Estimated reading time 9 mins.
The following was written for myself in 2014 after having finally got around to reading a classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and what occurred to me as I was fascinated by various depictions of slavery in the pre-Civil War American South. Having recently thought about the issue of freedom versus our current political and intellectual status quo, and given freedom’s indispensable role in human flourishing–with some clarifying additions, I publish it here.
A popular image of slavery is a cracking whip driving droning, listless workers to some laborious or inhuman task in abhorrent conditions against any will of their own, sucking the days from their lives as if they were of no worth but that of a draft animal. Indeed, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers vivid images of the villain Simon Legree’s plantation and the manner in which he considers and treats his slaves.
His business model consists of buying slaves with the intention of working most of them to death within a few years, finding it more economical to just buy more at that point. Beyond a select few who are promoted to be overseers, the majority live in barn-like conditions with straw for a bed and are fed the minimum sustenance to keep them strong enough to get maximum cotton production out of them. (Or so what Legree believes is “maximum.” Both sound economic theory and history have proved that freedom and positive incentives result in optimal production.) They are watched over sharply and are brutally whipped when not productive enough or at any display of insubordination. It is as horrible as any depiction of slavery one typically conceives.
There is, however, a counter portrait of slavery, as presented in the same novel, such as on the Shelby farm or at Augustine St. Clare’s home. These households see slaves living in a manner more akin to classic British servants, as near family members, respected and loved by their masters, nannies to their children, free to enjoy their own family time in separate servants’ lodgings, etc.
Certainly, it can’t be ignored that the British servant was a free man or woman who may have left his post at any time and who was paid wages above his other housing, food, benefits, etc. Other differences include voluntary servants being more educated, among other things. But mostly, apart from the status of actual freedom, there is not much to distinguish a British servant one might meet in an Agatha Christie novel, for instance—in terms of their working and living conditions—from the slaves depicted by Stowe living under the more benevolent slave owner.
In essential terms, the nature of the slave-master relationship may be described as the product of the slave being completely the property of the owner. The slave, however, with these better types of masters, enjoys comfortable lodging, clean and comfortable clothing, adequate food, education, medical care, and general goodwill and respect from their masters—even love. They also enjoy the relative freedom to live their own lives as they like when the master does not need their services.
A key to note here is that, given the context of the time in America, most of these types of masters were sincerely convinced that their slaves were better off under their rule than if left alone to attempt life as free people, regarding them as somewhat ignorant children in a tender, paternalistic manner. Add that while undoubtedly, the majority of slaves would prefer struggle under freedom than luxury under bondage, it is probable that many did prefer the security of living with a wealthy and kind master.
Now consider the nature of today’s mixed economy Welfare State. Citizens work, with a large portion of our income handed over to the government. This master then proceeds to provide us all with such goods and services as it deems necessary or desirable for prosperous lives. Much like the ignorant slave, we do much better under their guidance and compassion than we would if left to our own choices and initiative.
And while it is true that the whole of our property is not taken by the government, a very substantial portion is, in income taxes, social security taxes, and other direct taxes on every good and service we purchase, as well as in indirect taxation through inflation. Whatever the exact percentage amounts to, it is enormous, and indeed, any amount of one’s property is more than ought to be disposed of by anyone but oneself.
Of course, whenever advocates of individual rights try to claim that “taxes are theft,” mixed economy defenders can’t fully conceptualize the comparison, as they argue that people get many benefits in return for their taxes, while thieves expropriate purely for themselves. Infrastructure which facilitates the creation and prosperity of business and trade, education, health care, housing subsidies, food stamps, unemployment security, welfare, investments in “sustainable” energy, and untold other benefits make our lives better off, they tell us.
What lacks in this conceptualization, however, is the same component which distinguishes the classic British servant from the slave: freedom.
But if we’re to argue this point, we’ll have to be clear on what freedom means. Too often, it is sloppily defined, and so welfare statists scoff at the claim that we aren’t free, as we can observe that people generally go about and make choices as to where to live, what to do for a living, what to buy, with whom to associate, etc. There is nothing close to Legree’s plantation, and it’s only a caricature to suggest that we’re anything close to that.
But it doesn’t have to be close to Legree’s plantation or North Korea to be deemed unfree. This is, if we have a precise conception as to what freedom means. And it is for lack of such precision that we have conceded our freedoms, seeing them erode year after year, decade after decade, and why such a grotesque farce as the modern mixed economy welfare state might be mistaken for capitalism or any kind of free political-economic system.
If the essential characteristic describing slavery is that the product of the slave is owned by the master, then we have to understand what ownership means. Ownership implies the freedom to dispose of one’s product in any way one chooses, to trade the product of one’s work—any or all of it—for whatever one deems is to one’s best advantage, regardless of the outcome. And in this respect, there is nothing which differentiates the welfare state from the latter, more kindhearted portrait of slavery described above—except degree.
Each individual’s product in today’s mixed economy is (in giant part) the property of the government, the benevolent master who proceeds to dole out comforts and benefits, convinced (sometimes sincerely) that we are better off than we would be if left alone to attempt life as free people. Welfare statists genuinely don’t see today’s political-economic system as a slave state, but it is because they only define slavery by absolute expropriation and control, mixed with images of brutality and harsh treatment of a master’s subjects. They can’t see it because people are generally free to work or not work for whom they like, travel where they like, purchase most of what they like (although even these things are controlled to various degrees these days), and are generally free to move about and choose things for themselves.
It is true that the welfare state does not resemble the cruel, popular image of slavery. But it is a mirror of the second, more beneficent image.
The essential characteristic of slavery involves involuntary relationships between individuals, or between individuals and governments, and statists evade the knowledge that forced government education, forced health insurance, forced social security, among countless other things which are “good” for us, are all involuntary. (And if you would argue that they are not forced upon us, try not paying your taxes or keeping your child home from school without approved supplementary arrangements.) The degree to which the master owns the slave’s property is of no matter. Ten percent, fifty percent, or one hundred, to claim any ownership of the product of others by right is to concede absolute ownership, no matter what the master claims to provide in return; the rest is only a matter of time.
I encourage you to read (or revisit) Uncle Tom’s Cabin and observe the relationships between slaves and masters such as Augustine St. Clare and the conditions they lived under. See if the comparisons aren’t apt. And if the portraits of the Shelby farm and my reference to “better kinds of masters,” such as who believe that their owning slaves and the product of their work and then dictating (affectionately) what’s good for those simple but sweet fools, is actually good for them offends you—and it should, given the sensibilities of our time, then you ought to be offended and outraged—only more personally so—at the way in which today’s statists and intellectual elites assume the role of enlightened guardians to our ignorant, hapless children, and proceed to advocate that government expropriate vast portions of our product—our own work, time, lives—and presume to dictate to us what is good for “society” (they don’t speak of or see individuals).
I, for one, prefer struggle under freedom to even luxury under bondage.
And while I’ve emphasized that the way modern elites propose to be our mother or Big Brother is eerily analogous to the Shelby Farm, I daresay that the Shelbys, while still wholly mistaken, were not without excuse given the context of their time, and so were more genuine in their compassion. But given what history has now demonstrated in terms of the unsurpassed wealth, prosperity, and human flourishing which arises to the degree in which individuals are free to make decisions in their own lives—from the most trivial to the most complex and vital matters, it is becoming more incredible to ascribe any benevolent motive to today’s proponents of a welfare state.
Like some of the slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, many people do actually feel they prefer the security of a paternalistic keeper, but the majority of people desire the freedom to flounder or flourish by their own initiative in voluntary association with others. And more than that, individual freedom is simply morally right and exceedingly practical.
If one honestly cares about the well-being of individual human beings, and if one wants to enjoy the life-enhancing benefits of living in a prosperous society, then one must honestly and rigorously examine reality and grasp the positive relationship between freedom and human flourishing. And once the actual meaning and nature of freedom are clearly understood, one must have courage in advocating for it. Courage, because in today’s intellectual climate, it is unpopular to champion freedom—full, absolute freedom. There is no in-between.