Can You Sell Yourself Into Slavery?

December 31st, 2012   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

slaveryNo. The reason requires a considerably lengthier response.

Slavery is the social condition in which one human being owns another as property. This means the owner can use and dispose of the slave as he would other property such as a table or dog. Historically, slaves were acquired in one of two ways: a defeated opponent was offered the choice of slavery or death; or, a person was kidnapped. No contract existed even in the choice between death and enslavement because the framework of coercion negates the possibility of contracting; coercion and contracts are diametrically opposed concepts. Historical reference does not dismiss the hypothetical debating point of a ‘slave-contract’, of course, but facts should carry some weight.

To return to the question under discussion: Can a person sell himself into slavery? That is,can someone relinquish his humanity and become property?

Of the various ways to argue against the possibility of a slave-contract, a powerful approach involves the inalienability of the human will. Free will is a defining aspect of man’s nature. From the instant of awareness, he chooses. Sometimes the available options are limited or utterly unappealing but even the refusal to choose constitutes an act of choice.

THE REALITY PROBLEM WITH SLAVE-CONTRACTS

Free will or volition is an inalienable part of man’s nature in the same manner as his reason; it is inherent. The argument from inalienability does not refer to a moral or political objection to a man who wishes to dispossess himself of free will; it refers to the impossibility of his doing so. No one else can think for him or control his will and wishes; he thinks his own thoughts and feels his own emotions. Other people can exert immense influence but he is the only one with control. Certainly, he can agree to obey the commands of another person and their agreement would be no one else’s business. But the instant he exercises free will and says “no,” the instant he asserts himself as a person and not property, then the agreement dissolves. Depending on circumstances, he might owe restitution or some penalty for breaching but he cannot be retained as property.

Otherwise stated, without free will a man would cease to be a human being. This means that asking him to transfer his will to another person as property is as metaphysically absurd as asking a dog to become a cat. In Chapter 19 of The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard explained, “[T]here are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body….Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, ‘stuck’ with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will.”

THE LOGIC PROBLEM WITH SLAVE-CONTRACTS

Free will is a prerequisite for the concept of a contract; it is key to what gives the concept of contract its meaning. In his essay “Toward A Reformulation of the Law of Contracts,” Williamson M. Evers observed that individual rights were “founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid.”

A slave-contract violates two defining aspects of what constitutes a contract.

First, the ability to breach. It is a man’s will that binds him to a contract; his will also allow him to honorably breach as long as he makes proper restitution and, perhaps, pays damages. In Chapter 7 of The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard observed, “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.”

To claim he cannot breach a contract is tantamount to arguing that a man who sells his labor has actually sold his entire liberty and not a limited service. In reality, however, all contracts involve a limited service. Why? It is impossible for a man to transfer his free will, which is the basis of his liberty. His free will and liberty remain. Thus all contracts are limited by the right a person to breach and to make restitution if any is required. In asense, a contract is a continuing act of consent with an employee, for example, being able to quit his job at any time and suffer the consequences of doing so. It is akin to someone cashing a Certificate of Deposit in early and paying a penalty.

The second violation of what constitutes a contract is the lack of a transfer of value. A man may agree to transfer his will and, so, agree to become property but that transfer is a practical impossibility. Therefore, there is no transfer of value; there is no valid contract to be enforced.

THE MORAL PROBLEM WITH SLAVE-CONTRACTS

A man’s free will is at the core of what is called his “moral agency” – that is, the ability to act with reference to some standard of right and wrong even if that standard is entirely subjective.

If it were possible for a man to transfer his will to another person, then his moral agency and responsibility for actions would be transferred as well. It makes no sense to call someone a slave with no will of his own and a morally responsible human being at the same time. Thus, in becoming property, the slave would transfer agency to his owner. The owner would be morally and legally responsible for the slave’s actions in much the same way that an owner is responsible for the actions of a dog. For example, if the slave’s negligence led to a charge of manslaughter, then the owner should be the one put on trial, imprisoned or otherwise punished.

Historically, this is not what happened to those who were enslaved. They were held morally and legally responsible for their ‘bad acts’; often, they are severely punished with the owner administering the punishment while receiving none himself. The historical reality is a de facto recognition that free will and moral agency cannot be transferred. This reality illustrates how a slave-contract quickly ceases to make sense even on its own terms.

CONCLUSION

The idea of a slave-contract is what Ayn Rand called “the fallacy of the stolen concept” – the act of using a concept (slave-contract) while denying the validity of other concepts upon which it logically depends and from which it attempts to derive meaning. In short, a slave-contract is a self-refuting idea.

47 Responses to “Can You Sell Yourself Into Slavery?”

  1. Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

    Recently, there has been a spate of hate from BlueHampshire.com, a “Democrat” website, against the Free State Project.

    I was disgusted, but not surprised, at the number of times it’s been asserted that because the FSP proposes to bring together people who want limited govt, then the FSP participants want slavery, racial restrictions, and to force their opinions on everyone.

    Slavery. Really.

    While I appreciate Walter Block’s taking individual liberty to the extremes to test logic and principle, his chapter on “voluntary slavery”, an oxymoron if there ever was one, was likely a bad idea.

    • Hello Bob: I thought Walter’s chapter on enforceable slave contracts was a terrible idea and — although I truly do not enjoy psychologizing — I wondered as I read it whether the chapter sprang from Walter’s delight in shocking people and being contrary…seemingly for the sake of contrariness.

      The sad matter is that Murray has come under rather concerted attack from the left as a closet slave-contract advocate. Ridiculous, of course, especially as his statements in opposition are quite clear. I think it is part and parcel of the left’s drive to paint libertarianism as “white, male privilege” and, so, “racist,sexist, and elitist.” It is balderdash, of course, and I usually handle the racist, slavery digs by pointing out that it was a band of libertarians who formed the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s and were the most effective anti-slavery voices America has ever known. And, yep, I’m talkin’ Wm Lloyd Garrison.

      • DianaNo Gravatar says:

        While I agree with you, Wendy, and also with Bob — I can’t help but consider that voluntary slavery seems to be EXACTLY what these “Blue Hampshirites” are participating in, and demanding everyone else submit to. Could it be that Block’s “voluntary slavery” is the answer to statists, in a stateless society? Don’t they want to be slaves to the state? I’m just sayin’… worth a thought, or two.

      • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

        I agree, Block wrote it as an exercise in “argumentum ad absurdum”, and as such it works very well.

        Sadly, the indoctrinated masses cannot grasp that it is only an argument, not a proposal.

  2. Bryan MortonNo Gravatar says:

    This is why I maintain that property rights are the foundation upon which all other rights rest.

  3. Interesting. Did you happen to catch this, published 2 days ago? http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/but-what-about -voluntary-slaves/

    I think both articles do the debate justice.

    • Thanks for posting this article Skyler. And, no, I was unaware of Clayton’s piece. Indeed, I would not have written my own take on the question if I had read The Voluntaryist Reader because the subject is handled well with no need for me to chirp in. It is interesting that we both cover the same quotes from Murray — but, then, his commentary in Ethics of Liberty *has* pretty much defined a generation’s position on alienation of the will. I am going to drop Clayton a note right now and invite him over here to join the discussion.

  4. cb750No Gravatar says:

    I believe we had a similar debate on your forum with an anarcho egoist who did hold that a person could sell themselves. Of course the body can be sold either in part or in whole but the intellect cannot. If one could sell their intellect then one could sell a sub piece as in sell their love or hate or imagination which clearly is inseparable. The idea of a contract is consent so slavery in itself violates consent. Now one can sell oneself as labor and as long as one performs labor they can receive compensation or must return forwarded compensation in promise of labor. Slavery, by its definition, is NOT a contract and a contract is always a free will agreement.

    I would say another aspect is that slavery is just a bad deal for both parties. Since the intellect cannot vacate the property and intellect it free will, the enslaved will always be a bad purchase since they can always choose to stop working. So one could argue slavery is merely a bad idea.

  5. r3VOLutionRefugeeNo Gravatar says:

    Its sad that we even have to have this argument, although not too surprising. But if I were faced with this argument, I would have to ask how the other person is defining slavery. Are they worried that corporations will trick people in to signing contracts where they are told where to live and what their job will be? Where the employer will dictate the wage, and control their every waking moment, and if you try to quit you’ll go to jail?

    Well, we already have that. Its called military enlistment. But its the government, so the contract is righteous and noble. Obviously you couldn’t have that level of coercion in a free society. What arbitrator would be willing to enforce that contract?

    The other fact of life is that slavery ended once people began to realize that free labor was far more viable than slave labor. What company could possibly survive with the overhead costs necessary to control a labor force of slaves?

  6. PrimeNo Gravatar says:

    A couple questions:

    1. Property is having a superior claim to control over a resource. Saying that you must always own yourself because you cannot give up the ability to directly manipulate the actions of your body sounds a bit fishy to me. Possession is not necessarily enough to have a superior claim to ownership. So why is that the case here?

    2. Granting that ownership of the self is inalienable, does this affect what forms of punishment a victim may pursue? Does this rule out imprisonment, forced labor, and corporal punishment (keeping the proportionality rule in mind)?

    Thanks

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      These are good questions.

      I’m one of the few anarcho-capitalists who doesn’t really believe property exists, only claims. The only things we own are what we can defend. We like to say we own our bodies, but if we can’t defend our bodies, then they aren’t really ours.

      I claim this body as mine. And it is mine so long as I can prevent another from taking it. If another does take my body then I can whine all I want about this body being mine, but it’s a moot point.

      So, if a person “sells” his body and then later reneges, it may very well be moral for the owner to release his slave, but if he doesn’t then the slave is only going to be free again if he can figure a way out of bondage.

      I really think the libertarians have done themselves a disservice by focusing so much on right an wrong. At the end of the day what is right and wrong is totally subjective. It doesn’t matter if a person’s ethics are contradictory and illogical.

      Libertarians would be better suited working towards ends that engage in self-empowerment instead of trying to convince the world what is right and wrong… ’cause that ain’t workin’!

      • Seth…it is not so much the body that I am claiming is inalienable as the will. You can sell parts of your body for organ transplants, for example, but you cannot transfer title to your will. Unlike the liver you’ve auctioned off, you can always “reclaim” your will in total by simply choosing to do so and any so-called buyer is simply out in the cold because he never actually had control or title.

      • MAMNo Gravatar says:

        “The only things we own are what we can defend. We like to say we own our bodies, but if we can’t defend our bodies, then they aren’t really ours. ”

        I was telling my mother today that there are only two types of people predators and prey. Prey rely on the predators to exist by either a) the predator’s good will or b) another predator for protection.

        I think what you’re saying here makes a lot of sense and appeals to me.

        “Libertarians would be better suited working towards ends that engage in self-empowerment instead of trying to convince the world what is right and wrong… ’cause that ain’t workin’!”

        Man I think if I ever meet you we’re gonna agree on alot of things.

        • RagnarNo Gravatar says:

          I don’t think of myself as a predator, I certainly don’t prey on other people. As I type this I have a loaded handgun sitting beside me. I don’t rely on someone else to protect me. I think that indicates there may be a third type. Me.

      • PrimeNo Gravatar says:

        “I’m one of the few anarcho-capitalists who doesn’t really believe property exists, only claims. The only things we own are what we can defend. We like to say we own our bodies, but if we can’t defend our bodies, then they aren’t really ours.”

        I’m not sure how one could conceive of property existing except as a claim…
        But it seems you contradict yourself here. If we must defend our bodies to make them ours – if phyiscal possession is the sole requirement – then ownership is irrelevant. There would be no property, only possession.

        “I really think the libertarians have done themselves a disservice by focusing so much on right an wrong. At the end of the day what is right and wrong is totally subjective.”

        Arguing over what one sees as right or wrong is what makes one a libertarian, an anarchist, a socialist, etc. And the existence of objective ethics is something for which libertarians and objectivists have made a very strong case.

        “’cause that ain’t workin’!”

        Says who?

        • MAMNo Gravatar says:

          Says the fact that the University teaches subjectivism. We don’t have the propaganda machine for that to work yet.

        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          That’s what I’m saying… property doesn’t exist but what we make of it, only possessions.

          The nice thing about libertarians is we generally agree on what is a valid possession of another, or a proper claim that is to be respected. But other people don’t. And it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong at the end of the day, it only matters who possesses something.

          Somebody stole a baseball card from me 20 years ago. At what point do we just accept the fact that it’s not mine anymore?

          Action leads to reaction. If somebody takes something that I feel I legitimately possessed, I have two options. Figure out a way to try and get it back, or kiss it goodbye. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it, except in maybe using that as a rallying cry to get others to help me take it back or something.

          • Are there any in depth explorations of this you could point me to?

            • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

              Not that I’m aware of. These are just my own musings and observations. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the theory behind private property in the market anarchist sense. And that’s exactly what I’m striving for. When I talk to others outside of our community I talk about private property all the time. I sound like a typical Rothbardian.

              But when I’m talking to other anarcho-capitalists I’m more likely to talk strategy. So, basically, to sum it up I think morality is only relevant for moral people. In other words, it makes sense to spread the philosophy to those who want to learn it, but for most people we need another tactic, namely self-empowerment for AnCaps.

              Actually, Stephan Molyneux had a video a while ago where I think he nails it perfectly. He basically said the only people who study ethics are people who are already ethical people by and large. If you’re somebody who cares enough about ethics to STUDY ethics, then you’re NOT really the person who needs to LEARN ethics. It’s the people who REFUSE to learn who are the ones who need to learn ethics.

              It’s a conundrum.

              It’s sort of like trying to have a legitimate debate about the war on drugs with somebody who works for the DEA. They simply aren’t arguing from an impartial standpoint. They’re arguing from evil, so to speak.

              I hate to use a thoroughly statist example of what we should do but I think it gets the point across clearly.

              When the US was at war with the Nazis the US didn’t sit around and try to convince the Nazis to do the right thing. They took a combative stance with them, while on the side rallied their allies.

              I think that’s more or less what AnCaps need to do. On the one hand we need to reach out to those willing to learn the philosophy, but we need to develop a very combative stance to those that are clearly our enemies.

              Technically, yes, some of them can be converted. Just like some Nazis turncoated. But that is the exception, not the rule. We know the diehard statists are not going to go easy. They’re only going to get defeated by superior tactics, not logic and reason.

          • MAMNo Gravatar says:

            I’ve had shit stolen from me in the past. Going to the cops is useless. They ain’t gonna find it.

            If you can track it down you take it back. Me I’ve found some of my stolen shit before. Of course they didn’t want to give it back.

            What do you do? I know what I did.

  7. Tom JNo Gravatar says:

    The principle of property rights partly involves how a possession is acquired, and it can’t come from the initiation of force. The direct possession one has over their body is acquired without initiating the use of force, and that direct possession is impossible to transfer.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      I think in a moral sense, you’re right. Murray Rothbard does a great job of explaining why that is the case. But in a real-world case, it’s total b.s.

      Nobody goes around claiming that the reds still own the geographical area commonly referred to as “America.” It got expropriated largely through force.

      The same goes for Palastine/Israel. Who that land “really belongs to” has been, and will be debated for a long time to come. The truth is it’s a moot point. Israel isn’t giving up shit unless they lose it to a superior force.

      Right and wrong don’t mean jack shit to most people. At the end of the day people are self-centered. If people want to be free and safe and prosperous, they’re going to have to figure out a way to protect themselves, and it won’t be by appealing to the slave-owners’ sense of morality.

      • Tom JNo Gravatar says:

        There were far too few “reds” in the territory of today’s mainland US, for them to be able to possess all of it in a Lockean sense; and their population went down from there and has been around 2 million for over 100 years.

        Wrt Palestine/Israel, outside of the US “who that land ‘really belongs to’” is far from a moot point. “Israel” is a product of western imperialism and can’t survive without it.

        I didn’t mention morality. I don’t see everyone in an ancap society being able to protect their life and property without the cooperation of others and use of the market. And I think it’s necessary to have property assignment rules that apply to everyone, as objective as possible, for that to be possible.

        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          Oh, I agree completely, protection is best served through market forces.

          The point I’m trying to make is that right and wrong is good to a point. If you don’t have a consistent set of moral values or logical philosophy, you’re doomed to banging your head against the wall. However, AFTER you’ve got that moral framework you’ve got to do things to protect your life, liberty, property, and appealing to those in the world who don’t give a shit about your life, liberty, and property(which is most people in the world) is a fool’s errand.

          Sure, there are always going to be people who want to do the right thing, and who want the truth. For those people, by all means reach out and teach them the philosophy of liberty. But for everybody else, we’ve got to figure out a way to protect ourselves from them.

          If your best tactic is to appeal to their sense of morality and/or logic, you’re in deep trouble.

          This is what I mean when I talk about right and wrong. It’s a moot point because when the slave master has you by the balls it’s little consolation that you’re “in the right.”

      • PrimeNo Gravatar says:

        “If people want to be free and safe and prosperous, they’re going to have to figure out a way to protect themselves, and it won’t be by appealing to the slave-owners’ sense of morality.”

        That isn’t entirely true.
        http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/17/world/africa/mauritania-slave-owner -abolitionist/index.html

  8. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    I didn’t read the article Wendy I’ll admit that. But I will say this;

    You can’t sell yourself into slavery because you can’t sell choice.

  9. LairdNo Gravatar says:

    Sorry, but this article is not convincing. “Free will or volition is an inalienable part of man’s nature in the same manner as his reason; it is inherent” is a conclusory statement, not an argument. Plus, it’s a complete non sequitur. If I “own” my body, as liberarians and Objectivists are wont to proclaim, then I have the absolute right to do with it as I wish, including alienating (selling) it. You (and most everyone else) may find the idea morally repugnant, but that’s not an argument, merely an emotional response.

    Claiming that self-slavery would obviate “free will” because one can’t later breach the contract doesn’t work, either. Fee ownership of an item is an essential component of any contract of sale, but once that contact is performed (i.e., the item is delivered and payment received) there is no way it can subsequently be unilaterally “breached; the best you can do is to steal it back, but that’s not “beach”, it’s simple theft. Only executory, continuing or unperformed contracts are capable of being breached; performed ones are not.

    I do agree that free will is inalienable, but only because it is an intangible and its alienation a physical impossibility (at least, under current technology). A physical human body is entirely tangible and, as history has repeatedly proven, eminently susceptible to physical transfer and delivery.

    (Incidentally, the early comments here concerning certain allegtions that FSP’ers favor slavery are completely off-topic, because that relates to involuntary slavery, not at all what we’re discussing here.)

    • Could we look at the will as a permanent “add-on” to the body? You may not wish to sell your will along with your body, but that’s unavoidable (a live body, anyway). Like selling a car without its engine. It can be done, but then you’d have a non-operative body (car).

      Can people buy dead bodies? Then why not live bodies? When they buy a dead body, they can beat it, cut it up, whatever they wish. Why not with a live body? Ostensibly they want to use it to perform tasks, but they may need to inflict pain from time to time to keep it performing.

      Just some thoughts. I’m not committed either way. I’m more interested in the history of such an idea in real life.

  10. Well..in 1000 words or less, a complete case cannot be presented. But it seems to be a self-evidently true statement that the “ownership” of one’s will is not transferrable. Period. You can do what you want with your own body (including suicide) but the will and the moral agency are incapable of being alienated. It is not possible to transfer the title and, so, it is not possible to sell them. Thanks for the comment.

  11. PrimeNo Gravatar says:

    Can people own animals? No one can control an animal’s behavior. A person can exert immense influence on the animal, but the animal’s brain is what directly exercises control over the body.
    Sure, a person’s will is inalienable. Control over another person’s will would be a contradiction in terms, were it even possible, as it would no longer be the original person’s will at all. But does the slave-owner care about the slave’s will? No, he cares about what he can do using the slave’s body (and it has been repeatedly demonstrated that a person’s will can be overcome by the violence and conditioning of another).
    Thus the question of slavery is who has the best claim to rightfully control the body in dispute. And unless there’s some other argument not already presented above explaining why a person’s will must always and forever be the owner of the body to which it is attached, then it seems to me that selling one’s body into slavery is logically and ethically permissible. The slave’s will would be effectively bound to a body which he no longer owns. I don’t know what good a will would be in such a situation, though.

  12. Tom JNo Gravatar says:

    As Hoppe argues, everyone owns their body because they have a unique and direct connection to it: a direct control. That direct control is impossible to relinquish.

    • Tom JNo Gravatar says:

      That post was addressed to Prime.

    • PrimeNo Gravatar says:

      Yes, but so what? The same is true of animals.

      • Tom JNo Gravatar says:

        This is about human to human rights, AFAIC. Animals are not on the same cognitive level as humans and aren’t capitalists.

        • PrimeNo Gravatar says:

          I wasn’t claiming that animals had rights, I was asking why the “direct connection” was of supreme importance. Your brain tells your arm to move and it does. Amazing. You have a central nervous system. Where’s the argument that explains why this biological fact justifies the conclusion that people cannot sell themselves into slavery?

          • macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

            “I wasn’t claiming that animals had rights, I was asking why the “direct connection” was of supreme importance.?”

            Perhaps it’s the direct connection in relation to man’s higher cognitive and rational faculties that is important. The importance of the direct connection itself is that the will cannot be separated from the body.

  13. assasin7No Gravatar says:

    Also debt slavery where you must work or be killed for debt.

  14. There is a third common case: Debt slavery. It is probable that this constituted the majority of slavery. Someone contracted to pay a debt, was unable to pay it, got sold into slavery.

    Where we have accurate knowledge of how people came to be enslaved (which biases our information towards the minority of places where there was literacy and order) this was the major form of enslavement. That war and kidnapping was the majority form of enslavement is a plausible guess, but we do not actually have concrete evidence on this, since such enslavement is obscured by the fog of war.

    This seems to me to self evidently just, and also an efficient means of removing those incompetent to make decisions from society and placing them under competent supervision.

    If welfare is abolished, I think we will have to re-introduce debt slavery, at least for some debts, typically debts incurred as fines for the kind of crimes committed by vagrants.

    • macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

      I’ve got a better idea. Perhaps without debt slavery, creditors will be more careful about who they give credit out to in the first place, and thus minimize the debts that the incompetent can rack up. That makes more sense to me than debt slavery, as it would provide the incentives for people to conform to certain standards and norms and encourage responsibility over irresponsibility.

      After all, don’t forget that a lot of problems are caused by government guaranteeing debts in various forms, student loans, FDIC, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, bank bail-outs, etc.

  15. macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve long been aware of and agreed with Rothbard’s idea of the inalienation of will, but I hadn’t really thought through its implications for contracts in general. Good job.

  16. Alan LindsayNo Gravatar says:

    Considering the source and the topic, the first sentence was sufficient answer for me.

  17. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    Historically speaking, there were indeed some societies that allowed a person to sell him/herself into slavery, usually as a way to help their relatives with their poverty. Aztecs, to name just one, had such right. Aztec self-sold slaves were even granted the right to spend some time to enjoy the money they had earned, maximum one year, before submitting their will to their masters and entering their household. They were granted the right to have their own money, could buy themselves out of slavery as well, and couldn’t be sacrificed to a god unless they had tried to escape at least 7 times.
    By the way, should anyone else but the master try to stop a slave from attempting an escape, they could become slaves themselves! Only the master had such a right. And if they entered the temple of a specific goddess with human excrement in one of their feet and touched the altar, they were free.

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