But What About Voluntary Slaves?

African Slave Transport

African Slave Transport

One of the objections that is raised against voluntaryism is that, since “anything goes” in a voluntary society so long as it is voluntary, wouldn’t there be voluntary slavery? If Smith sells himself into slavery to Jones, we as voluntaryists must respect this voluntary choice, no?

Murray Rothbard argues against this view in Ethics of Liberty:

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.

“An individual may always, at any point in the future, change his mind and repudiate any of his own, past promises”

The phrase “and have this sale enforced” is crucial and I will return to it. Rothbard fills in some more crucial details regarding the difference between a contract and a promise in Chapter 19, “Property Rights and the Theory of Contracts”:

Suppose that Smith and Jones make a contract, Smith giving $1000 to Jones at the present moment, in exchange for an IOU of Jones, agreeing to pay Smith $1100 one year from now. This is a typical debt contract. What has happened is that Smith has transferred his title to ownership of $1000 at present in exchange for Jones agreeing now to transfer title to Smith of $1100 one year from now. Suppose that, when the appointed date arrives one year later, Jones refuses to pay. Why should this payment now be enforceable at libertarian law? Existing law (which will be dealt with in greater detail below) largely contends that Jones must pay $1100 because he has “promised” to pay, and that this promise set up in Smith’s mind the “expectation” that he would receive the money.

Our contention here is that mere promises are not a transfer of property title; that while it may well be the moral thing to keep one’s promises, that it is not and cannot be the function of law (i.e., legal violence) in a libertarian system to enforce morality (in this case the keeping of promises). Our contention here is that Jones must pay Smith $1100 because he had already agreed to transfer title, and that nonpayment means that Jones is a thief, that he has stolen the property of Smith. In short, Smith’s original transfer of the $1000 was not absolute, but conditional, conditional on Jones paying the $1100 in a year, and that, therefore, the failure to pay is an implicit theft of Smith’s rightful property.

What makes a contract binding, in libertarian law, is that it is a conditional transfer of title – a performance bond. Mere promises are not binding because an individual may change his mind at any time. Thus, Rothbard concludes his case:

Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention—and one that is fortunately upheld under present law—is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (i.e., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory. (EoL, ch. 19)

Now, some people hold that the non-existence of voluntary slavery is not a settled matter, that Rothbard has overlooked something. In particular, Walter Block has argued against Rothbard’s view:

You are a rich man who has long desired to have me as a slave, to order about as you will, even to kill me for disobedience or on the basis of any other whim which may occur to you. My child has now fallen ill with a dread disease. Fortunately, there is a cure. Unfortunately, it will cost one million dollars, and I, a poor man, do not have such funds at my disposal. Fortunately, you are willing to pay me this amount if I sign myself over to you as a slave, which I am very willing to do since my child’s life is vastly more important to me than my own liberty, or even my own life. Unfortunately, this would be illegal, at least if the doctrine of inalienability (non-transferability) is valid. If so, then you, the rich man, will not buy me into slavery, for I can run away at any time, and the forces of law and order will come to my rescue, not yours, if you try to stop me by force. (ibid.)

You may indeed do as Block has described, but Block’s utilitarian argument fails because any contract which purports to be a sale of one’s will is not a contract at all because one’s will cannot be sold – it is inalienable. The basis of Rothbard’s position on the inalienability of the will rests in Chapter 19 of Ethics of Liberty – no one can make his mind[1] unchangeable. An individual may always, at any point in the future, change his mind and repudiate any of his own, past promises. This is a description of the state of affairs, not a prescription regarding how the world ought to work.

Before going further, we need to place these arguments in a thought-experimental context. Rothbard has left the context unspecified and Block’s chosen context – “the agents of law” – is less than satisfactory. Hans Hoppe expounds his Argumentation Ethics in a more robust context:

Now, arguing never just consists of free-floating propositions claiming to be true. Rather, argumentation is always an activity, too. But given that truth claims are raised and decided upon in argumentation and that argumentation, aside from whatever is said in its course, is a practical affair, it follows that inter-subjectively meaningful norms must exist—precisely those which make some action an argumentation—which have special cognitive status in that they are the practical preconditions of objectivity and truth. (A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Chapter 7)

Hoppe goes on to further expound this idea that argumentation presupposes certain states of affairs:

There are other positive norms implied in argumentation aside from the universalization principle. In order to recognize them, it is only necessary to call three interrelated facts to attention. First, that argumentation is not only a cognitive but also a practical affair. Second, that argumentation, as a form of action, implies the use of the scarce resource of one’s body. And third, that argumentation is a conflict-free way of interacting. Not in the sense that there is always agreement on the things said, but in the sense that as long as argumentation is in progress it is always possible to agree at least on the fact that there is disagreement about the validity of what has been said. And this is to say nothing else than that a mutual recognition of each person’s exclusive control over his own body must be presupposed as long as there is argumentation. (ibid.)

Let’s say a slave – Mr. S – has escaped from his master’s – Mr. M’s – plantation and has found refuge with an abolitionist society. Mr. M sues the abolitionist society, arguing that Mr. S is Mr. M’s property and that he be turned over forthwith. The abolitionist society helps Mr. S locate an arbitrator to hear the dispute between Mr. S and Mr. M.

Now, what is to prevent Mr. M simply slamming his fist down on the arbitrator’s table and yelling at Mr. S: “Look here, you’re my slave, you know it, you signed a million-dollar contract indenturing yourself to me for life. You either walk out of here peacefully or I’m going to whip you and drag you out”? Well, the very fact that Mr. M is at the bargaining table puts the lie to this threat. Arbitration is, by definition, an alternative to direct conflict. If Mr. M intended to merely seize Mr. S and assault anyone who got in his way, he’d have done that, rather than going to arbitration. In other words, the absence of threats and use of violence is constitutive of an arbitration proceeding. Mr. M may not make threats of violence in arbitration because such threats are inadmissible. If he will threaten anyway, then the proceeding is canceled and the state of affairs returns to the prior state with which Mr. M was so dissatisfied as to seek arbitration in the first place: Mr. S under the lawful protection of the abolitionist society.

In other words, if Mr. S is sitting at the arbitration table, he is clearly therefore a person. Thus, any arguments by Mr. M to the contrary are simply inadmissible. You can’t have a dispute with your donkey or with your back yard, so to claim that the person sitting across from you at the arbitration table is your property is absurd. The very fact that Mr. S is able to dispute at all is proof in itself that he is no one’s property, that he is, in fact, a human being possessing a will and capable of expressing it at law (in contrast, for example, to someone who is in a vegetative state and requires some kind of legal advocate).

Now, a very pedantic person might observe that Mr. M has simply constructed a badly-written slave contract. A cleverer slave-owner would insist on a better contract:

  1. Mr. M hereby transfers title of $1,000,000 to Mrs. A (wife of Mr. S) at the moment the contract is signed
  2. Mr. S will obey Mr. M’s every command without any compensation, starting with the moment the contract is signed until death of Mr. S
  3. If Mr. S fails to perform his obligation, he transfers title of $1,000,000,000 to Mr. M

Now, this contract is no mere promise to remain Mr. M’s slave – it is a conditional transfer of title to Mr. of a billion dollars should Mr. S renege on his slavery contract.

But unless Mr. S really is Mr. M’s property (which is the very point in contention), then Mr. M simply may not lawfully enclose or cage Mr. S, or threaten force against Mr. S at the arbitration table. Thus, Mr. M is stuck in a situation that the only way to enforce the “contract” is to act extra-legally, that is, to go ahead and use force against Mr. S that cannot be justified.

More generally, there are constitutive restrictions on the form of any contract. Consider the following contract:

  • Mr. X hereby transfers $1,000,000,000 to Mr. Y upon failure to:
  • Construct a square-circle and deliver it to Mr. Y by such-and-such date

Now, from elementary geometry, we know that something that is a square and a circle is a definitional contradiction. Such a contract is not even a contract. It’s unintelligible gibberish. Were Mr. Y to have entered into an agreement with Mr. X based on the above contract, he would be very disappointed if he were to try to enforce it. No arbitrator worth his salt would take up such a case because the “agreement” simply is not even rationally intelligible. Hence, we can see that logical consistency (within practical bounds, not in any extremely pedantic sense) is a constitutive restriction on any contract. It must be logically consistent, else it is simply unintelligible and, thus, unenforceable at law.

A similar argument could be made for a contract that promises to repay an absurd sum, like $100T, or to transmit information at a speed greater than light-speed, for example. Such contracts are simply not intelligible because they refer to no practically real amount of money or no physically real object. Such restrictions are in no way ad hoc. It is easy to see why contracts must necessarily be bound by such restrictions: try to deny them and see what the consequences are to any arbitration proceeding. The proceeding becomes simply impossible.

Insurance_contractThat a contract be lawfully enforceable is also a constitutive restriction – if the contract is not lawfully enforceable, then the contract is an implicit threat of (unjustifiable, that is, unlawful) force. By the argument we made earlier that threats of force are inadmissible in arbitration (constitutive violation of the proceedings), any contract which includes threats of unlawful force as part of the terms of the contract is simply unintelligible since the purpose of a contract is that it be admissible to arbitration proceedings as evidence of the exact terms of the agreement that was made.

To turn up the contrast a bit to illustrate the point, consider the following contract:

  • Mr. X hereby transfers the opportunity for Mr. Y to rape Mr. X upon failure to:
  • Deliver so-and-so to Mr. Y upon such-and-such date

Now, rape is – by definition – unlawful violence (forcible sex). Once again, the contract itself is a threat of unjustifiable force, nullifying from the outset any arbitration proceeding meant to enforce it. This, in turn, renders the contract contradictory and unintelligible. Since it is a constitutive restriction on any contract that it be intelligible, admissible to arbitration and lawfully enforceable, this contract is no contract at all. It merely has the superficial appearance of a contract, the legal equivalent of an optical illusion.

“There is only one kind of slavery and that is slavery-slavery”

Lawful enforceability is a more stringent requirement also than that there be no obvious aggression entailed in the terms of the contract. Certain types of contracts may be found, from experience, to be inherently unenforceable, that is, to always lead to a breakdown of the agreement into conflict. Such contracts are practically unenforceable even though they they are “conceptually enforceable.”

So, what if somebody promises to repay a reasonably existing sum of money that it turns out they could never afford to repay? It’s not quite slavery, but it’s close enough that we could call it a kind of lifetime, credit-based serfdom. Consider the following contract:

  • Mr. X hereby transfers $1M to Mr. Y upon failure to:
  • Deliver so-and-so goods to Mr. Y by such-and-such date

What can Mr. Y do to recover his property given, say, that Mr. X is completely broke? The fact is that there is very little that Mr. Y can lawfully do. He can inform people: don’t loan money to Mr. X, don’t enter into business with Mr. X, Mr. X is a real worthless loser, and so on. He might wait for some time to let Mr. X build up some savings, buy a nice car, and then ambush him to repossess it out of spite. But all-in-all, Mr. Y has done a foolish thing by signing such a contract which he could never really securitize.

The lesson is: don’t enter into high-value contracts with someone who you don’t have any leverage against, unless you’re prepared to engage in extra-legal securitization. All of the above only concerns the law. The fact is that people still do form their own extra-legal arrangements – “If you don’t repay the money, Vinny here will see to it that you never walk again.”

Because law is not a leave or permission to do things, if you make an extra-legal arrangement, there is nothing in the law that will prevent this. We can concede to the anti-voluntaryists that – in a voluntary society – there will be no publicly-funded prosecutor or police who will busy themselves with snooping around looking for arrangements that are “in violation of the law.” Unless and until an arrangement comes before an arbitrator, it is simply not a matter of law at all. But, at the same time, disputes concerning the correct settlement of such arrangements necessarily cannot be arbitrated at law – they reside in an extra-legal realm.

In summary, a “slave contract” is a contradiction of terms. It is an attempt to alienate what cannot be alienated (one’s own will). It is unintelligible, inadmissible to arbitration and not lawfully enforceable. Voluntary slavery, thus, is a contradiction of terms, as should be apparent from the very words themselves. The utilitarian argument does not do the slightest violence to the impossibility of voluntary slavery because the restrictions on arbitration and contracts which voluntary slavery violates are constitutive. What it even means for something to be a contract, or for a dispute to be arbitrated, is violated by any contract which purports to be a slave contract.

In response to Block and the anti-voluntaryists out there: No, voluntary slavery cannot exist in a voluntary society. There is only one kind of slavery and that is slavery-slavery or coercive slavery, to state it redundantly. Any society in which slavery is lawful is, by definition, not a voluntary society.

Clayton -

[1] Their healthy, normal, awake, conscious mind; other states of mind induced by drugs, for example, are simply side-stepping the argument. It is the awake, normal mind which cannot be made unchangeable.

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31 thoughts on “But What About Voluntary Slaves?

  1. Andris Birkmanis 12/29/2012 at 23:15 Reply

    “What can Mr. Y do to recover his property given, say, that Mr. X is completely broke?”
    Wouldn’t Y have a legitimate claim to all of X’s property (including future income) until the debt is fully paid?

    • claytonkb 12/29/2012 at 23:35 Reply

      Well, unless creditors have a right to kill and/or enslave their debtors, no. I think that the law of credits and debts is very much distorted by the State, so I think there is very little we can learn from looking at law-as-it-is about what the laws regarding debt and borrowing would be in a more voluntary society.

      But we can look to history, and the fact is that creditors have historically had to be very careful who they lent their money to. Lending in the low-end credit market has almost always been securitized by strong-arm methods – of course, such arrangements have nothing to do with the law. And the enforcement of debts against the formerly affluent has also been complicated by the fact that by the time you need to enforce a debt, it’s already too late.

      The general principle that we’re looking for here, is that the creditor will only be able to repossess his property in a way that is justifiable, if he intends to do it lawfully and not resort to strong-arm methods. So what is justifiable? I don’t think we can say at the outset and I think it is a very subtle and complex part of law unto itself. I think that bankruptcy arrangements could be made in many cases. In some cases, the creditor probably loses everything.

      The one case where you might be able to avoid these ultra-bad outcomes (strong-arm methods, complete loss of creditor’s principal, tenuous long-term bankruptcy arrangements) is where you have someone who is in the black and simply repudiating a debt out of sheer dishonesty. In this case, it should be fairly straightforward to enforce the creditor’s rights at law because there is, in fact, property to be recovered in an amount commensurate to the payoff amount of the loan.

  2. FreeThinkerForever 12/31/2012 at 05:22 Reply

    Would not the same be applicable to “voluntary” enlistment in the military?

  3. z1235 12/31/2012 at 11:09 Reply

    “But, at the same time, disputes concerning the correct settlement of such arrangements necessarily cannot be arbitrated at law – they reside in an extra-legal realm.”

    Why cannot these (property) disputes be arbitrated at law?

    • claytonkb 12/31/2012 at 11:44 Reply

      Harold (shopkeeper): “I need to borrow $1000″
      Boss: “Sure, I’ll loan you $1000. If you don’t repay, though, Vinny here is going is going to break your legs, you understand?”
      Harold: “Yeah, I understand.”
      Boss: “Great, so sign here.”

      Time goes by, Harold doesn’t repay…

      Boss (suing Harold): “I have a right to have his legs broken! That’s what the agreement was, I even have it here in writing!”
      Arbitrator: “But breaking his legs over his objections is unlawful. A contract cannot contain an unlawful arrangement as part of the contract, it just doesn’t make any sense. You’re here to find a lawful resolution to the dispute, that is, a non-violent resolution. So, any clause in your ‘contract’ with Harold that stipulates an unlawful act is simply null and void, even if Harold signed his name on the dotted-line. You should never have agreed to such a contract if you meant to have it enforced at law.”

      • z1235 12/31/2012 at 12:58 Reply

        I understood that breaking of legs could not be part of the contract. I thought that the statement referred to this part:

        “Consider the following contract:

        Mr. X hereby transfers $1M to Mr. Y upon failure to:
        Deliver so-and-so goods to Mr. Y by such-and-such date

        What can Mr. Y do to recover his property given, say, that Mr. X is completely broke? The fact is that there is very little that Mr. Y can lawfully do. He can inform people: don’t loan money to Mr. X, don’t enter into business with Mr. X, Mr. X is a real worthless loser, and so on. He might wait for some time to let Mr. X build up some savings, buy a nice car, and then ambush him to repossess it out of spite.”

        Why is there “very little that Mr. Y can lawfully do?”. Why couldn’t he, for instance get and enforce (with force, if needed) an arbitration decision to receive 20% of whatever X makes each year, or a weekly massage, or a weekly mowing of his lawn, both valued at $100 per massage until his debt is fully paid off? What would make this conflict resolution (arbitration decision) “not” or “extra”-legal?

        • claytonkb 12/31/2012 at 13:44 Reply

          Supposing that Mr. X is broke, 20% of nothing is still … nothing. And massages and lawn-mowing are also essentially nothing as against a $1M debt. And, what’s more, there’s a regression problem here. If Mr. X can slip out of $1M debt with nothing more than 20% of his income lost and massages and lawn-mowing, then what can possibly be the “terrible” consequences that will prevent him from doubly-reneging on these new obligations, as well?

          The key issue here is this: is it the job of the law to make creditors as secure as possible? The answer is: no. The job of the law is to settle disputes. If it turns out that extending credit to very low-income people is simply too legally risky, then there will be less credit extended to very low-income people. There’s really nothing more else to say from the legal theory point-of-view.

          • z1235 12/31/2012 at 14:02

            The consequences for X could be as heavy as they need to be for him to take his obligations (the property damage he has done to others) seriously, and completely legally so. I don’t see how serious consequences, up to and including physical enforcement and/or restriction of freedom (imprisonment) must necessarily be extra-legal. I don’t see why the realm of law must necessarily be limited to argumentation and paper-pushing — labeling anything beyond that realm as extra-legal.

          • claytonkb 12/31/2012 at 14:49

            @z: In my view, it goes back to this word: “justifiability”. Law is where the justifiability of actions is settled.

            – Scenario 1: Alice hits Bob over the head. Bob sues Alice. In arbitration, Bob asks, “Why did you hit me over the head?” Alice says, “I felt like it.” The arbitrator points out that this is not a justification, it’s just a statement of sentiment. To justify something, you need to give some kind of compelling reason why you acted as you did, a reason that is either (a) accepted by the injured party to be a justification, or (b) is so well recognized to be a proper justification that for the injured party to refuse to accept it is no different than simply walking away from arbitration completely. Helping the parties to understand what is a “well recognized justification” is part of the arbitrator’s specialization. A competent arbitrator’s opinion on such matters is of the nature that, if the parties sought arbitration elsewhere, they would not obtain a different outcome.

            – Scenario 2: Bob steals Alice’s TV. In the course of taking her TV back from Bob, she hits Bob over the head as he makes one last swipe at the TV. Bob sues Alice. “Why did you hit me over the head?” Alice says, “Because you were interfering with my recovery of the property you stole from me.” The arbitrator points out that the use of limited force in the recovery of property is well recognized as justifiable if it is defensive and solely used to fend off the thief’s physical resistance or obstruction of the recovery process. Unless Bob can think of some objection to this, he’s stuck. He has no other arguments as to why Alice’s use of force was unjustified and, thus, why she must pay him restitution. Her actions stand justified in the eyes of the law, assuming the arbitrator is competent and they would not get a different outcome if they went to another competent arbitrator.

            – Scenario 3: Bob and Alice agree to fight. Alice hits Bob over the head. Bob sues Alice. Bob asks “Why did you hit me over the head?” Alice says, “Because that’s what a fight is, you idiot.” The arbitrator asks Bob whether he did, in fact, agree to fight Alice. When Bob confirms this, the arbitrator points out that whatever happens during the fight is an extra-legal matter that cannot be decided at law. The fact that Alice and Bob agreed to fight indicates that they had relinquished from the outset the other party’s liability for their actions to at least some degree. The problem is that the law cannot judge such private arrangements of suspended liability. From the point of view of law, liability can only be ascertained according to the standards of the law.

            – Scenario 4: Bob and Alice agree to fight. The rules are – no hitting on the head. A performance bond is made out to this effect. Alice hits Bob over the head. Bob sues Alice when she refuses to honor the performance bond. The arbitrator asks Alice whether she admits to hitting Bob over the head. When she admits to it, he then asks her what justification she has for not honoring the performance bond. When she says “I didn’t feel like it”, the arbitrator points out – as in Scenario 1 – that she must have a justification or Bob’s suit claim will stand. In the eyes of the law, Bob is in the position of the victim of a theft because Alice has his property.

            If you look at history, there is no example of customary law systems permitting a victim to “restrain” or “confine” the aggressor. Prisons/dungeons and the like are, in my opinion, a creature solely of statutory law. Bob Murphy has made an argument suggesting that perhaps there could be such institutions but its applications seem to me to be very tenuous… it really boils down to a question of business models. As far as rights are concerned, almost all the situations in which prisons are used today are a clear-cut violation of rights. Ostracism, outlawry (often a de facto death sentence) and the like are the only lawful tools for situations where a person’s regard for his own reputation and social standing have failed to induce him to honor his lawful obligations.

  4. walter block 12/31/2012 at 13:47 Reply

    Will, schmill. I never ever mentioned “will.” My contention is that if you can’t sell something, then you really don’t fully own it. And, if you do really fully own something, then you may legally sell it. So, do we own our bodies (the right to defend ourselves against physical agression) or not. I say we do. Therefore, we can sell this right. Hence, voluntary slavery is implied by the libertarian legal code.

    Here’s some biblio on this:

    Block, Walter E. 1969. “Voluntary Slavery.” The Libertarian Connection, Vol. I, No. 3, April 13, pp. 9-11.

    Block, Walter E. 1979. Book review of Nancy C. Baker, Baby Selling: the Scandal of Black Market Adoptions, New York: The Vanguard Press, 1978; in Libertarian Review, January, Vol. 7, No. 12, pp. 44-45.

    Block, Walter E. 1988. “Rent-a-womb market,” Thunder Bay Ontario Daily; June 26.

    Block, Walter E. 1999. “Market Inalienability Once Again: Reply to Radin,” Thomas Jefferson Law Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, pp. 37-88; http://www.walterblock.com/publications/market_inalienability.pdf

    Block, Walter E. 2001. “Alienability, Inalienability, Paternalism and the Law: Reply to Kronman,” American Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, pp. 351-371; http://www.walterblock.com/publications/reply_to_kronman.pdf

    Block, Walter E. 2002. “A Libertarian Theory of Secession and Slavery,” June 10; http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block15.html; http://libertariantruth.wordpress.com/2006/12/08/a-libertarian-theory-of-secession-and-slavery/

    Block, Walter E. 2003. “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Gordon, Smith, Kinsella and Epstein,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol.17, No. 2, Spring, pp. 39-85; http://www.mises.org/journals/jls/17_2/17_2_3.pdf

    Block, Walter E. 2004. “Are Alienability and the Apriori of Argument Logically Incompatible?” Dialogue, Vol. 1, No. 1. http://www.uni-svishtov.bg/dialog/2004/256gord6.pdf

    Block, Walter E. 2005. “Ayn Rand and Austrian Economics: Two Peas in a Pod.” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, pp. 259-269

    Block, Walter E. 2006. “Epstein on alienation: a rejoinder” International Journal of Social Economics; Vol. 33, Nos. 3-4, pp. 241-260

    Block, Walter E. 2007. “Secession,” Dialogue. No. 4; pp. 1-14; http://www.uni-svishtov.bg/dialog/2007/4.07.WB.pdf

    Block, Walter E. 2007. “Alienability: Reply to Kuflik.” Humanomics Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 117-136; http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/viewContentItem.do;jsessionid=0685BBB744173274A5E7CE3803132413?contentType=Article&contentId=1626605

    Block, Walter E. 2009. “Yes, Sell Rivers! And Make Legal Some Slave Contracts” The Tyee. July 25; http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2009/07/24/SellRivers/

    Block, Walter E. 2009. “Privatizing Rivers and Voluntary Slave Contracts” July 27;

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block134.html

    • z1235 12/31/2012 at 14:33 Reply

      I tend to side more with Dr. Block than with Rothbard on this one. And Dr. Block, welcome to this humble blog — I hope you visit often.

    • claytonkb 12/31/2012 at 14:57 Reply

      Thank you for your response Professor Block.

      “My contention is that if you can’t sell something, then you really don’t fully own it.”

      Understood. And my contention is that that definition is problematic precisely because it leads to the uncomfortable conclusion “I don’t own myself.” But this is just a semantic problem, in my opinion – what really counts is whether or not slave contracts are enforceable.

      “And, if you do really fully own something, then you may legally sell it. So, do we own our bodies (the right to defend ourselves against physical agression) or not.”

      You may sell your body-parts. You may even sell your body to be euthanized and its organs immediately harvested. Once the euthanasia process has run its course, there is no possibility of dispute because you are dead.

      But in the case of slavery, you are alive and well and able to change your mind regarding your situation. Supposing you can mount an escape and then sufficiently defend yourself that the slave-owner cannot simply unilaterally seize you, forcing him to come to arbitration, then the question is whether that slave-contract you signed renders your defensive measures unlawful and his aggressive measures lawful. The answer is “no”. If this breaks the semantics of saying “You own yourself” based on the definition of ownership you’ve given, then I guess that’s the price that has to be paid.

  5. z1235 01/01/2013 at 08:44 Reply

    Clayton,

    “@z: In my view, it goes back to this word: “justifiability”. Law is where the justifiability of actions is settled….”

    Thank you for the excellent and detailed explanation. In this light, I think it’s likely that, in a free society, the use of force/violence (restriction of someone’s freedom) would often be considered “justifiable” in arbitration (conflict resolution), hence not necessarily extra-legal, but — as with most things related to free societies and spontaneous order — we can only guess/estimate.

    Happy New Year!

    • claytonkb 01/01/2013 at 10:22 Reply

      @z: “we can only guess/estimate.”

      I think that we can settle, a priori, on some of the constitutive restrictions that must exist on contracts, and I think stipulations of unlawful acts (such as rape or whatever) are examples of things that cannot be in a binding contract, as an a priori, constitutive restriction.

      One of the key components of the law which I have not yet addressed is that, in libertarian law, “the law is -meant- to be broken.” It is my view that extra-legal arrangements play a massive role in shaping the actual character of law (the normative content part that we can only guesstimate about). This is in direct contrast to the present government court system which is, as frequently as not, used as mechanism to escape even lawful agreements through “tricks of the law”. Since there is no public prosecutor preventing people from making extra-legal arrangements (e.g. “don’t repay the $1000 and Vinny will break your legs”), these extra-legal arrangements under libertarian law can influence the outcome of legal disputes in which the arrangements are never explicitly raised.

      Retaliatory homicide is an example: Rothbard has it right that there can be no such thing as a “death penalty” in libertarian law. Nevertheless, people will doubtless employ retaliatory homicide, which alters what/how people are willing to settle legally vis-a-vis the situation where retaliatory homicide is prohibited.

      • z1235 01/01/2013 at 10:39 Reply

        Our argument seems to boil down to a differing understanding (definitions) of the term “extra-legal”. I agree with your constitutive restrictions that must exist on contracts but I see the realm of contracts as a mere subset of the wider realm of law.

  6. anenome5 01/02/2013 at 18:12 Reply

    Sure, you can voluntarily sell yourself. But the minute you withdraw your consent to serve as a slave the slavery contract would be unenforceable. So, were you ever actually a slave? Apart from the semantics of the original contract, I don’t think so.

  7. dude6935 01/03/2013 at 09:13 Reply

    “In this case, it should be fairly straightforward to enforce the creditor’s rights at law because there is, in fact, property to be recovered in an amount commensurate to the payoff amount of the loan.”

    But even a broke man has property of great value, his body. His organs can be harvested and sold to pay off the amount of the loan.

    “then the question is whether that slave-contract [he] signed renders [his] defensive measures unlawful and [the master's] aggressive measures lawful.”

    If the “slave” defends against the repossession of some (or all) of his organs, the master “is in the position of the victim of a theft because the slave has his property.”

    • claytonkb 01/03/2013 at 10:16 Reply

      “But even a broke man has property of great value, his body. His organs can be harvested and sold to pay off the amount of the loan.”

      But the point of the inalienability argument is to point out that this “property” is very different from any other kind of property because it is the vessel-of-action-itself.

      What you’re putting forward is the idea that the body is implicit collateral to any contract and that’s just not true. Furthermore, you cannot put your body up as collateral to a contract because this would mean that aggressive acts are directly stipulated in the contract, which is a contradiction (lawfully unlawful behavior).

      ” If the “slave” defends against the repossession of some (or all) of his organs, the master “is in the position of the victim of a theft because the slave has his property.” ”

      You’re merely presupposing your argument. In order to show how a (living, breathing, acting, willing) person can lawfully be someone else’s property, you need to show how it is non-contradictory. You can either challenge one of my premises (regarding the character of the unhampered law market) or you can show the flaw(s) in my logic. But simply waving my point away and substituting your own is not sufficient to answer my argument.

      I would direct your attention to the distinction between de facto and de jure. You will get no argument from me that a person can be someone else’s de facto property… history is little else but a long, sad lesson in this fact. The question is whether it is even conceivable (non-contradictory) for a person to be someone else’s property, de jure. Please try to resolve the contradiction rather than just waving it away with your own supposition,

      • dude6935 01/03/2013 at 11:32 Reply

        To clarify, I say the body can only be explicit collateral. If I can legally sell my organs as property, then it is inconstant for the law to prevent me from using my organs (as my property) as collateral. To prevent this action is to reject my property rights.

        If property can be legally repossessed, the organs (as property) can be legally repossessed as well. At the most minimal level, this need not cause death, since some body parts are not vital. In the extreme, the repossession of all organs would cause death, but so might the repossession of non-bodily property.

        I am not arguing that ones future will can be sold. I am arguing that one’s body can be sold, and so can one’s labor. Does M really care about owning S’s will? I don’t think so. M wants to own S’s product. Slavery is not about owning minds, it is about owning productivity.

        Did we even define slavery to begin with?

        • claytonkb 01/03/2013 at 12:04 Reply

          “To clarify, I say the body can only be explicit collateral. If I can legally sell my organs as property, then it is inconstant for the law to prevent me from using my organs (as my property) as collateral. To prevent this action is to reject my property rights.”

          You can use them as collateral, but the terms of such a contract are not lawfully enforceable. Cutting someone open against their consent is a grave, reckless act of assault (torture). Thus, the act of repossession is itself unlawful and cannot be lawfully executed (performed without incurring a tort).

          I think I’m going to write a follow-up blog post on the nature of lawful consent. I think the statist conception of lawful consent has always been abusive but it has persisted for so long and has infused so deeply into the social order that it has really altered and permanently distorted our understanding of what lawful consent is really all about.

          “If property can be legally repossessed, the organs (as property) can be legally repossessed as well.”

          This is abusing the metaphor of the body as property. One’s body is one’s property, but not in the same sense that one’s land or one’s donkey is. You can alienate (abandon, repudiate, relinquish) your land or your donkey, you cannot alienate your body. Property is not an abstract principle that resides “out there somewhere”, it is a category of human knowledge and action and the alienability distinction is built right into this human conception of property.

          “At the most minimal level, this need not cause death, since some body parts are not vital. In the extreme, the repossession of all organs would cause death, but so might the repossession of non-bodily property.”

          But it is only the active aggression of the thief in attempting to prevent the repossession that can justify the use of force which might lead to death. So, it keeps going back to this question: What is aggression?

          “I am not arguing that ones future will can be sold. I am arguing that one’s body can be sold, and so can one’s labor. Does M really care about owning S’s will? I don’t think so. M wants to own S’s product. Slavery is not about owning minds, it is about owning productivity.”

          This is a false dichotomy. The body is the mechanism of the will. The will (choice, action) is what matters from the legal standpoint since you may lawfully have yourself euthanized and your organs harvested. You just can’t write a contract selling yourself into slavery that is lawfully enforceable in any meaningful sense. This isn’t because we’re introducing any “unnecessary restrictions” on individual liberty, it’s solely the result of acknowledging that you cannot do that which is logically impossible, such as selling a square-circle.

          “Did we even define slavery to begin with?”

          It’s not necessary. We only need to ask whether slave contracts (a contract that signs over all decision-making power over A’s body to B) can be lawfully enforced.

          • dude6935 01/03/2013 at 13:16

            “Cutting someone open against their consent is a grave, reckless act of assault (torture). Thus, the act of repossession is itself unlawful and cannot be lawfully executed (performed without incurring a tort).”

            I don’t see a meaningful difference between forcefully taking an organ and forcefully taking a car or any other non-bodily property. Maybe you can show how these are different.

            “This is abusing the metaphor of the body as property. One’s body is one’s property, but not in the same sense that one’s land or one’s donkey is. You can alienate (abandon, repudiate, relinquish) your land or your donkey, you cannot alienate your body.”

            The body IS property like any other. It is homesteaded as any other property can be. You certainly can alienate or abandon your body, either in part or in whole. That is the nature of death, a total alienation of your body. The only thing that you cannot alienate is your mind, since that IS you. The technology may someday exist to totally alienate your body even without death.

            And since the body IS alienable, a slave-contract IS enforceable.

            “But it is only the active aggression of the thief in attempting to prevent the repossession that can justify the use of force which might lead to death. So, it keeps going back to this question: What is aggression?”

            You miss my point. If A repossess B’s farm. B might starve and die. Death is merely a possible byproduct of a repossession. A master has no lawful right to kill a disobedient slave per se, but he would have an explicit contractual right to reposes his body (with current technology, a byproduct of that action would likely be death for the slave).

  8. Ken Hatton 01/28/2014 at 14:57 Reply

    Sorry to come to the part late, but I find this a fascinating topic, and I had a clarification to ask.

    If voluntary slavery is unenforcable, and therefore not contractable under the law, would that also mean that ANY employment contract in which payment is rendered before services is also unenforcable?

    Surely the timetable isn’t the deciding factor. I don’t see a legal difference between agreeing to work for a lifetime and agreeing to work for a year. If it is a violation of inalienable will to be enslaved because I can change my mind before I die, then wouldn’t it also be a similar violation to be employed for a set term because I could change my mind tomorrow?

    • claytonkb 01/28/2014 at 15:21 Reply

      @Ken: The issue you raise leads to a new problem: what is the meaning of “enforcement”? Under private law, enforcement itself must be lawful. This is in contrast to the Statist system where the State’s enforcement actions are a violation of the very laws they are meant to enforce (e.g. committing homicide as a “punishment”).

      Violation of any contract is enforceable – in private law society – only through the use of lawful means, such as the collection of a monetary award or a mutually-agreed-upon act of penance. As a practical matter, slavery is only possible if the enforcement of “slave contracts” is worse than the conditions of slavery itself. Awarding a monetary payment to a slave “owner” when one of the people he purported to “own” has left the plantation is not sufficient incentive to prevent such flight. Thus, we can see that – in private law society – slavery is simply infeasible, in addition to being unlawful and immoral.

      Employment – that is, the buying and selling of time or services – is completely different. A large monetary award for the violation of an employment contract is almost always much worse than finishing out the term of employment OR (from the employer’s PoV) allowing the term of employment to be fulfilled.

      In both cases (slavery and voluntary employment), the individual retains his will, that is, retains the power to change his mind at any time, “come what may”. The fact that this probably makes lifetime voluntary employment impossible in private law society is the result of uncertainty in economic relations. Slavery – that is, the sanctioned use of unlawful threats in order to induce lifetime “employment” – can be thought of as resorting to aggression in order to overcome the effects of uncertainty in this regard. Since no one will voluntarily agree to a lifetime employment contract, the slaveholder resorts to criminal methods instead. Law systems which confer legitimacy upon this kind of crime are simply unjust and themselves illegitimate.

      As a closing note, your question implicitly assumes “employers have power” and “employees are at the mercy of their employer”. I think this is a Statist bias that may reflect our primitive past but does not reflect anything truly inherent in the employer-employee relationship. The janitor who goes for brain surgery is the employer of the brain-surgeon for the duration of the operation (the hospital and insurance just arrange the scheduling and logistics). So I guess that makes the janitor the brain surgeon’s “boss”!

      • Ken Hatton 01/30/2014 at 12:32 Reply

        You say that under the Statist system, the State’s enforcement actions are a violation of the law. But isn’t that necessary to a degree? If someone is committing aggression against another, how else could you stop them? Perhaps some types of aggression, like the death penalty, are unnecessary because there are less aggressive options available to prevent the incident from recurring. But counter aggression is nevertheless necessary in some capacity, the most popular at the moment being imprisonment.

        I haven’t read the rest of this blog yet to review your opinions on enforcement, but assuming that you wouldn’t approve of letting murders go loose on grounds of non-aggression, it sounds like what you are saying is one of two possible things.

        1) That there are two “systems” of law: implicit and explicit contract. Implicit contract is the system of non-aggression. The remedy under such an implicit contract is potentially counter aggression (fighting back against an attacker, imprisonment). That is to say, that I am implicitly agreeing to allow aggression against myself when I commit aggression against another. Murder, assault, theft, destruction of property, etc., all fall under this category. However, an explicit contract is a “reduction” of law. It specifies a specific exchange between two entities, reducing permitted actions between the parties to a subset of what they previously were. Under such a contract, physical aggression against the perpetrator is not permitted as a remedy, even though property aggression (theft) may be present when terms of the contract are violated. Only property aggression against the offender (money) is permitted.

        Or 2) that there is a difference between personal aggression and property aggression. An eye for an eye, as it were. The remedy for personal aggression can be personal (prison, self-defense), but the remedy for property aggression can only be property (monetary). If this were the case, then theft or arson could never be classified as a jailable offense, even though the perpetrator may never be able to repay the cost of lost property.

        Either way, I’m not sure I agree. Either kind of aggression may not be allowed without previous aggression in either scenario, but surely someone could be permitted to enter into a contract that sells or rents the right to physical aggression against one of the signing parties. Such agreements must be possible to allow certain sporting events, such as a boxing match. I don’t think anyone would argue that boxing matches shouldn’t be allowed in a voluntary or libertarian society. In this scenario, I have the right to hit myself, but no one else has that right. When I enter into a boxing match contract, I am loaning that right to another individual.

        So if the initial terms of a contract can include aggression, why can’t the remedies for violation of those terms?

        Or, to look at it another way, if I can choose to perform an act that irrevocably removes my freedom of choice (for example, I kill someone and therefore I am imprisoned by someone such as a family member of the victim), why can I not contractually enter into an agreement to irrevocably remove my same freedom of choice (as a slave)? In either case, should I “change my mind” and get away, private security can catch me and return me to my (perhaps harsher) captivity.

        Also, you imply that the remedy for violating terms of a contract must objectively be harsher than the terms. In practice, whether the remedy is worse than the terms of the contract for either party is subjective, a matter of perspective. When I borrow money from a bank, the terms are to ruin my credit rating if I do not repay. For most people, those terms are worse than non-payment. But I may decide in my case, that they really aren’t. I think you make the assumption that slavery is the worst possibly condition. That because a person has entered into such an agreement, the master would automatically make the slave’s life impossibly hard. This is not necessarily true. Maybe the slave would end up having an easy life, or at least easier than living on his own. So, the remedy doesn’t necessarily need to be objectively worse than the terms of the contract, since there is no way to objectively measure such things. Rather, both the terms and the remedy just need to be practical to implement. In a circle-square contract, the terms are impossible. In a $1T remedy award, the remedy is impossible.

        Even if I agree with you that physical aggression is not a permissible remedy in a slave contract, monetary remedy is still available. Such a remedy might be worse for both parties: the slave has a harder job, and the master lost his slave. But for the slave it might be better: he could get job that pays well. If the remedy is to owe double the money initially paid to him, it isn’t necessarily impossible to pay it back, but could work it off over time. A million over a lifetime isn’t really that much. Therefore, both the slave environment (temporary or permanent, depending on whether the slave changes his mind or not) and the remedy (paying back double the initial payment) are both imminently practical.

        Rather than the voluntary slave idea being invalid in its entirety, it seems to me that there may be specific configurations that are invalid, but many ways in which to make it workable. It may be silly for both parties to wish to enter into such an agreement, but it is certainly not impossible or meaningless just because the remedy can’t be objectively harsher than slavery itself. What voluntary slavery cannot be, is enforced to be permanent. But then again, the definition of slavery doesn’t necessarily include permanence. Slaves in many societies were freed all of the time. That didn’t make them slaves. Instead of calling it voluntary slavery, what about calling it a voluntary life-long prepaid employment contract? Does that make it better?

        • claytonkb 06/02/2014 at 14:55 Reply

          “You say that under the Statist system, the State’s enforcement actions are a violation of the law. But isn’t that necessary to a degree? If someone is committing aggression against another, how else could you stop them?”

          If someone is hitting you, stopping them from hitting you is not unlawful. If that requires that you hit back or even that you shoot them, then such actions are not unlawful.

          “But counter aggression is nevertheless necessary in some capacity, the most popular at the moment being imprisonment.”

          Burning cats alive once was a popular form of entertainment in medieval Paris (see Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels”). Popularity is irrelevant to the questions of justice and morality. Countering aggression is not aggression. Aggression, in libertarian parlance, is defined as the initiation of violence. Whoever “started it” is the aggressor. The other party is the victim.

          “1) That there are two “systems” of law: implicit and explicit contract. Implicit contract is the system of non-aggression. The remedy under such an implicit contract is potentially counter aggression (fighting back against an attacker, imprisonment). That is to say, that I am implicitly agreeing to allow aggression against myself when I commit aggression against another. Murder, assault, theft, destruction of property, etc., all fall under this category. However, an explicit contract is a “reduction” of law. It specifies a specific exchange between two entities, reducing permitted actions between the parties to a subset of what they previously were. Under such a contract, physical aggression against the perpetrator is not permitted as a remedy, even though property aggression (theft) may be present when terms of the contract are violated. Only property aggression against the offender (money) is permitted.

          Or 2) that there is a difference between personal aggression and property aggression. An eye for an eye, as it were. The remedy for personal aggression can be personal (prison, self-defense), but the remedy for property aggression can only be property (monetary). If this were the case, then theft or arson could never be classified as a jailable offense, even though the perpetrator may never be able to repay the cost of lost property.”

          Neither of these describe my view. There is a variety of viewpoints on this issue on VR. My view is that most of what people call “law” really should not be called that. Statutes, for example, are not “law”. They are proclamations of policy, which is completely different. Law emerges from social norms, that is, people’s inherent sense of right and wrong, particularly as it concerns matters of settling disputes in the context of social relations. Offenses against person and property are, of course, different but the distinction between, say, “criminal” law and “civil” law is wholly artificial.

          Enforcement must be lawful. Even our present system is predicated on this idea. Police obey what we call the law. But they do not act lawfully in the true sense of the word “law”. Thus, much of what police do in the course of their jobs today is unlawful. This is the case even though there is no meaningful recourse for this situation.

          “surely someone could be permitted to enter into a contract that sells or rents the right to physical aggression against one of the signing parties. Such agreements must be possible to allow certain sporting events, such as a boxing match.”

          I walk through this situation in detail in the comments above, Ctl+F “Alice” or “Bob”.

          “I don’t think anyone would argue that boxing matches shouldn’t be allowed in a voluntary or libertarian society. In this scenario, I have the right to hit myself, but no one else has that right. When I enter into a boxing match contract, I am loaning that right to another individual.”

          You’re not loaning anything, nor can any inalienable right (such as the right not to be assaulted) ever be conferred. You’re agreeing that the other party in the fight may hit you without liability, provided he follows the rules of the match and provided you continue to agree to the match for its duration. You can not lawfully retroactively withdraw your consent, but neither can you be forced to continue to be hit even after you’ve signalled that you do not want the fight to go on. In short, literal cage-matches are inherently unlawful but any other kind of match is lawful. “Voluntary” slavery is like a cage-match… “you agreed to be locked into this cage, it’s too late to change your mind now”. By analogy, the position I’ve argued is that refusing to unlock the cage once the cage-fighter has changed his mind and wants to stop the fight is no different than having shoved the person into the cage against their will to begin with. Refusing to release someone from a “volunary slavery contract” is no different than having kidnapped and enslaved them outright. And, naturally, if someone can walk away from a “voluntary slavery contract” at any time, then it is no “slavery contract” at all.

          “So if the initial terms of a contract can include aggression, why can’t the remedies for violation of those terms?”

          Any kind of remedy is conceivable, even death. Whether such remedies can lawfully be imposed, however, is a different question.

          “Or, to look at it another way, if I can choose to perform an act that irrevocably removes my freedom of choice (for example, I kill someone and therefore I am imprisoned by someone such as a family member of the victim), why can I not contractually enter into an agreement to irrevocably remove my same freedom of choice (as a slave)? In either case, should I “change my mind” and get away, private security can catch me and return me to my (perhaps harsher) captivity.”

          Many such fictional worlds can be conceived. None of them have anything to do with reality, however, nor with the question of what is lawful remedy.

          “Also, you imply that the remedy for violating terms of a contract must objectively be harsher than the terms. In practice, whether the remedy is worse than the terms of the contract for either party is subjective, a matter of perspective. When I borrow money from a bank, the terms are to ruin my credit rating if I do not repay. For most people, those terms are worse than non-payment. But I may decide in my case, that they really aren’t.”

          You’re making my point for me: for exactly and only those individuals for whom a bad credit-rating is less distasteful than loan repayment, there will be a default on the loan. Thus, a contract is effective precisely to the extent that the remedy for violating the terms is worse – in the subjective estimation of the bound party – than abiding by the terms of the contract.

          “I think you make the assumption that slavery is the worst possibly condition. That because a person has entered into such an agreement, the master would automatically make the slave’s life impossibly hard. This is not necessarily true.”

          Such a beneficient contract could hardly be called a “slave” contract. There are many people who would gladly sign up to be a pampered, kept pet of a rich person. In fact, many people do precisely this, just usually not with the benefit of a contract. The discussion in the article touches on the cases where there is a dispute about the contract. No matter the reason the “slave” is disputing the “contract”, the point is that he is disputing it, that he is unhappy with it and wants to repudiate it.

          “Rather, both the terms and the remedy just need to be practical to implement.”

          ‘Practical to implement’, in a private law society, means precisely that it fetches the ongoing consent of both parties, nothing more, nothing less.

          “In a circle-square contract, the terms are impossible. In a $1T remedy award, the remedy is impossible.”

          My point in highlighting those cases is simply to point out that not just anything that somebody takes a notion to write down on a piece of paper magically becomes, thereby, a “contract.” There are constitutive restrictions on every contract. ONE of those conditions is that the contract must be intelligible (not self-contradictory). Another condition is that the rights and obligations in the contract must not be impossible. The relevant condition for the article is that the terms of the contract must be LAWFUL. This condition is, admittedly, more nebulous than intelligibility and non-impossibility, but that’s why there is specialization in law in the first place… law is deceptively difficult to reason about. And, in any case, the lawfulness of the conditions of slavery (imprisonment, enclosure, threats of violence, verbal and physical assault, etc.) is not nebulous at all… it’s all clearly unlawful.

          “Rather than the voluntary slave idea being invalid in its entirety, it seems to me that there may be specific configurations that are invalid, but many ways in which to make it workable.”

          And all those ways are better called something other than “slavery” because they will necessarily be missing the one component that makes slavery slavery: the absence of the slave’s ongoing consent.

          “What voluntary slavery cannot be, is enforced to be permanent.”

          Precisely. So why muddy the waters by referring to something as “slavery” that is not slavery? Slavery is a permanent, enforced condition that is against the will of the enslaved. Any other definition is just obfuscatory. I would suspect that the only use for such obfuscated definitions is so that a person can say something like “Under libertarianism, there is slavery” …. where by “slavery” is meant, of course, sugar plums and fairy dances. There will be sugar plums and fairy dances under libertarianism since people like those things and they are not prohibited. But neither are they slavery. Redefining just anything to be “slavery” so that it can be said “Under libertarianism, there is slavery” is just a strawman argument.

          “But then again, the definition of slavery doesn’t necessarily include permanence. Slaves in many societies were freed all of the time. That didn’t make them slaves. Instead of calling it voluntary slavery, what about calling it a voluntary life-long prepaid employment contract? Does that make it better?”

          No. In private-law society, there is no such thing as a “life-long contract”, where this contract will continue even when one of the parties wants to break it. That includes marriage as well as employment.

  9. […] [2] See also: Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 135; Barnett: Contract Remedies and Inalienable Rights, p. 186; Smith, A Killer’s Right to Life p. 46; Gordon, Private Property’s Philosophy, p. 02; And the online article: “But What about Voluntary Slaves?” […]

  10. […] at the moment. Suffice it so say there are libertarian arguments both for (e.g., Walter Block) and against (e.g., Murray Rothbard) voluntary slavery. In any case, there are other concerns than whether or […]

    • claytonkb 06/02/2014 at 15:19 Reply

      “In any case, there are other concerns than whether or not “voluntary slavery” is moral or contracts for such should be allowed or not. Such, as will it work? Will people make such contracts? Will other people want to have anything to do with people who make such contracts? If the answers to these are all “yes,” then “voluntary slavery” contracts will undoubtably exist on a free market, whether they violate “libertarian principles” or not.”

      This completely misses the point. There will be murder in the “free market”, just as there is in our present situation of a hampered market. There will be assassination. There will be rape. There will be kidnapping. There will be sex slavery – every other woe that afflicts society in the hampered market will still afflict society in conditions of an unhampered market. No one disputes this.

      The question is whether, in private law, such aggression will be legitimized, as they are in many cases in the present social order of State-run monopoly law. When a police officer hits you over the head, he is not committing assault, he is “keeping the peace” or “ensuring his safety” or “imposing compliance.” The question is whether non-monopoly courts, courts that must compete for customers on the basis of fairness, justness, legal competence, etc. will hand down patently unjust decisions like those that are frequently handed down by the State’s monopoly courts. The answer, which I’ve not addressed in this particular article, is NO, at least, not nearly as much as we have it in the present social order. Without a territorial monopoly of jurisdiction, courts will have to compete on the basis of customer satisfaction which, in the case of law, is strongly connected to the sense of justice of the parties involved. In order to satisfy the sense of justice of their customers, private law courts will have to make decisions or arbitrate disputes in a way that is actually… just. Thus, questions of right and wrong become explicit within a private law society, where such concerns are purely ancillary in the present social order.

      So, the fact that people will still engage in slavery even in an unhampered market does not mean that slavery will be lawful. It just means that law-breakers will break the law. At the same time, we can predict, apodictically, that the character of law in private-law society will be much more just because of competition effects. Other problems related to “What about corrupt courts/arbitrators or legal enclaves where slavery is recognized as legitimate” are easily dispatched when you realize that there will still be tyrants in an unhampered market, too. There is no magic fairy dust that will make people stop duping others and organizing the ignorant and vulnerable into battalions of exploited drones. But if the market is unhampered, at least people will be able to clearly see the difference between social orders where lawfulness prevails and where territorial law monopoly is not tolerated, versus social orders where corrupt rulers take over and corrupt the law by centralizing all legal power under the tyrant’s control.

  11. Michael Ezra 06/12/2014 at 04:36 Reply

    If anyone is still reading this – I have a question based on this news story in the Guardian.

    My question is this:

    If a company uses coerced, as opposed to voluntary, slaves it seems to me that the coerced slaves are entitled to justice in rectification.

    Are they entitled to it from

    a) the slave owner company
    b) the supermarkets in the UK who purchase the goods, assuming they know it is slave produce.
    c) the end consumer – who eats the produce after reading the Guardian article.

    Does it make any difference in rectification if the supermarkets/end consumer are unaware it is slave produce?

    • claytonkb 06/23/2014 at 01:10 Reply

      This news story has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of the blog post, but your question is an interesting one all the same. I think that restitution in almost all cases is a complex question that cannot be settled from the armchair – the primary difficulty of law is hammering out terms of settlement which will put the conflict to rest. In the case of commercial torts, the question of restitution is even more complex because of the dispersal of action and interest.

      In the case of slavery, I am comfortable speculating that it is the slaveowner that would be the primary party liable for restitution, regardless of how the product of the slave labor is sold/traded. The slaveowner is far and away the primary beneficiary of the slave’s exploitation, so it stands to reason that he is the primary cause of the harm (tort) against the slave. This does not exclude other restitution being claimed from other agents who have caused harm to the slave, perhaps indirectly.

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