1) Can one sell himself in a contract? i.e. Is the self-ownership of your body alienable?
2) Are contracts of voluntary slavery enforceable? i.e. If the "slave" at some future points decides he no longer wants to be a "slave", can the "owner" of the "slave" use force to enforce the voluntarily made contract?
There are many Libertarian scholars that are in the debate of the possibility of people choosing to be slaves or not. The two I will consider here, that I believe bring the most to the argument, are Murray Rothbard and Walter Block. Rothbard has said,
The distinction between a man’s alienable labor service and his inalienable will may be further explained; a man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced—for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement. The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.1
Block on the other hand contends that voluntary slavery is not only permissible within Libertarian Philosophy it is essential for making an internally consistent system-
by showing that contract, predicated on private property reach to the furthest realms of human interaction, even to voluntary slave contracts.2
Block goes further to say,
The underlying point of the libertarian critique is that if I own something, I can sell it (and should be allowed by law to do so). If I can’t sell it, then, and to that extent, I really don’t own it. Take my own liberty as perhaps the paradigm case of the debate over inalienability. The claim is that if I really own my liberty, then I should be free to dispose of it as I please, even if, by so doing, I end up no longer owning it.2
It should be noted that I highly respect the opinions and writings of both of these individuals. Rothbard, when alive, at the top of the Libertarian pole and now Block very near, if not there already. I believe both bring great points to the argument and that both should be highly considered when coming to your own conclusions.
Next we shall investigate how each of the arguments attempt to answer the questions posed above.
Rothbard holds that it is impossible to sell the "self-ownership" of one's body because no matter what contract is made that person is still in complete control of their body. They just choose to follow the orders of some person, but the choice is still there's and not the choice of the owners. Following this the second question becomes very easy to answer. Since the will and/or self-ownership of yourself cannot be transferred through any means the contract is null and void from the get go, therefor force would be illegitimate in the enforcement.
Block very ingeniously points out that how can you possibly say you own something without the ability to sell it?2 If "own" a piece of land but cannot sell it then I really don't own it because I can't do what I want with it, so long as I don't infringe on the rights of others with its very use! It then follows that since if you do really own yourself then you can sell yourself. If you can legally sell yourself then any contract in which you transferred said property it as enforceable as any other contract, therefor the slave owner could use force to enforce this contract.
I find it very important to distinguish the types of contracts that are enforceable. Rothbard is correct in stating that the only contracts that are enforceable are to be those where transfer of title can be done. So then why cannot a man decide to be someone slaves for the transfer of 1 million dollars, perhaps in order to save the life of his dying son as Block mentions?
Perhaps I fail to see the distinction in Rothbard's argument between the use of the will now as to the use of the will in the future. For I might voluntarily agree to take out a loan now and say in some future time I will pay it back. But can I not say in the future I no longer want to pay it back, and since I still have the use of my will it then becomes not voluntary? This would be an obvious act of theft from the bank and should I should be forced to pay if I choose not to. But if I accept the 1 million dollars for my enslavement, and no longer have it, then decide to no longer be a slave is this not also a case of theft?
I concede that a mere promise is not an enforceable contract. If I promise to give you 100 dollars tomorrow you cannot force me to do so because initially no title transfer has happened. If this is true, then me merely promising you to be your slave is also not enforceable.
I believe Block to be correct with one caveat. If I take the 1 million dollars for the enslavement and at a later date decide to run away I have stolen. But for the same loan I have made voluntarily that I choose not to pay at some future point the bank has no right into making me their slave.
The caveat lies here, where I believe we can in a way combine Block's and Rothbard's respective analyses.
Since this is not merely a promise of slavery and it is in fact an actual transfer of title force could be justified to amend the situation. They key lies in answering the second question that was posed above. Should the slave owner be allowed to use force to continue the enslavement?
Now, finally, for that caveat. Here I agree with Rothbard, that force should NOT be used to enforce the enslavement unless there's no other way in which to repay the original owner. That is why I disagree with Block on the account that IF the slave COULD repay the owner by returning to whatever work he pleased this should be done.
So, you can contractually become a slave and transfer title. If at some later date you decide you do not want to become a slave the will and control of your body allows you to do so. But this comes with the consequence of paying back the slave owner for whatever time you owe.
Perhaps this is exactly what both are saying though and if so I hope to have at least given you a thorough analysis on the possibility of voluntary slavery, one in which you can come up with your own conclusions.
1Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, pp. 40-41
2Block,TOWARD A LIBERTARIAN THEORY OF INALIENABILITY: A CRITIQUE OF ROTHBARD, BARNETT, SMITH, KINSELLA, ORDON, AND EPSTEIN