Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Voluntary Slavery

Many of the what would seem to be small parts of the Libertarian philosophy where there doesn't seem to be much discussion. There's one idea that, to me, can have very grave consequences and that's the idea of the possibility of voluntarily choosing to become a slave. Two of the questions that are argued over are as follows:

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.

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



  1. It seems the definition of ownership is being confused here. Ownership is the right to control, not necessarily the ability to control. If you steal my car you have the ability to control it (while it is in your possession) but you do not have the right to control it. That right remains mine, as the owner, even though I'm currently unable to control it.

    BTW, the word "right" in "right to control" is defined as an action it would be unjust to use force to contradict.

    "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."

    I see this as confusing right and ability. Of course (minus sci-fi mind control) no other person can actually be in complete control of the body of another person. That is not what the idea of slavery entails. Plantation slaves weren't somehow denied the physical control of their limbs. It was their right to control their bodies/lives that was denied in the institution of slavery.

    Likewise a "voluntary slavery" contract is not the transfer of the ability to control you, it is the transfer of the title (the right) to control you.

    I don't agree with Rothbard that the possibility of you changing your mind in the future precludes sale of yourself. How is that different than any other trade? I could sell you my car and then change my mind. But as long as the initial contract was satisfied (e.g., the money you paid me for the car's title), my buyer's remorse has no just enforcement. If I give your money back and then take the car back, against your will, I'm stealing, since the car now belongs to you. When I'm on the lam, the car is under my control, but the legal right to control it is not mine.

    Also, slavery isn't about work. It's about the right to control. Of course that almost always is exhibited in the form of forced labor, but labor is not a defining element; it's irrelevant. So to violate a slavery contract doesn't put you in debt for "work owed", it makes you the continual violator of the slave owner's property right. Unlike a service contract -where the title to the money transferred is on the expectation of services rendered, and if the services are not rendered it is not an obligation that must be met, but the title to the money that must be returned to avoid the situation of theft- a slavery contract is a full title transfer contract.

    If I sell you my car, and you do not pay me, you must return the car (and perhaps more to recompense me for the opportunity costs involved). As long as the car exists and is in your possession, you must return the car to me. You can offer to pay me off and thus keep the car, but that's an offer I have the right to refuse; demanding the car. Only if the car is destroyed or becomes separated from your control can I be "forced" (by reality) to accept that monetary compensation is all I can expect to receive.

    So for a runaway slave as a result of a voluntary contract, they may offer monetary compensation, but the slave owner is not obligated to accept that as a substitute for the exercise of their title over that person, which still exists and is still under control of the slave (i.e,. can still be returned).

  2. ...continued

    Now, in a free society, I think voluntary slavery would be very very rare due to the finality of the decision. If it was engaged in, I think the contracts would be incredibly detailed so that while the owner did receive full title, there would be conditions that if violated would nullify the contract. It may seem a bit inaccurate to call this "full title", but I think it's accurate because the title transfer did occur, and no title remains to the slave. But like any trade, the conditions of the trade cannot be unilaterally changed post hoc without being rightly considered fraud.

    For example, if the man with the sick daughter said "I'll be your slave for $1 million so I can pay for my sick daughter", the owner could hand the money to the man and then immediately demand it back, since now that the man is a slave, all that belongs to him belongs to the owner (since if you have the right to control another person, you, by extension have the right to demand they transfer what belongs to them to you since that is a decision under their control, which is now your right to control). So of course a slavery contract would probably take into account things like this.

    But the more limits on the contract there are, the more they will start to call into question why someone would buy a slave in the first place. If the father of the sick girl offered to be a slave for $1 million, but only with a contract that limited the owner's conduct to requiring no more than 40 hrs of labor a week, you'd have to wonder what the benefit of owning the man would be. Will 40 hrs of labor for the rest of his life net enough income to compensate for the $1 million minus the upkeep of the slave and the loss of interest that could be gained from investing that million? If all you get is the labor, then that's an expensive slave that will probably be a financial loss and thus not an attractive offer.

    A no-conditions contract would allow anything including "rape", torture, and killing of the slave. To the producer who is only interested in slaves for "cheap labor", these powers will not be of interest, and as examined above, these people will probably not buy slaves due to the high cost and low return. So only a very small number of sadists/power-freaks will be interested in the high cost of a slave for these sick "benefits" of life-and-death control over another human being. But the number of people willing to sell themselves for a no-condition contract will be very small, maybe non-existent since it clearly could be very injurious to them and possibly fatal. Though many parents are willing to suffer and die for their children, that would be an absolute LAST resort kind of move and a free society (for many reasons) will have many other options available. It's hard to imagine someone being in such dire straights with NO other options (like the kindly billionaire that's willing to buy you with one of the humane-conditions contracts and what will amount to an overall financial loss).

    This is obviously past the point of long-windedness so I'll wrap up. I think "voluntary slavery" is absolutely possible, just not very probable. More likely, we'd see arrangements more along the lines of a lifetime service contract. Not a transfer of title to a person, but only a transfer of money in exchange for their labor. With a service contract like this, it is indeed a fact that changing your mind leaves you no obligation, only the matter of returning what was traded (plus incurred costs) to make restitution.

  3. This is the sort of thing that ties libertarians in knots, just because they base everything on such questionable notions as "rights" and "title" of ownership. Sheesh.

    Rothbard vs. Block is rendered moot by reality. Ownership boils down to the question of whether you can keep what you own, period. See this:
    And this, about "rights":

    As an example, say I sold myself to John as an indentured servant for 10 years. And say 5 years out I decided that I got screwed and it was a bum deal. One of two things would happen:
    1) I could escape, or get others to help me escape, or threaten John to leave me alone, or any number of similar things. In that case John would no longer own my future labor.
    2) Or maybe John has the resources to keep me penned in, or those around him agree I'm stuck for 5 more years, etc. In that case John would own my future labor.

    And that's it! There is no need to talk about "rights", or worry about what is "legitimate" enforcement, or any of those other things usually connected to the state (I wonder how libertarians and anarchists can talk with a straight face about such state-connected concepts).

    Needless to say, in a true free world, the price of the labor I sell to John would take into account the possibility of my future escape, and John might even pay for insurance against that possibility, and the money I got for my labor would also depend on my reputation for following through. But there is nothing here for "rights" or "legitimacy".