All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1955

Why Is Slavery Possible?

Mr. Read is president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

It is easy enough to see how a man who has once known freedom might be forced—against his will and despite his struggles—into captivity. It is no puzzle, for example, to understand how a man could be forced—at gunpoint—into a Siberian salt mine.

But what is the explanation when freedom declines among men who had known its blessings and yet put up no scrap to stay free? Why the lethargy all about us while American citizens submit to one control after another? Where are the scrappers—the defenders of individuality who might forestall this trend toward slavery? Surely, slavery could never succeed in the face of determined and continuing resistance.

For example, there wouldn’t be a tiger in any zoo were the tiger to remain as ferocious as when first captured. Man simply would not put up with such a beast. The caged tiger, however, does not retain his ferocity. The wild beast soon becomes docile and as grateful for its food and other attentions as a house cat.

Why? The tiger was at liberty in its native habitat, had experienced freedom, but ferocity attends only the initial stages of captivity. Docility comes quickly and certainly with imprisonment. Could the reason be that the tiger has no understanding of the distinctions between liberty and serfdom? Knows no definitions? If the tiger has no knowledge or awareness of his liberty, he cannot remember a knowledge he has never possessed. His cage becomes the only habitat he knows, and he eats and sleeps, contentedly.

There never would have been any Negro slavery in America had the Negroes remained as intractable as when first taken in hand by the slave traders. They rebelled at first but soon became docile. They, too, had been at liberty in their African habitat. However, they were primitive men. They lacked the power of articulate expression in the field of ideas. They were not in possession of definitions and the distinctions between freedom and slavery. They lacked awareness; nor could they remember that which had never been known to them. They soon accepted as normal the slavery which became their lot. They had nothing but the normalcy of their slavery to serve them as a point of reference.

Symbolic of the modern trend toward serfdom is the imposition of progressive taxation, especially the income tax. The Sixteenth Amendment would not be on our statute books had any substantial number of Americans foreseen its consequences.

In this instance of a growing serfdom or, conversely, a loss in freedom of choice, there was no abrupt change to arouse resistance. These progressive taxes were imposed ever so gradually. Hardly anyone noticed the “take” at first. Americans adopted the principle of progressive taxation because they did not understand it. They did not realize that this was a denial of the concept of equal treatment under the laws and a displacement of the methods of voluntary exchange with a government-enforced policy “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Further proof that there was but little understanding of the liberty that was forsworn and the intervention that was accepted is the fact that as the “take” has increased over the years, there has been no rebellion, even on the part of those on whom the “bite” has been the greatest. Each succeeding increase is only a new normalcy greeted with the docility and indifference of the imprisoned tiger and the enslaved Negro. And, in my view, the reasons are the same: No understanding of the definitions and the sharp distinctions between liberty and serfdom.

It is self-evident that tigers will never be freed from zoos by any doing of their own.

It is a historical fact that slavery was not abolished in America by any rebellion on the part of the Negroes.

It is equally plain that present-day Americans who have accepted or are indifferent to the growing encroachments of the state cannot be expected to rescue themselves.

Intellectual rebellion is not made of indifference or docility. It is made of sterner stuff. It has its roots in an understanding that liberty is the freedom to do as one pleases creatively; that restraint has no place except against destructive, predatory activity; that serfdom restrains creative action. It displaces self-control with control of self by others. To deprive a person of self-control leaves him little incentive to indulge in constructive or creative thought. Without the desire, one soon loses the capacity for self-control.

A person who understands these distinctions, even though he be in prison or in the salt mines at the point of a gun, cannot be called a serf. All that can be properly said of him is, “There is a free man restrained.”

Free men, defined as those who understand these distinctions, are the only ones who can rescue the indifferent and the docile from a growing serfdom. The burden is on them and them alone. The burden cannot be shared by anyone who is unaware.

Awareness of the difference between slavery and liberty is the individual’s only defense against enslavement. Therefore, it is tremendously important to preserve the ideals of self-control, reflected in the concepts of personal choice, private property, freedom of exchange, and government limited to the defense of these rights of the individual. To lose awareness of these ideals makes slavery possible, without a struggle. It is passive surrender of the only reason, if not the only chance, for life. []

Why Do Men Fear Freedom?

The root of the matter is man’s unwillingness to accept the concomitant of freedom, which is responsibility.

HARDIN CRAIG. “Freedom and Renaissance”

It may seem strange that the slave, totally lacking in liberty, frequently feels no strong resentment toward the master who has enslaved him. In fact, the slave may even feel grateful toward his master who “so kindly gives me food and necessities with which to live, and without which I would surely die.” It is said that many a newly-freed slave after the War Between the States feared liberty because, due to the narrow vision of his experience as a slave, he acquired this strange feeling of kindness toward his oppressor. A similar feeling is reported to have been held by the oppressed in Hitler’s Germany, and in Stalin’s Russia; and we have noted the same feeling among those who have acquired the habit of leaning on a benevolent government in our own country. All these victims of a lost liberty are unmindful of the fruits of liberty, due to the blindness which compulsory or voluntary slavery has caused. “Forgive them, for they know not . . .” but let them become free so that they may know!


Extract from “Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery” by F. A. HARPER,
Foundation for Economic Education,
Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y. Paper-bound $1.00

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”