Home of the Slave, Land of the Fee

Column by Paul Hein.

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My Fourth Edition of Black’s Law dictionary defines “slave” thusly: “a person who is wholly subject to the will of another.” The phrase “will of another” sounded familiar. I checked the same dictionary for “statute,” and found it defined as the “written will of the legislature.” You might come to suspect that a person subject to the legislators’ will—i.e. the “law”--is a slave of the legislators. Ah, no! That couldn’t be, in the Land of the Free!

An online dictionary gave the following definition of “slave”: “one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence.” It then gave an example of the use of the word: “Do it yourself. I’m not your slave.” You might conclude that someone performing some task when compelled by another, for the benefit of another, is a slave!

It might seem preposterous to compare modern Americans to the slaves of the plantations, two centuries ago. After all, the two definitions given use terms like “wholly subject” and “completely subservient.” We certainly are not “wholly subject,” and “completely subservient”! But were the slaves of the plantation? I’m sure they could sing and dance if they pleased. Presumably, when not working, they could walk about the place, do a little whittling, maybe play some simple musical instrument, tell stories, take a nap. They were, after all, valuable productive assets, and had to be maintained as such. They couldn’t be expected to produce much for the master if they were overly discontent, or starving. It was to his advantage to keep them fit and reasonably happy.

Moreover, a slave could occupy his dwelling, although he couldn’t own it, and was only allowed to stay there if he produced enough for the master to justify his room and board. We, on the other hand, own our homes and don’t have to turn over any of our productivity to anyone in return for the right of occupancy, do we? (Scratch that, bad example.)

A slave was assigned tasks by his master, and could expect some punishment for not accomplishing them according to the orders he’d been given. There are some among us today, for example, who are compelled to keep specified financial records, collect monies, and forward them to the master (er, correction—to the appropriate official) on a schedule of the official’s making. But these individuals are surely not slaves, and would laugh at any assertion to the contrary. The difference is obvious--isn’t it?

No slave would openly spread any unflattering information about the master for fear of punishment, whereas those among us who publish unpleasant truths about our rulers are treated with honor and respect, right?

Education was not provided for the slaves, thus keeping them ignorant and uninformed; whereas, in contrast, our children are treated to many years of schooling, from which they emerge with astonishing erudition and knowledge of the world, as shown by the intelligence tests at which they shine, and a political savvy and awareness of history that amazes!

The slave of yesteryear could keep only as much of his own production as the master allowed, but, by contrast, we can keep all of what we make! (Wait a minute—that didn’t come out right.)

We are often told that our system of taxation is based on voluntary compliance. That certainly distinguishes us from the black slave, although the taking of his production by the master was, arguably, the result of voluntary compliance, inasmuch as the slave could have refused to produce! But there the similarity ends, for if the plantation slave had refused to volunteer his services, he would have gotten a severe beating, whereas if we decline to volunteer, our wishes are respected! (Did I get that right?)

Anyway, it’s grotesquely inappropriate to compare modern American life with that of a plantation hand of the mid-19th Century! Isn’t it?

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 96


ReverendDraco's picture

What a wonderful example of "reductionem in salsus!"

I hereby nominate you for the position of Honorary Professor of Sarcasm, PhDuh.

Jim Davies's picture


Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

I'll make it 3.

Thunderbolt's picture

Please make it 4.

Paul's picture

Eh, I'll throw in a discordant note, as usual.

This kind of piece is OK for libertarians, but I'm guessing it's "a bridge too far" for everybody else, just like Molyneux calling us farm animals. It's just not going to make the sale. It's one thing to say "this looks like slavery" or "this approaches slavery in some respects", another thing entirely to say "this is slavery" or "we are slaves".

Beyond the selling points, there are some factual problems. 19th century slaves could indeed sing and dance - until the overseer told them to stop. Buying homes, I don't see how that can be considered slavery in any way. And I have routinely, harshly criticized about every president I was aware of, with no ill effects but with more likely a pat on the back.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Paul, perhaps you just were not very effective in communicating your displeasure about previous presidents. Here are two facts of history. First, Julian Assange is an effective prisoner because he was very effective. Second, Edward Snowdon is also an effective prisoner because he, too, was very effective in letting the powers that be tell about themselves. And a third fact that we can too easily forget. Bradley Manning is in prison because he also was very effective.

I recall that when I was in a seminar in graduate school, the president of the Pontifical Institute once said to the class that he was not sure that we were any less serfs or slaves then the medieval peasants. He did not think that he was exaggerating. Slavery and serfdom are all very indistinct concepts. One bleeds off into another. They are complex, and they have multiple dimensions. Let's try not to simplify them too much by basing them up on our limited experience. What is the point of all this? It does not always come down to our own personal experience. The world is much bigger than that.

Paul's picture

Assange, Snowden and Manning angered powerful and evil men. That is the way to describe them, rather than calling them slaves.

I tend to use the word "peon" a lot, to describe our status. I think it is more accurate.

There is a tendency to suggest that a single restriction is enough to transform us from free to slave. Although I definitely think that the time to rebel is not when the thousandth restriction is imposed, but when the first is imposed, I still can't look at that as slavery. It is an imposition.

Here is a quote I like, by John Dickenson:
"Indeed nations, in general, are not apt to think until they feel; and therefore nations in general have lost their liberty: For as violations of the rights of the governed, are commonly...but small at the beginning, they spread over the multitude in such a manner, as to touch individuals but slightly. Thus they are disregarded...They regularly increase the first injuries, till at length the inattentive people are compelled to perceive the heaviness of their burdens. They begin to complain and inquire - but too late. They find their oppressors so strengthened by success, and themselves so entangled in examples of express authority on the part of their rulers, and of tacit recognition on their own part, that they are quite confounded."

Of course to be (involuntarily) governed at all is itself a huge imposition. Dickenson was no anarchist, but he makes a point. The time to fight an imposition is at the beginning, ideally.

Of course for us, that is a rather theoretical situation.

I don't know, I just don't feel like a slave; maybe I'm just being stupid. But here's another way of looking at it:

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Thanks, Paul. Those are all good quotes. I do have to agree that on some days I do not feel like a slave either. On others, however, I feel the full weight of the imposition of government, and perhaps even more daunting, the failure to recognize it among so many people in our society. There is that wonderful book by Milton Mayer, entutledd They Thought They Were Free, about life in Nazi Germany. In many ways, it supports your thesis Because as we sink gradually into the swamp, we lose our sense of what it was like without the swamp in our very nostrils!

Paul's picture

"the failure to recognize it among so many people in our society"

Oh, I definitely agree with that - it is maddening. But I still don't think of it as slavery, since real slaves, from what I have read, were acutely aware of their condition (read the life of Frederick Douglass for example). It's almost as if the people you describe are on narcotics, blithely unaware of reality, sleepwalking.

Here's an article that describes more or less where I am coming from, just posted here on STR.

We have this giant information pipe, the Internet, funneling vast gobs of information (of varying quality) into our brains, but what should be more important to us is the local stuff, what we run into every day in our *actions*. Are we really going to pay a fee and get a permit to replace a damn toilet? Is that particular cop in our own town a bastard? And so forth.

Sharon Secor's picture

Excellent! I'm adding it to my children's reading list for next week.
Best Regards...