All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1996

Why Not Slavery?

Heavy Taxation Should Be Understood as Partial Slavery

Bertel M. Sparks (1918-1994) was a professor of law at New York University and later at Duke University, and a trustee of the Foundation for Economic Education. This previously unpublished article was originally prepared as a speech for a FEE summer seminar.

Upon first impression, it might appear a bit ridiculous even to ask the question, “Why not slavery?” At least if anyone anywhere in the Western world should seriously suggest the legalization of slavery, it is doubtful if he would get much of a hearing. Rather than creating any kind of stir, he would probably succeed in nothing more than making himself look like some sort of nut. I assure you that I have no intention of offering any such suggestion.

At the same time, I do propose to talk about slavery. In doing so I hope to talk about slavery in its ordinary and usual sense without attempting to give the term any indirect, obtuse, or unique meaning. And as I understand the term, it means a system or institution that permits some person or persons to hold some other person or persons in bondage to such an extent that the work and labor of the person being held is subject to the control of the person doing the holding. Under that system the person being held has no right to abandon the master or to reject the work or labor that is being demanded of him.

Slavery then is a political and economic system that permits one human being to own another human being in the literal and absolute sense. The slave is the property of the master. Slavery was abolished a long time ago, at least in the Western world. And in this age that seems to be blessed (or cursed) with more conflicting ideologies than people, and when almost any doctrine or teaching can be heard from some housetop somewhere, no one can be found who is openly proclaiming slavery as a desirable way of life. And I assure you that I have no intention of suggesting any movement in that direction.

In that case, why should we spend our time discussing an issue upon which there seems to be such unanimous agreement? My reason is simply this: When everyone is agreed that a thing is wrong, there is a tendency to forget why it is wrong. And when the reason for a wrong is forgotten, there arises the danger that the wrong itself might reappear and receive a warm reception from the very people who are most convinced that they have long since rejected it. Wrongs that are understood are rarely, if ever, accepted by human beings. But when the wrong is wrapped in a sufficiently attractive package, attention tends to drift toward the beauty and glamor of the package, the understanding falters, and the wrong itself is unwittingly accepted as a model of righteousness. Maybe we all agree that slavery is wrong, but how many of us can articulate a good reason why it is wrong? Why shouldn’t people be permitted to own people? Why should there be a law against it?

Slavery is such an ancient practice that the exact circumstances, time, or place of its beginnings cannot be determined with complete certainty. But all indications are that it began as a humanitarian measure. There was a time in the ancient world when the customary way for ending wars was to slay your enemies. That meant the slaughter of whole tribes, cities, or nations. Eventually primitive man conceived the idea that it would be more humane, as well as more profitable, to capture the enemy and make him a slave rather than kill him. In that era when it was a choice between becoming a slave or having your head prematurely removed (and possibly boiled for dinner), slavery did have its attractions and even some humanitarian aspects. But it is doubtful if any degree of humanitarianism or the lack thereof will ever be sufficient to either justify or condemn slavery. Something more fundamental is needed to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why not slavery?”

That something more is well expressed in John Locke’s declaration of the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property; or as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That simple, three-point statement is probably the most concise and yet the most complete statement of the fundamental human rights ever written. Although it has not been often used in connection with the slavery argument, its application is sufficient to make slavery impossible. And whether you prefer Locke’s or Jefferson’s version makes no difference. I hope to illustrate that point in just a moment.

The Right to One’s Own Person

The right to life means the right to one’s own person. It is a right not to have one’s own body interfered with. And if everyone has a right to his or her own person, then no one can have a right to control, own, or interfere with the life, the existence, or the personality of any other person.

The right to life includes the liberty to use that life in the manner most pleasing to the individual concerned. And if everyone is free to use his life as he sees fit, he is free to pursue whatever calling or employment he chooses, and to advance as far in that calling or employment as his abilities and inclinations permit. He may use his life foolishly or wisely; but since it is his life, the choice is his. That is but another way of saying that no one has a right to dictate or control the manner in which any other person uses or neglects to use his own life. This is the meaning of the word liberty as used in the Locke-Jefferson trilogy. It is also a demonstration of how the right to liberty is an inevitable consequence of the right to life. If one has a right to life, he must have a right to use that life as he sees fit. He has a right to liberty.

And if each individual has a right to choose how he will use his life, it would seem to follow that he also has a right to the fruit of that choice. The fruit of that choice means the product of one’s own work and labor. It is what Locke described by the word property and what Jefferson identified as the pursuit of happiness. Different individuals make different choices. They also have differing abilities. Although using different words, both Locke and Jefferson declared that every individual is entitled to the fruit of his own choices. And if each one has a right to the product of his own life as that life is lived in accordance with the choices which he alone is entitled to make, it necessarily follows that no one has any right to the product of someone else’s efforts.

Thus it is that if every individual is possessed of an unalienable right to life, liberty, and property (or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you prefer) slavery cannot exist. Its existence is impossible because where everyone has a right to run his own life, no one can be left free to run the life of another.

The abolitionists tended to center their attention upon the cruelty toward or the living conditions of the slaves. Much was heard of the cruelty illustrated by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the inhumanity involved in the frequent division of families in the slave markets and the substandard living conditions of the slaves. The defenders of slavery usually answered these arguments with claims that personal cruelty toward an individual slave was a rare thing and that the forced division of families was almost unheard of. They also alleged that the living conditions of the slaves on the plantations were superior to the living conditions of the free workers in the industrial centers of the growing nation.

No doubt there was at least some measure of truth on each side of the debate. But what of it? Suppose it could have been shown as a demonstrable fact that slaves were actually well treated and that their living standards were superior to those of a majority of the free workers employed in the factories of the country. Would that fact, if it had been a fact, have justified slavery? I would say not.

The Privilege to Walk Away

The real evil of slavery is that it places the slave’s productive capacity as well as the expression of his desires in the hands of someone other than himself. It deprives him of any choice as to what work he shall do or what disposition shall be made of the fruit of his work after he has done it. The extent of his misery might be open to question at any particular time or place. But the thing that makes him a slave and the thing that makes his status wrong is that he is bound to a situation where he is legally bound to stay. He cannot voluntarily walk away and take his chances as to whether the thing he walks away to is better or worse than the thing he is leaving.

It is that privilege to walk away, the privilege of making one’s own choices, that makes a person free. The thing that makes slavery wrong is that it deprives the slave of the privilege of deciding for himself what it is that will make him happy. His decisions are made by someone else. And whether that someone else is a private master whose authority is approved and enforced by law or a government bureaucrat who is acting as an arm of the law makes little difference. No one is free unless he is free to make his own choices as to what pleases him.

Even if the slave is provided all the material well-being he can use, he is less than a whole person if his work and labor are being coerced into channels that are not of his own choosing. The Locke-Jefferson doctrine would declare that each individual has an inherent right to make his own choices, not because any government or any earthly power gave him that right, but because he is a human being. And according to Jefferson, that right is an unalienable right. It cannot be taken from him nor can he divest himself of it even by his own voluntary act. When slavery is understood as a deprivation of the right to the productive capacity of one’s own body, its appearances in its various disguised forms become harder to conceal.

The building of the ancient pyramids of Egypt was one of the major engineering and technological feats of the ancient world. Although the magnitude of the task was sufficient to impose almost impossible demands even upon modern-day machinery and engineering methods, it was accomplished without any tools except those of a most primitive sort and without any power except human power. The entire work was performed by human labor. The largest of the pyramids is the one known to us as the Great Pyramid. It is estimated that the building of that one alone consumed the labor of 100,000 workers for 20 years. And it appears that most, if not all, of these workers were slaves.

The cinematic productions of Cecil B. De Mille have made most of us intensely aware of the cruelty of Egyptian slavery. Some of us still shrink back in horror as we remember what we saw on the screen years ago. But suppose the Egyptian pharaohs had not used slave labor. Suppose the workers had been left free to seek their own employment and to follow whatever work, trade, or craft they chose. If the pharaohs had then seized the workers’ wages through taxation and used that revenue to hire other workers to build the pyramids, would the people whose incomes were being seized be in any better position than they were as slaves? If our attention is centered upon the inhumanity of the lashings that were applied to slaves when they failed to meet their production quotas, we might tend to believe the free workers whose substance was being taken were in the more favored position. But if our attention is centered upon the failure of the worker to have any choice as to how the product of his labor is to be used, we will see little difference between the two situations. In either event the worker is being deprived of any choice as to how his productive capacity will be used.

Suppose the tax rate had been fixed at 100 percent and extended to include the incomes of workers being employed to build the pyramids as well as others. Under that arrangement the pharaoh could have returned to each worker what the pharaoh determined was sufficient for minimum food, clothing, and housing needs, and retained any excess over that amount to buy materials for the pyramids and to otherwise enhance the royal treasury. By bringing everyone into the system, it could have been used to administer equality of treatment, a doctrine that usually meets with popular approval. But a freedom to work at an occupation of one’s own choosing is an empty freedom if the worker loses control of the product of his work. Another difficulty in such a system is that if the fruits of one’s work are not his, it is unlikely that there will be much work performed. The usual motive for working is to improve one’s own well-being. And the worker might lose interest in the proceedings if it is predetermined that his well-being must consist of his delight in having a beautiful tomb for his ruling monarch.

If all this sounds too artificial or unreal, it might be helpful to look at another country. Let it be an enlightened country where the rulers, whether hereditary monarchs or popularly elected legislators and executives, have lost interest in building impressive tombs for themselves or their families. They prefer to make experimental ventures into outer space. Maybe they want to send a manned spacecraft to the moon or to some distant planet. It might be desirable for some of these fellows to go to the moon. The problem is one of finance. Who is going to pay for the trip? The fellows wanting to sponsor the trip do not have sufficient funds for the job. They do have the power to compel the workers of the country to contribute to the project whether the workers want it or not. The exercise of that power bears remarkable similarity to the using of forced labor to build a pyramid. In both cases the work and labor of the inhabitants of the country are being seized against their wills.

Some may like to distinguish the two cases by insisting that in the space project each worker approved of the expenditure by supporting the government that sponsored it. But it is also quite likely that the Egyptian was giving loyal support to his government even though he was not voting in popular elections. If that is the case, some better basis for distinction will have to be found unless the two projects are to be considered on the same basis.

Unalienable Rights

It would be dangerous to distinguish the two cases on the basis of the different types of government involved anyway. If the popular election theory is used, it would mean that any sort of tyranny against a minority is all right if it is approved by the majority. The application of that theory would amount to a restoration of the same principle that was involved in the divine-right-of-kings doctrine in its most absolute and authoritarian form. The only difference would be that the ruling authority would be the majority of the citizens rather than a hereditary monarch. But both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States take the position that there can be no such absolute authority in a free society regardless of who is chosen to exercise that authority. The Declaration of Independence declares that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable. The private citizen cannot divest himself of these rights even if he tries to do so. And if the right to life includes the right to one’s own body, it necessarily includes a right to the product that is produced by that body. It includes the time and the work of that body.

Although the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be given by any government, the experience of our imperfect humanity has taught us that governments are needed to protect those rights. Since the rights themselves are inherent parts of the human creation, each human being is endowed with a natural right to defend himself. But if each individual must provide his own self-defense, he will have little time for anything else. Government then becomes a kind of organized self-defense. As soon as a government assumes the role of providing that organized self-defense, it begins to collect taxes to support itself. To that extent, the government is using force to take a part of the substance created by the work and labor of the individual taxpayers. To that extent, the individuals are becoming slaves. Therein lies the reason why no people can remain free unless their government remains a limited government. And unless those limits are wisely defined and clearly understood, the government is in a position to use its taxing power to establish total slavery.


The question is one of determining who is entitled to dominion over the things being produced on the earth. And unless that dominion is left in the hands of the producer, the one who provided the time, the investment, and the other factors that went into the product, the producer is being denied the right to his own body, his own life. In essence, he becomes a slave. And whether the product seized is used to build a pyramid, finance a trip to the moon, or build a monument to a deceased head of state makes no difference.

Unless partial slavery in the form of heavy taxation is understood as partial slavery, there is always a danger of its growing into total slavery.

Current estimates show that at least one-third of the wealth being produced in the United States each year is going to the tax collector. The trend is up, not down.

Does the remedy lie in setting a limit on the purposes for which taxes can be used? The answer lies in the function of government itself. If, as we have seen, government is a kind of organized self-defense, made necessary because of our imperfect humanity’s attempts to rob each other of our inherent right to life, liberty, and our own property, is any action on the part of government beyond self-defense justified?

How much farther can we go into commonly accepted areas of state activity before leaving self-defense? Is the education of either children or adults a part of this collective protection? Is it a legitimate purpose of government to gather taxes to provide medical services for all citizens, no matter how desirable that medical care might be? What about feeding and clothing less productive citizens at the expense of the more productive members of the society? Is the forced funding of a national retirement system, euphemistically called social security, necessary to insure domestic tranquility? Can any of these be defended as authentic activities of government?

If the function of government is to feed, clothe, house, and educate all citizens, and to pay for all of it by a redistribution of income in the form of taxation levied on the more productive persons, then we can discuss how this should be done. We can argue endlessly in town meetings and in the halls of Congress over trimming costs here and adding services there, cutting this benefit in order to increase some other entitlement. And we can finally reach some uneasy compromise by which those resourceful members of the society who are forced to pay the taxes—become partially enslaved—will not become completely discouraged and quit producing. The enslavement and anger of producers must be balanced against continuation of services to other members of the society who might become outraged if services were curtailed. An angry, divided society is the inevitable outcome. We see it developing all around us.

If, however, the only function of government is to maintain an orderly society where citizens can go about activities of their choice unmolested, the considerations that appear so urgent under an income-redistribution system become moot. Businessmen and women can direct resources toward improving their businesses, incidentally creating more jobs, rather than diverting resources to activities aimed at fending off a government bent on enslaving them. The legendary generosity and compassion of Americans toward the fellow down on his luck would re-emerge when private charities no longer had to compete with forced bureaucratic largess.

Why not slavery? The most reliable method for keeping ourselves out of slavery is to demand a government that protects us from each other and from foreign enemies. And that is all.

  • Bertel Sparks, a native of Jackson County, Ky., was a professor of law at Duke University and taught in Harlan and Jackson County Schools. During World War II, he served as a special agent with the Counter Intelligence Corps. He was professor of law at New York University from 1949 to 1967.