When you think of slavery, you probably think of the brutal and violent sort of slavery, such as existed in the United States until the Civil War. But voluntary (or semi-voluntary) slavery has existed since ancient times. (See also: Wage Slave, Debt Slave)
In the minds of most people, slavery is defined by violence. Slaves were taken by force, held by force and compelled to work by force. But long before the present day there has been slavery with less violence. For example, the Bible provides a thoroughly worked-out set of rules for semi-voluntary slavery, under which the head of the family could sell family members into slavery to cover the family's debts. (The rules provided that you couldn't sell family members into perpetual slavery. They had to be given their freedom within no more than seven years.)
Even indentured servitude — a particular kind of voluntary slavery — used the threat of violence to compel labor, with police power used to keep people from reneging on their agreement to serve.
What I find so striking about society today is that we've just about gotten rid of the violence without getting rid of the slavery.
When I've talked about wage slavery and debt slavery before, I've gotten some criticism — "It isn't slavery if it's voluntary!" But I don't think that's true. As I said, voluntary slavery has existed since Old Testament times at least. But I don't want to argue about whether what we have now should be called slavery. I want to argue that, whatever we call it, it's an evil system. It's bad for the people who are trapped in it, and it is bad for the rest of us.
It's not the violence that makes slavery evil, so the evil does not disappear just because the violence has been (mostly) withdrawn. In the run-up to the civil war, there was a lot of propaganda to support slavery. One large category used images of "kindly masters" and "happy slaves" to disguise the brutality of the system. But that kind of propaganda never worked, because slavery is evil even without brutality. The true evil of slavery is that it denies people their freedom.
And yet, my critics have a point. Why should I complain about other people's voluntary choices?
I guess I complain for two reasons.
First, it makes me sad to watch. Sure, there are many who do fine in the system. The people I used to work with — software engineers, mainly — did pretty well. They led very comfortable lives, and their job skills meant that they were less trapped than many others — if something about their current job didn't suit, they could always find another that paid about as well. Others — most others — did not do so well.
But the pain of having to stand by and watch as people lock themselves into the gentle chains of wages and debt is only the smaller part of the reason I complain.
The bigger reason is that we all suffer when people aren't free. When people are dependent, they are constrained from doing what's right.
This was Thomas Jefferson's point when he wanted a nation of yeoman farmers. If you're beholden to the bosses, managers, owners, and financiers, you're constrained from following your own best judgment. At some level, you're always considering the interests and desires of your employer, your banker — and the government, which is all the more necessary, because its rules are all that protect you from the bosses and the financiers.
Voluntary slavery is nothing new. But even voluntary slavery is evil.
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