Monday, May 16, 2011

Libertarians and "Slavery"

Rand Paul and his father Ron have both been in the news lately for arguing that democratic government is (or can lead to) slavery. Here is Rand, speaking in a Senate subcommittee meeting on health care:
With regard to the idea whether or not you have a right to health care you have to realize what that implies. I am a physician. You have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. You are going to enslave not only me but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants, the nurses. … You are basically saying you believe in slavery.
Ron's argument was a little more nuanced. What he said was, first, that Social Security and Medicare are un-Constitutional, and then, when it was pointed out that the courts have consistently ruled for decades that they are constitutional, he responded, "And the Constitution and the courts said slavery was legal to, and we had to reverse that." So while he did not say that Social Security is slavery, he certainly put it in the category of very bad things we ought to oppose because they limit freedom.

Libertarians are highly prone to this sort of nonsensical thinking. The error is in extending political arguments to their logical extreme instead of looking around you to see what the world is like. Slavery, the argument goes, consists in the theft of another person's labor, so when you tax me without my consent, you are stealing my labor and therefore enslaving me. If you pass a law that says doctors must accept a certain level of payment for their services -- Medicare and Medicaid both do this -- you are stealing their labor and therefore enslaving them. It is hard to refute this thinking logically.

But look around you! Do American doctors look like slaves to you? Do they feel like slaves?

The notion that the status of wealthy doctors in contemporary America is somehow like the status of slaves is crazy -- except, of course, in the ways that all humans are pretty much the same, and to which politics are irrelevant. This tells you that slavery is not just the theft of someone else's labor, or else that taxation and regulation are not theft. (Or both, which I believe.) The reality is that we are all vastly more wealthy than we would be otherwise because we live in the modern world. Only part, and a very small part, of the money we earn comes from our own labor; the rest comes from our participation in the modern economy. The modern world depends on a vast infrastructure of technology, law, bureaucracy, and so on, that we could not create on our own and that could not exist without a certain level of coercion. Taxation does not make us poorer; big government is a key part of the modern way of life, and that modern way makes us richer.

Democratic government, likewise, has certain very high costs associated with it. But no other system has anything like the same record of delivering wealth and stability. Things like old age pensions and health care for poor people are part of what we do to keep the social peace and make our society a nice one to live in. They cost a lot, but without them we would live in a much more divided, violent, ugly, and nasty world.

You may feel that the bargain is not worth it, and that we would be better off trading wealth for freedom and living in a more anarchical society. Fine -- go park your trailer in the desert somewhere. But don't tell me that a modern person who has to pay taxes is anything like a slave.


Unknown said...

I would say two things: first, that slavery is not the theft of another person's labor. Slavery is best described as a state of dishonor so pervasive that it is equivalent to social death (I think this is Orlando Patterson's phrase). A slave has no status as a legal person: their testimony is valueless, they cannot contract marriage, they cannot in law have any children of their own. In some societies, a slave's owner, not the slave, is subject to punishment for crime, because slaves are so much nonpersons that they cannot even commit crimes.

Second, it's worth remembering that there's a long Anglo-American history of using the term "slavery" to describe things that are very far from slavery when defined in this way (which I happen to think is the correct way). The colonists thought that having the salaries of colonial officials be paid by the English government was a form of slavery. The Secessionists of 1860 thought that being unable to practice black enslavement in US territories would itself be a form of slavery.

John said...

True, the Pauls are operating in an old American tradition.

We have lots of old, stupid traditions.

I didn't try to offer a definition of slavery so as not to get sidetracked, but yours is a good one, and it goes a long way toward refuting the Libertarian canard that taxation is slavery.