It has now been over a decade since libertarian Santa Claus, Walter Block, published the essay, “Toward A Libertarian Theory Of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Gordon, Kinsella, and Epstein”. In this work, he critiqued standard Lockean notions of inalienable rights such that the Founding Fathers of our glorious American empire only paid lip service to in adopting the Constitution; a document giving them the authority to alienate the hell out of those rights. Unlike Locke and Rothbard (may peace be upon him), the good professor Block believes that the right to the self is, in fact, alienable, in the sense that ownership of the self can be voluntarily traded away. This is said to carry the very controversial implication of permissiveness toward what has been called “voluntary slavery”.
The idea of voluntary slavery is not novel; in fact, it’s a crucial part of much of leftist folklore- the indefinite subjugation of an individual based on the exchange of his body (and soul, maaaaan!) to a mustache-twirling capitalist for the sale of some necessary good. This being the case, the enemies of property are utterly delighted by the indignation they can treat themselves and their comrades to, in reading this essay. Left-libertarians in particular use this debate to feed their outrage about how propertarians stole their label from some anti-Semites who didn’t like paying rent Like anything else, this issue can also be combined with certain libertarian stances on the rights of children, invariably producing a Dickensian carnival of horrors in the minds of communists everywhere.
Private tyranny aside, there is a seldom made, but important distinction here between ownership of a man’s body and ownership of his will, however each may be construed. Slavery has been practiced for most of human history, often in the broader form of ethnic tribes or states enslaving other tribes as a result of war. In the setting it became politically relevant however, it took on the form of chattel slavery, where the slave was regarded as the private property™ of the individual master, and had the same legal status as any other chattel interest. In this context, slaves were seldom released. The image of this form of slavery is the most immediate in the popular mind, and likely also the worst, so I’ll address the possibility of it first.
Surely, no principled libertarian would dispute a man’s right to sell his organs on the black market, despite their being a rather intimate part of his person, which according to the Lockeans, he cannot sell. Even going no farther than this we find an error in the terminology of the traditional notions of inalienability of rights; though this error is an excusable one, considering the people who came up with the idea lived in a time before there was much use in selling one’s body parts.
But, I’m not so pedantic so as to write an entire article to call out poor word choice; the issue goes deeper than that. Even granting the Lockeans what I assume to be their intended meaning: “as long as something is directly attached to your brain you can’t sell it”, we run into the fairly obvious objection of “well, why not?”. If you can sell a finger after cutting it off, why can’t you sell it before cutting it off, if I may be so morbid? The standard reply to this question seems to be that: so long as the finger remains in the natural possession of the mind it literally cannot be traded away, as trade entails an exchange of possession.
The problem with this response is that it’s a totally arbitrary distinction. People trade ownership “deeds” without anything actually physically changing hands all the time. That is of course, unless you’re a dirty usufruct using mutie, in which case you’re probably too repulsed by the idea of voluntary slavery to even consider the logic anyway.
The fact is, there needs be no distinction between the property that is attached to your ego by default and the property that you acquire by rubbing your other property against it (or something) through homesteading. Starting with some property by default does not mean one cannot trade that property away. This has become a more relevant point recently in history with improvements in organ transplant technology, and with transhumanism just around the corner, it’ll soon be even more relevant. After all, how arbitrary must a restriction on selling ones physical body seem when one can simply upload their consciousness to a computer? As it is now, though, how might selling one’s body work? If my daughter is sick and I sell my entire body to raise the funding to cure her, the person buying my body then gains the right to do whatever they want with it.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I have to listen to my new owner. My refusing to do anything, or even running away is no more of an NAP violation than a dog not listening to its owner is; my consciousness is a ghost in the machine you bought. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have bought it. Moreso, there’s nothing that prevents me from fleeing into a friendly property where my owner is not allowed. The foreign ownership of a living human body seems, under these circumstances, much less profitable than in the pre-1860s era.
Insofar as it’s defined as forced labor, the state of slavery does not necessarily entail actual ownership of the physical slave. A person could for example agree to whatever someone else wanted for a certain amount of time (or indefinitely) in exchange for a one time compensation. This compensation would have to be fairly large; in most circumstances it would likely be similar to what the slave could earn by working for the master as a regular employee for many years. In this manner, voluntary slavery of this type could be construed as a kind of advance payment, closer to indentured servitude than the slavery of popular imagination. In fact, it should be noted that this kind of contractual obligation to “not quit” for a certain amount of time, already exists in a form today with liability for training, and when there’s a dispute about whether the employee owes more labor, it’s settled well enough in private arbitration, as it could be in a free society.
While ownership of a slave’s body permits the master to whip, beat, or do even worse things to the slave, there’s no reason why the “master” would be justified in whipping or beating someone who had merely agreed to work for them in a kind of generalized servitude, without their explicit consent. That said, an indentured servant, permanent or not, could still be subject to the nastier whims of his employer, perhaps even being instructed to whip himself. As we might imagine, this kind of servitude is extremely generalized and could include almost anything. However, historically, slaves have often been used for specialized purposes: some worked in the field and others in the house. For this reason we can suppose that if such a state were undertaken voluntarily by contract, restrictions on the type of orders the master could issue the slave would be stipulated in advance. Surely the market would select for the masters who contractually precluded physically harming their slaves. This is because, unlike the old American South, where slaves were sold by traders who didn’t care what happened to them once they were sold, people selling themselves as slaves would have a vested interest in making sure they were treated well.
As I’ve said, I think that in all likelihood, if someone who had agreed to work indefinitely for a fixed, one-time payment were to refuse to work in a free society, this could be settled in court, perhaps with the aid of Daniel Websterish “slave lawyers”. But strictly from the perspective of property rights, what crime has such a person committed? It is my position that if one has agreed to render a payment to another on the condition that this person shall perform work specified in a contract, and the party obligated to do this work refuses to do so, but has accepted the payment, this party should be considered a thief, as the conditions for the payment’s voluntary transfer have not been met. If I were the presiding judge, I’d have the slave return whatever he had been given in exchange for his work, or failing his ability to do this, give due restitution to his former master in addition to paying for the trial, a cost which would likely have to be paid off incrementally as he worked as a free man.
To answer, in a word, the question I posed in the title of this article though: No. Voluntary slavery, while possible to theoretically justify on propertarian grounds, would be unlikely to occur on any kind of scale due to the impracticality of its limitations. It’s cheaper and less of a legal headache to just hire low wage laborers, and to offer a payment plan to the desperate, or just not give them what they need at all.