooses to spend his life in toil then that is his choice – and seizing the fruits of his labor (whether before or after the payment has occurred) is fundamentally immoral – it is an offense against equality of life and against God Who gave us that life.

Obviously teaching alone doesn’t solve the problem. And I am not at all arguing that we must only preach and teach and then hope that people choose to refrain from enslavement of others. Not at all – I am perfectly comfortable with the use of force to free slaves (whatever form they find themselves in). This is, of course, the nature of government – to use force to achieve an end. And it is fully justified in using collective force against enslavers. (This is Bastiat’s vision of government – to defend life, liberty, and property, and nothing more.)

But we can also do more than government action against slavery. I’m reminded here of our approach to the abortion crisis. We oppose abortion, vote for pro-life candidates (never pro-choice ones), but our money goes toward saving individual babies, not enacting legislation. By the same token, there are ways to rescue individual slaves. I have a friend, Dennis, who works with the Howard County AGAST group here in Maryland – there are plenty of slaves right here in America, and there are groups dedicated to freeing them.

Outcomes Matter …

So what comes next? We already have laws against slavery (or slavery “proper”) – though I suspect they could be strengthened in a number of cases. We have extra-government organizations that work to free individuals. I contend that another reasonable approach is to attack the economic viability of slavery. For that, consider a snippet from the linked article:

Jose Maria Simon Castellvi, head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, also stressed the importance of “zero tolerance” against prostitution saying it was linked to drugs, mafia violence and tax fraud.

Now, I’m just a bit confused about the last bit on tax fraud. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone tax fraud at all, but to include it in a discussion of slavery seems a bit odd.

But to the rest I simply say that Mr. Castellvi likely has this exactly wrong, at least from a public policy standpoint. It is certainly legitimate for the church to have a zero tolerance policy against prostitution, but the government? Ask yourself why we find ourselves with enslaved prostitutes performing immoral acts for pay and then providing the proceeds to slave masters? Because it is economically viable. There are immoral men willing to pay money for sexual services from women. There are women willing to provide those services for money. That’s a “market” – and a shady one at that. But outlawing the exchange only increases the propensity for slavery. First, risk of legal punishment drives up costs (it is always this way in “black markets”). Second, the purveyors of trade must now find alternative means for defense of self since the police cannot help. Enter pimps and slave masters who extract money for services rendered against the bodies of helpless women, take the money for themselves, and keep the women from being free with threats of violence.

But if this despicable act of prostitution were legal the amount of slavery would be less. I contend that it is better to allow immoral behavior – as long as it is consensual – than to outlaw it and increase violence and enslavement. The same argument holds for the drug trade that has destroyed our cities in this country. The economic benefits of violence are exacerbated by forcing illicit drug use into the shadows.

Outcomes matter. If we truly want to end slavery, we might find that it is better to stomach the notion that we are not living in a utopia, and that allowing immoral but consensual behavior is better than demanding forced-morality and losing the fight on slavery.

How Does It End …

The Lord warned us that man cannot serve God and earthly wealth – that he will have to love one and not the other (Matt 6:24). Slavery has a very clear economic component. It is defined by its economic component. Men are willing to subjugate the lives of their fellow men in order to serve the god of money. If a man is willing to go that far to enrich himself on the labors of others, you can imagine that he will not let his free-ride disappear without a fight.

In this country we fought a bloody, destructive Civil War to end slavery. It wasn’t enough to win an argument. It wasn’t enough to appeal to Christian morals. The crime did not disappear without a fight, without upheaval, without death and destruction.

I suspect the same is true today. In Rome, for instance, a prosecutor has warned the Pope that he could become a target for the mafia because of his speaking out against slavery. People don’t like it when you threaten their income stream.

Here in America we’ve heard warning after warning about how the country would fall into calamity if we begin to dismantle the system of enslavement (that is, taking the life’s-production of one to satisfy the desires of another … against the free will of the first). The money at stake here is massive. The number of people who satisfy their desires based on the labor of others is extensive and growing quickly. This is not a system that goes without a fight – but it is also a system that cannot go on in perpetuity … not when free people hope for better, and certainly not while it is still legal to preach the gospel, and preach against slavery.

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