Abolishing Slavery

August 4, 2010

by Patrick Samuels, author of: “Memories of a Former American”

There is no question that my favorite founding father is Thomas Jefferson. The man was absolutely brilliant. His ideas on very limited government, absolute personal freedom, the necessity of morality, his low view of politicians and many other things comprise the essence of the American Experiment. Was he always consistent? No. Certainly the Louisiana Purchase was far beyond the bounds of executive power as he understood it. The most glaring inconsistency, however, was one he shared with several other early patriots-he was a slave owner.

The idea that “all men are created equal” and the institution of slavery are incompatible. Jefferson, along with several other slave owning patriots, believed it was wrong and should be abolished. Yet he never freed his own slaves. I am not going to excuse his actions but I have recently come to understand them in a new way. The key to comprehending it is to view it as an institution whose benefits were such that those who profited from it could not conceive of life without it. While there were those who thought the black man inferior, perhaps little more than a beast of burden, most knew better; Jefferson certainly did. To them, slaves were two things. They were an economic necessity and a “perk” of wealth.

Slaves performed two basic functions. There were the “house slaves” who did the cooking and the cleaning and all the other things around the plantation that made life so easy for the owners. I’m sure it was real nice to have someone else do all the “dirty work” Then there were the slaves who worked the fields. Tobacco and cotton are very labor intensive crops and represented much of the wealth of the “New World.” If workers actually had to be paid to work, the planters didn’t believe they could turn as great a profit. The success of the plantation was the success of the colony and later the state and country. Morally, many believed it wrong but the benefits outweighed the practical application of those personal beliefs.

Before we condemn their hypocrisy, we must remember that those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. A working definition of slavery is when the results of the labor of the individual belongs to someone else. When a slave worked the fields, the product of that effort went to the plantation owner and the slave received merely an “allowance” to live on. If the slave was freed, however, as an individual he would be able to trade his labor for something of equal value and then dispose of his earnings as he saw fit. That is the essence of economic freedom; the ability acquire and dispose of material property as we see fit after we have traded our skill or labor for something of value. The one who earns it is the one who owns it and it belongs only to him. That is economic liberty and the opposite of slavery.

Our society no longer operates under a system of economic liberty. We live under a system of collectivism in which all property is owned by the society as a whole, the collective, the state. Call it socialism, call it communism, but don’t call it capitalism. Consider all your significant property. You don’t own your house even if the mortgage is paid. If you don’t pay your property taxes, your house reverts to the ownership of the state. You merely rent it. You only have use of your car at the behest of the state. If you don’t pay the necessary fees, that car cannot leave the driveway. The paycheck your receive is the property of the state first and after they have “deducted” their portion, your receive your allowance. The harder you work, the smaller, percentage wise, is your allowance. Even your allowance is spent according to the dictates of the “master”. He now requires you to buy health insurance and scolds or prohibits you from buying things he deems dangerous or risky. You have little privacy as all medical records and financial transactions are now at his fingertips. We have been fooled into thinking we are free because we have a thousand channels on our televisions and a hundred different cell phone plans; just bread and circuses. How different are we than the black slave working at Jefferson’s Monticello? He lived in a hut not his own, couldn’t travel without permission, ate what he was told, was dependent on his master for any health care and until he died, never received anything close to the value of his labor.

Today, our masters are not the aristocracy, the plantation owners, the rich. In our republic, our masters are the mob and the politicians who manipulate them for power. One of the greatest fears of the founders was democracy because they believed, and rightly so, that the mob would eventually trample the rights of the minority. In one of the great ironies of history, the “rich” are now the slaves of the poor. I’m not talking about the rich like the Kennedys or John Kerry, those who are part of the ruling class. I’m talking about every man or woman who makes a decent living by working hard providing a product or service to their fellow man. They work to provide retirement income for those who are too obtuse or lazy to provide it for themselves. They provide health care for those who can’t or won’t provide it for themselves or make bad decisions about their health. They provide food and shelter for those who will not work or have made lousy choices in life. The product of their hard work is forcibly taken from them for someone else’s benefit, the simple definition of slavery.

Our slavery, just like that of Jefferson’s time, is institutional. Those that benefit from it cannot conceive of living without it. Every person who receives a Social Security check, government health care, food stamps, a housing benefit or is the recipient of any other form of government largess does so because the government has forced someone who works hard to relinquish the fruits of that labor. For those who wonder why slavery wasn’t just abolished in one fell swoop, consider the ramifications of abolishing our own slavery. Those who have become dependent on the labor of others, what would they do if those checks stopped coming in the mail? How would they live? How would their basic needs be met? Are they so different from the plantation owners? This in no way excuses the slavery of Jefferson for any immoral action, once recognized, should be immediately corrected. But for anyone who receives benefits as the result of someone else’s hard work, it certainly puts it in a new light.

Our institution of slavery is also a bit more complicated than it was in Jefferson’s time. There were politics involved then, slavery was “legal” and supported by the state just as it is now. However, the slaves and the masters were a rather monolithic groups. Today, the greatest beneficiaries of our system of slavery are those in the political class. To ensure their continually growing power they divide all of us into groups based on race, economic situation, geography, sexual orientation or any other classification they can conceive of and then they spend their time convincing each individual group they deserve the wealth of some other group. By doing so they convince a majority, the mob, that they are worthy of the hard work of others. Of course the political class presents itself as the only ones wise enough to manage such a massive redistribution, cementing their power, ensuring their wealth and becoming the true “masters” of all.

Our problem is the same as it was in Jefferson’s time. It is the master, the beneficiary, who must voluntarily give up the benefits of slavery in order for it to be abolished. That meant that the “masters”, men and women who had been brought up to believe that slavery was acceptable and normal, that they the had right to benefit from the uncompensated labor of others, that those who provided for them were somehow inferior, had to reject that paradigm and embrace a new one, not just ideologically but practically. Today, the recipients of the forced labor of others have the same mindset. They “deserve” what they can force from others and the “rich” are morally inferior and should be forced to give up what they have. They need to change their whole way of thinking and they also must figure out how to provide things for themselves. As if that task of “reeducation” weren’t daunting enough, consider the political changes that will be necessary. Politics today is based on redistribution for the acquisition of political power. The whole point of government in the minds of most, rulers and the ruled, is to meet the needs of the citizens. To change that we need politicians who aren’t going to base campaigns on “bringing home the bacon” and an electorate that doesn’t expect it. Just consider the difficulty in changing the mind of one beneficiary and then getting them to actually change their behavior. Now multiply that by the millions necessary to bring about the real political and societal changes that will release the slaves from their bondage. It is a very difficult thing and it took a war to force the masters of Jefferson’s time to give up their privileged position. It is likely some catastrophe will also be necessary to abolish the forced servitude of our time.