Recently Senator Rand Paul argued that wanting universal health care was a form of slavery. And his father, Ron Paul, similarly argued that Social Security and Welfare are also forms of slavery. Ron Paul also argued, on Hardball with Chris Mathews, that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because the Act, by making it illegal to refuse to serve people based on race, violated property rights and imposed a kind of slavery on store owners. Paul’s argument claimed that racism was caused “by laws” and that laws were the problem, not racism. He suggested that segregation was “ancient history” and since it had itself been “created by laws” it would not return if there were no laws to create it. In all these analyses, any form of compulsion whatsoever equals slavery.
It’s an absurd and intellectually sloppy argument: traffic laws aren’t slavery, and neither is taxation, even without representation. So why does slavery show up so often in libertarian political rhetoric?
The “classical liberal” notion of freedom, the notion advanced by Locke and Jefferson, was founded in the presence of slavery or other forms of legal “unfreedom” like indentured servitude. Those societies that best articulated a notion of freedom, like the British in the 1700, had lots of slaves and were heavily involved in the slave trade. It’s not surprising: “freedom” was very easy for Jefferson to understand, because he had so many slaves. He looked outside, and he understood right away what “freedom” meant and why it was good to have. The slaves’ un-freedom gave his freedom meaning. When slavery was around, everybody knew what “freedom” meant because, well, SLAVERY was slavery, and freedom was “not being a slave.” It wasn’t capital gains taxes, or seatbelt laws, or social security.
But the founding fathers, when they wrote about England, were not unlike Ron Paul, in that they referred constantly to how England wanted to “enslave” the colonies, to make slaves of the colonists themselves. Slavery and freedom were linked in their minds: they were trying to articulate a new notion of politics, and the only way freedom made sense was in the context of its opposite, slavery. The English found this completely puzzling, because the colonies were pretty lightly governed, as these things go. The famous quote about this comes from Samuel Johnson. “How is it,” Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudesty for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” It’s because the drivers of negroes, by depriving people of their freedom, derived a keen understanding of what the word meant. That, and perhaps a sense of guilt.
But when we abolished slavery the meaning of “freedom” became entirely unclear. Its opposite was gone. It’s as if the color “black” was abolished: how would we now understand the color “white?” Freedom is much harder to define after 1865: what does it mean without slavery? I know what I prefer—the capacity to speak my mind, a certain amount of property rights, protection from violence—but if you ask me to define “freedom” it’s going to be a challenge. Freedom obviously can’t mean “the right to do whatever you want,” since that impinges on the freedom of others, and it can’t simply mean “the possession of property,” since property could be gained by violent means. The laws which secure my rights (or if you like, my freedoms) are also constraints–they require the paying of taxes and a degree of obedience to authority. Lots of people now equate freedom with choice, imagining something like “I’m free because the market gives me 100 different choices of breakfast cereal.” This is clearly not quite what Jefferson had in mind, and of course you might have 100 different kinds of breakfast cereal but little or no choice about the kinds of work you might have to do to earn a living and little meaningful political choice. “Freedom” is hard to define in the absence of slavery.
Libertarians always refer back to the age of “classical liberalism,” the age of Jefferson and Locke. This is not coincidentally also the age of racial slavery: slavery gave meaning to freedom, while racial slavery legitimated a notion of natural rights founded in biological difference. Racial slavery wasn’t a regrettable accident: it was crucial to the formation of ideas about liberty and freedom. It was the opposite that gave those ideas meaning.
Because the end of actual slavery destabilized the notion of freedom, modern libertarians have to keep finding new forms of “slavery” to keep their world view sensible. The most obvious case, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, substitutes the European word “serf” for the word “slave,” but again his notion of freedom depends on an opposite which, at the time he wrote, no longer existed. And while his suspicion of centralized planning is reasonable in and of itself, it’s absurd to suggest that, say, Scandinavians, who are heavily taxed in a strongly socialized economy, are “serfs.” You have to forget the original meaning of the words to equate national health care plans with either slavery or serfdom.
But this is precisely where we stand: libertarians come up with nonsense like “dependence on government equals slavery” or “taxation equals slavery” or “desire for health care equals slavery.” If we don’t stop Medicare, Ronald Reagan declared in 1964, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.“It seems to me that what’s at stake here is not fear of slavery, but anxiety about the vagueness of the word “freedom.” And so ironically, a yearning for slavery, so that freedom can be argued for more vehemently.
Regular readers of this blog will notice a lot of hostility to libertarianism. It’s the kind of hostility that comes from sympathy. The libertarian critique of institutions seems reasonable to me: so does the libertarian critique of the authority in general. But like a lot of people influenced by Foucault, I can’t buy either the libertarian obsession with “freedom” or the determination to have “markets” exist like some natural force. “Freedom” strikes me as an idea that depends on its opposite, and has to constantly re-invent that opposite when it’s not around. In that sense, the libertarian notion of freedom is constantly looking for slavery.
UPDATE: My colleague Rosemarie Zagarri writes, in the comments: “18thc British definitions of freedom–or liberty, as Britons might prefer to call it–were developed to counter the power of the British monarch, not with reference to racial slavery. Since Parliament secured the people’s liberties against the Crown, it was IMPOSSIBLE to conceive of a representative government as being oppressive.”