Are You Pro Slavery?

“Quick, what is your position on life vs. death?  For life and against death, right?  So you would never ever allow anyone to take any action that would lead to a higher chance of death, right?  Like say driving on the freeway instead of staying in bed?  What, you would let someone drive instead of staying in bed?!  You prefer them to die rather than live?  Away you horrible daemon!”

Silly, right?  Yes of course life is usually much better than death, but it is not arbitrarily more important than any other consideration; it does not win in every possible circumstance. But now consider “slavery,” are you for or against that?  Absolutely against? Really? In every possible circumstance?

What about prison, aren’t prisoners slaves?  How about military conscription; aren’t draftees slaves?  How about children having to obey their parents, and go to school to obey teachers?  When you sign a contract, get married, or volunteer for the army, and thereby bind your future self, aren’t you enslaving that future self?

At this moment I’ll bet most of you are groping for a definition of “slavery” that avoids these cases.  Because one thing you know about yourself is that you are are a moral person and so you are always against “slavery,” whatever that is.  And with enough work you may find a refined definition avoiding these cases;  you might even avoid further cases I offer.  You may then sigh with relief at saving your self-image as a moral person.  Even though you’ll soon forget all this and go back to using ordinary language.

But I’d rather not play such word games.  So I’ll just accept the usual meaning of “slaves” as folks

deprived of personal freedom and compelled to perform labour or services.

So, I admit I do sometimes favor “slavery,” just as I’ll sometimes let death win over life.  And by doing so I’ll violate a cardinal law of modern intellectuals, which is to never ever let yourself being quoted as favoring modern horrors like slavery or racism.  For example, consider how eagerly Brad DeLong offers this quote:

Justin Martyr: The Faith Heuristic: The Caplan-Hanson Debate
I’ve always assumed, wrongly it appears, that [libertarians] would argue that the slaves could never be the least cost avoider. But I stand corrected. I learned in the debate that they would bite the bullet and accept slavery and genocide…

Of course I’m not exactly a typical “libertarian” – my engaging a pro-genocide hypothetical was in the context of my arguing pro-efficiency against Bryan’s pro-liberty.  But I’ll bet Brad was sure tickled to quote libertarians supporting slavery!  (HT to Alex Tabarrok.)

Let me end by adding insult to injury, and listing more pro-slavery cases:

  • Tyler Cowen tells me very poor parents in Haiti today sometimes sell their kids into slavery, expecting such kids to at least be fed.  Its sad some people are that poor, but given that they are, this seems a good option to have.
  • To make punishing criminals cheaper, instead of prison I could support auctioning off the right to use criminals as slaves for so many years.
  • I’d accept private law contracts, if entered into with sufficient solemnity,  specifying slavery as a penalty under particular circumstances.
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  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

    Sorry, all I got out of that was that you like slavery.

    j/k, j/k, you’re good, you’re good.

    I’m not that evil.

  • http://www.thefaithheuristic.com Justin Martyr

    Hiya Robin, thanks for the attention, even though it came via DeLong!

    I think David Friedman successfully answered my question about slavery: that the original assignment of rights affects the value of slave labor, and efficiency would be maximized if slaves were given property rights over their own persons.

    I’m pro-slavery too in that I support conscription during times of war and the bond slavery that takes place in Haiti, which you describe, and which took place in biblical times.

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com richard silliker

      We will all support something that provides us with symmetry.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      “efficiency would be maximized if slaves were given property rights over their own persons”

      That seems cute and a bit too universal to be true, according to my intuitions.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    I’ll repost a comment I left at EconLog on the topic of what rationale there is for supporting slavery in the societies where it existed. Anyone who is opposed to slavery should put themselves in the slave’s shoes — would you favor overturning a source of rent-creation and risk the violent chaos between slave-owners and abolitionists, or at the least between the various factions vying to fill the rent-creating void left by abolition?

    In natural states, having some slavery is better than having violent disorder — even for the slaves. That’s why they rarely revolted.

    * * *

    The real answer, according to North, Wallis, and Weingast’s framework would be the fear of violence breaking out. After all, slavery was only abolished by open access orders — Western Europe circa the mid-19th C. Before that, owning slaves was a means of rent-creation.

    Threaten that source of rent-creation, and you threaten the stability of the dominant coalition. The slave-owners would resort to violence to protect their rents, and even if they lost, there would be a violent struggle among other factions of the dominant coalition to fill the vacuum left by the dispossessed slave-owners.

    That also explains why large-scale slave revolts are so rare. Even the slaves would have preferred to live as they did with some measure of physical security and social predictability, rather than face the uncertainty of a struggle for power and the certainly higher chance of getting caught in the attendant violence.

    The cost is your sense of pride and dignity, but most people would rather be somewhat safe and grumbling about their status than enjoy the dignity of freedom in the midst of violent chaos.

    • nazgulnarsil

      *but most people would rather be somewhat safe and grumbling about their status than enjoy the dignity of freedom in the midst of violent chaos.*

      there’s a lot of room for discussion on the topic of the word “most” here. besides crimes because of necessity and crimes because of mental disturbance there is also the fairly common crime because of low status. the male faced with little to no breeding opportunities becomes (not so?) surprisingly violent. how widespread this is could be a function of society more than up to individual discretion (i.e. the only reason you aren’t a criminal is that you were afforded breeding opportunities through legitimate means).

  • Peter Twieg

    I don’t think DeLong himself would seriously disagree with you if you challenged him on this point. These kind of rhetorical tricks exist because it’s often effective to take someone’s point out of context, give it a far-less-than-charitable reinterpretation, and then use it to mock that individual. So I’m hoping that this post isn’t aimed at getting DeLong to actually re-consider his criticisms…

    Interestingly, you tend to find that since a lot of these categorical principles tend to be undermined by well-constructed thought experiments, a lot of people will just simply refuse to consider thought experiments as relevant tests of their principles. However, they’ll still squeal with glee if you end up rejecting certain categorical principles under extreme circumstances, and then quote you derisively as if you’ve just discredited yourself as a sane opponent.

  • jeorg

    With regard to draftees, I would say yes, they are slaves. I don’t believe it to be justifiable in any circumstance.

    After 9/11, plenty of people volunteered to go fight the terrorists. If a society can’t inspire volunteers to defend it, it deserves to die. If it can’t inspire volunteers for wars that aren’t required for its survival, maybe it just shouldn’t have those wars.

    The government doesn’t own me, and I don’t recognize its right to draft me.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      I would say: If the taxpayers aren’t willing to pay market wages that will attract enough soldiers to fight the war, then the war isn’t important enough to them for them to enslave soldiers for it.

      This is true for the US, which could afford to pay high enough wages that it wouldn’t have to draft soldiers. I might consider a draft “permissible” for a country that couldn’t afford to pay its soldiers.

  • Psychohistorian

    Particularly in the US, “slavery” points to forced labor fundamentally disconnected from willful acts, i.e. slavery in the South until the Civil war, in which people were enslaved based on race/parentage.

    If you called prisoners being forced to make licence plates for $0.15 a week, I suspect most people would respond with, “That’s not really slavery; their paying a debt to society,” or something of that nature. There’s a willful act behind their servitude, and that makes all the difference.

    As far as the Haitians go, people oppose the living conditions of child workers/slaves irrespective of their alternatives. Perhaps most simply, people having kids whose best option is slavery just shouldn’t be having kids.

    • Mario

      This is exactly my thinking. I’m not generally opposed to slavery, whether as a punishment for a crime, indentured servitude, or something else. The real problem is that the word slavery has come to be associated with a particularly heinous variety where people were enslaved simply by virtue of their birth. It’s hard to argue for the former without people hearing the latter.

      • Michael Turner

        Robin linked to, and quoted, the ludicrous “Slaves” entry on Wikipedia for his definition of slave. (And it’s redirect to “List of Slaves”, which implies that there have only been a few dozen known slaves in all of human history.)

        Here’s the capsule definition from the Wikipedia entry for “Slavery”:

        “Slavery is a form of forced labor in which people are considered to be the property of others.”

        Which is the sense to which I was reacting.

        Can we now debate the issue on its merits, based on this more sensible and more standard reading? Any chance of that?

  • Jordan

    I think the most important thing distinguishing different ‘types’ of slavery is the means of compulsion. The slave is compelled to work under pain of _____, what? Economic penalty, verbal reprimand, spanking? Most people wouldn’t consider any of those evil (or the situation slavery for that matter).

    When people say slavery is wrong, they are typically referring to the type of slavery where the blank can be filled in with anything on the owner’s whim: when the slave is truly an owned object that can be treated in any way the owner desires.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    That also explains why large-scale slave revolts are so rare. Even the slaves would have preferred to live as they did with some measure of physical security and social predictability, rather than face the uncertainty of a struggle for power and the certainly higher chance of getting caught in the attendant violence.

    Slaves also have serious coordination problems, so I don’t think you can use the lack of large scale revolts as proof that slaves would rather be slaves than face the risks of a revolt.

  • Grant

    I’m in agreement, especially on ‘enslaving’ criminals over simply jailing them. In Florida they have to pay for jail ($50 a day, I think), which really doesn’t help lead a productive life when they get out of jail and are slapped with a large bill to pay.

    While we’re being sacrilegious, the American Civil War: worth it or not? 620,000 total dead, 412,000 total wounded, and 3.5 million Southern slaves freed. Total cost was about 5.2 billion, which comes out to about $1500 a slave. I believe that is well above the average price of a slave back then.

    The stats from wikipedia and its sources, though they may not be accurate? If they are, why do we romanticize the most destructive war in America’s history?

    • http://metanomics.net Robert Bloomfield

      Are you implying that the North could have bought the slaves for cheaper? But the North would have had to pay for more for slave owners to give up the option to every buy another slave at any price. That would have been far more expensive, just as you might sell your car for $10,000, but demand far more if you had to agree never to buy another one.

    • Former 3L

      Interestingly enough the 620,000 figure (which reflects military losses only), although very widely quoted in both popular and scholarly sources, is based on quite dodgy late-19th century research. The also widely quoted figure of 50,000 civilian deaths is even less well sourced. There’s some discussion of this Mark Neely’s recent _The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction_.

      As for the implication that the death toll (whatever it actually may have been) was too high a price to pay for ending slavery, one’s feelings on that will depend on what the likely alternative is thought to be. If you believe (as I do) that an independent CSA would have retained slavery until well into the 20th century and been much more discriminatory against blacks even after they were freed than was the case for the USA in actual history, I don’t think it looks like an obviously excessive price. That’s without accounting for the possibility of a Haiti-style bloodbath if the CSA’s slavocrats held out long enough.

      Both sides in the US Civil war thought that issues were at stake well worth dying and killing for. Both armies were composed overwhelmingly of volunteers (although the CSA had a higher proportion of draftees). I don’t think it should be lightly assumed they were all wrong about this.

      • Grant

        I was implying the issue should probably be looked at more closely, thats all. I am far from an expert on the subject, but the numbers are intriguing.

        As I understand it the CSA seceded largely because they felt the federal government was going to try to put an end to slavery. They were right, but what would they have done if they were offered money? I would think anyone trained in economics should consider this option.

      • Former 3L

        There is solid evidence that the secessionist leadership would have rejected any offer of compensated emancipation.

        Lincoln proposed a general plan of compensated emancipation in the Union states in March 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation (even the preliminary version). None of the Union slaveholding states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) accepted the plan, and they later got no compensation at all—a possibility Lincoln warned some Marylanders about in July 1862:

        The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution [slavery] in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of it’s [sic] value is gone already. How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event.

        The compensated emancipation plan was enacted in the District of Columbia, where Congress could enact it without the approval of local slaveholders.

  • http://FeministX.blogspot.com FeministX.blogspot.com

    An unsuccessful slave revolt will result in death by torture. So lack of slave revolts say that people prefer slavery to death by torture.

    As for selling children into slavery, does this not imply that parents own their children like property and that children are property for adults to own? That seems absurd. While children can’t fully take care of themselves, they do have independent sets of thoughts and feelings.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    The last comment brings up why none of the examples provided by Robin are slavery at all. True slaves can be bought and sold. They are property. That is not the case for a single one of Robin’s examples, even though in some of those cases people are under some sort of compulsion or orders to do things on pain of some kind of painful punishment, especially in the case of prison. But, prisons cannot sell their prisoners to each other, and if a prisoner’s sentence is up, they are freed.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      All you have done is provide a narrower definition of slavery, basically you have redefined chattel slavery to be the only real type of slavery.

      • Michael Turner

        Like it or not, chattel slavery is the #1 definition of slavery in dictionaries. Actual ownership of the human being; arguably, all other uses are figurative. If Robin wanted our reactions to mere forced labor, why didn’t he ask it that way?

      • brazzy

        Well, all that Robin has done in order to create a potential for his argument is to adopt an unusually wide definition of slavery – note that the Wikipedia entry he links to is “List of slaves”, not “Slavery”, which does indeed say “a form of forced labor in which people are considered to be the property of others”.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      So your objection to slavery is not that the owner can do anything he wants to the slave, but only that he can sell the slave to another owner?

  • http://blog.efnx.com Schell

    It would be interesting to see what kind of people ’employ’ a criminal slave in their own home… …jailbreak!

  • J

    “But I’d rather not play such word games. So I’ll just accept the usual meaning of “slaves” as folks deprived of personal freedom and compelled to perform labour or services”

    There’s no question virtually everyone is in favor of slavery according to your “usual meaning”. The trouble is, that’s not the usual meaning.

    “At this moment I’ll bet most of you are groping for a definition of “slavery” that avoids these cases”

    Well, no. Actually I’m looking at the dictionary, come what may.

    From Merriam-Webster:

    1 : a person held in servitude as the chattel of another

    or from the Oxford English Dictionary:

    • noun 1 historical a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them

    Note that in both cases, a slave is property. You cannot legally buy a prisoner from a prison, a soldier from any military service, or a child from a parent.

    • Michael Turner

      A few years ago, I met an ex-con who’d been convicted on drug charges (mere possession, he said), and he reported having been traded from his home state penitentiary system to another state’s, where he was worked harder, and where was much farther from his home town, and from any friends or family who might visit. I found this rather troubling.

      The U.S. has a very large and growing prison population, incarceration for victimless crimes like drug possession continues apace. In this context, the idea of corporate use of prison labor, and states trading prisoners around for their labor value, smacks rather too much of slavery for my taste. There are various ways that criminals can “pay their debts to society” (and perhaps even to their victims). When random pecuniary interest enters in, however, decoupled from judicially motivated measures — the companies benefiting by the prisoner labor aren’t in the business of reforming the criminal — I sense an institutional slippery slope. If anything, those companies would rather see the criminal do another stretch, to get more of his very cheap labor, than see him reform. Consider the moral hazard in government as well — why tax citizens more when you can charge somebody’s labor at absurdly competitive rates?

      So, actually, that’s where I balk: when people become property, and therefore profitable to own. And when somebody asks me how I feel about slavery, why shouldn’t I assume that’s what they are talking about? Chattel slavery is the default meaning.

      • J

        The county where I live does this very thing. The flaw in your model is that, as Max Cherry said, the money is flowing in the wrong direction. The county that transfers the prisoner pays, not the county receiving (as I understand it that’s the case with state prisons as well). I suspect there are very few things you legally own that you have been paid to take possession of.

  • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

    Heinlein was more consistent than most – he opposed all types of “compulsory servitude”, including imprisonment and conscription. See “Starship Troopers”, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, and especially his commentary about “Starship Troopers” in “Expanded Universe” among others.

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    Isn’t involuntary taxation a desirable form of almost-slavery too?

    • Doug S.

      [joke]
      Most taxation in the U.S. is voluntary. For example, if you don’t earn any income, you don’t have to pay income taxes.
      [/joke]

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  • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/ Eric Crampton

    I’ll follow David Friedman in opposing having criminals be auctioned off as slaves: I worry about the incentive effects on governments when criminals become an asset rather than a liability.

    • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

      They’re an asset. Local governments can add prisoners to their poverty stats, and get federal money for it without spending any of the money on the prisoners.

      Also, prisons function as jobs (for the guards) programs.

  • Michael Turner

    “I’d rather not play such word games.”

    As if quoting an obviously very bad wikipedia article as if it were semantically definitive for all practical purposes is NOT playing a word game.

    I don’t hate slavery so I can feel good about myself. I’m against it because owning people clearly leads to evil, and so the practice might as well be considered evil no matter how nice some individual slave owners might have been, and any other practices resembling it should be under careful scrutiny, lest they turn into virtually identical evils.

    Here’s a good question for you, Robin: “Are you against getting a rise out of people just for the hell of it?” Admit it: you’re not against that. After all, you do it all the time. Obviously, this is because doing it makes you feel good about yourself, for some reason. After all, what other motivation could there possibly be?

    Now, how does comment that make you feel? Insulted? Then consider how some of us might feel, here, to be told we’re anti-slavery just because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

  • a

    ““I’d rather not play such word games.”

    Nah, that’s all you’re doing. There’s a normal meaning of the word, you’re pretending to heed it but in fact are using something different, and then you’re pretending that some non-intuitive assertions can be made.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I’ve gotten so used to the geek/fannish style of “lets look at human beings completely from the outside” that I scarcely noticed the insult. This may not be a good thing.

    In any case, I’ve found signaling theory to be like (simplified?) Marxism or Freudianism– a handy method of explaining away other people’s motivations.

    I believe that looking for pure motivations is a way of misunderstanding people.

    In particular, the signaling theory/this is how you feel good about yourself completely leaves out how people choose what they want to signal. Even if there was some self-regard in both the pro-slavery and abolitionist camps (and I’m pretty sure there was), this doesn’t explain why people felt strongly enough to take large risks maintain or prevent slavery.

    And it’s weird to have signaling theory to be so strong among Singularitarians, a very low-prestige point of view..

    • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

      More exactly, Singularitarianism isn’t exactly low-prestige (it isn’t like having a taste for pornography), but it certainly isn’t a reliable way of getting more prestige.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

    And by doing so I’ll violate a cardinal law of modern intellectuals, which is to never every let yourself being quoted as favoring modern horrors like slavery or racism.

    Typo.

  • http://www.twitter.comtheblackgecko Cody Custis

    I’d accept private law contracts, if entered into with sufficient solemnity, specifying slavery as a penalty under particular circumstances.

    I am surprised that there is not more discussion on this point. If individuals are not free to engage in a voluntary contract which specified their enslavement, then are they not made slaves by their limitations on their natural rights?

  • http://reason.wikia.com/wiki/User:Rimfax Rimfax

    A family friend recently died. He kept three wooden cells in his basement. At the time of his death, two were occupied by people who referred to themselves as slaves and to him as master. I attended a ceremony at his house where a former slave of his first professed her servitude and he professed his responsibility as her master and he reverently locked her collar around her neck.

    Now that he’s gone, his two former slaves are quite emotionally lost. One is definitely looking for a new master. I’m not sure about the other.

    I can’t really wrap my head around the motivations for either the master or the slave, but I can’t seem to muster condemnation either.

    • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

      I think that using the word “slave” for two such widely different referents may be slightly misleading.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    Re: coordination problems of slave revolts, point taken. My larger point was why aren’t there any displays of trying to break out of the system — like just running away in search of greener pastures? It’s not as though throughout human history there was a centralized police force to track you down.

    The pastures wouldn’t have to be that greener — even becoming a nominally free peasant whose output was heavily expropriated by a member of the ruling elite.

    If you’re a hunter-gatherer, you might actually run away, and the stories I’ve heard are that H-G’s do not make good slaves for that reason — they just won’t tolerate it and run off. Makes sense: they know how to provide for themselves. Not so for a slave in a complex agrarian society.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      “My larger point was why aren’t there any displays of trying to break out of the system — like just running away in search of greener pastures? It’s not as though throughout human history there was a centralized police force to track you down.”

      There have been, there’s plenty of historical documentation, you just apparently don’t know about them.

      But as a general principle, I’m also very interested in “why aren’t there any examples of ___, when there theoretically could be?” type questions. Sort of an economics of complete, nontransparent, coordination, universal conspiracies of every agent in an interaction. The seemingly arbitrary limitations of human imagination and behavior/semiotic variation at different historical and social points are interesting, and understudied, IMO.

  • jeorg

    I know a man who claims hunter-gatherers are the only free people on Earth. So he teaches people how to become hunter-gatherers.

  • Tommaso

    I do not understand the genocide example as reported by Caplan. I quote it here again:

    “For example, he recently told me that “the main problem” with the Holocaust was that there weren’t enough Nazis! After all, if there had been six trillion Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere six million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.”

    I do not know if your view is captured accurately by his statement but in the following I assume it is.

    You seem to commit a fallacy that I find fairly common. In your liberty vs. efficiency post you argue that economists can suggest win-win solutions to potentially conflicting parties. The idea is to tell them something like this: “if you both choose outcome x rather than fighting, there will be enough resources to compensate both of you. You can share the surplus obtained in x rather than fighting”. Now, let’s neglect that, even if you convince the parties that there is a surplus, they still have to figure out how to split it and this may involve some fight as well.

    My main point is another. In x, both parties are better off (or at least none is worse off and one is better off) with respect to the status quo: x is a Pareto-improvement with respect to the status quo. In this example, cost-benefit analysis is used to indicate that there is a potential Pareto-improvement: whether there is one in practice or not will depend on how the surplus is distributed. Think of the distributional aspects of lowering a tariff: this is efficient but it is a Pareto-improvement only if the domestic producers get compensation.

    In your Holocaust example, you are using cost-benefit analysis but do not care about whether there is a Pareto-improvement or not. In this way you end up picking only one of the efficient outcomes, where Holocaust happens. But, as usual, there is a continuum of such efficient outcomes: one of them is the before-Hitler status quo, without a Holocaust. In this way you are implicitly using the principle that we should ethically go for the outcome that maximizes the surplus whether that it is a Pareto-improvement or not. This is the consequentialist approach. It may have its own merits but favoring Pareto-improvements (as opposed to favoring the movement to an outcome on the frontier, which may or may not be a Pareto-improvement) is not one of them.

    Notice that in your logic you could still defend the Holocaust. If out of the surplus generated the Jews get compensated enough (i.e. they get at least $100,000 each), then this is fine for your position. I am not arguing that, even phrased this way, the approach would not have other problems. But at least it would be compatible with the liberty vs. efficiency post.

    To reiterate, I am not sure this is your position but I find many doing this mistake and so I thought it was worth stressing it.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Well what actually happened was that I responded to a hypothetical posed by Bryan, and I agreed that in his hypothetical genocide was efficient. I elaborated my position in some detail, which isn’t exactly to always do the efficient thing, but it is pretty far in that direction:

      I keep my clients aware of the benefits of making inclusive, early, and big deals.

      In this hypothetical genocide case the issue is how early and broad a deal was made – if this hypothetical society could plausibly been seen to have made a big broad deal which could include genocide should such a situation arise, well then yes that is what I’d recommend.

    • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

      Whether this example makes any sense depends on how much the Nazis really want a Holocaust. At the conclusion of that deal, the Nazis down a little bit of money each and the Jews are a great deal poorer. (I’m not sure where the money is supposed to be going.)

      The incentive is for the Nazis to keep repeating those offers until the Jews run out of money, and then have a Holocaust anyway.

  • Mark F

    If you believe (as I do) that an independent CSA would have retained slavery until well into the 20th century …

    I don’t think slavery would have survived long in an independent CSA if the United States allowed free immigration from the CSA. Many slaves would simply have crossed into the United States and the cost of trying to prevent this would have eventually been too much for the CSA. Prior to the war between the states, the fugitive slave laws made it difficult for slaves to escape to the North. With those laws gone and with 2 countries, slavery wouldn’t have lasted much beyond 1870.

    And it should be noted that initially Lincoln didn’t give a flying leap about slavery and simply wanted to preserve the Union.

    • Former 3L

      Many people believe slavery would soon have vanished in an independent CSA. But there is simply no convincing evidence for this idea.

      Between 1850 and 1860, fewer than 300 escaped slaves were returned under the Fugitive Slave Act, or less than 30 a year (see Stanley Elkins, _The Slave Catchers_). Census figures and other sources like advertised rewards for escapees suggest that there were about 1000 escapes annually, largely from slave states that did not join the CSA (See Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s dissertation _Deadweight Loss and the American Civil War_. It does not strike me as plausible to claim that catching 3% of escapees was enough to maintain the institution of slavery but that reducing this rate to 2% or 1% would not be. I have yet to see a convincing explanation of how not getting back the 30 or so escapees returned annually under the Fugitive Slave Act would doom slavery in the CSA.

      The CSA could not have reduced the number of successful escapes to zero, but they wouldn’t have needed to–the slave population would have been naturally increasing by over 60,000 per year.

      By moving slaves away from the CSA/USA border, punishing aid to
      runaways more harshly, and creating a unified CSA-wide system of paid escapee-hunters, it is quite possible that the CSA’s rulers could have kept escapes to a level low enough to keep the system in place. This is considering actions within CSA territory only. By hiring agents within the USA (legal or illegal agents, depending on what treaty arrangements get worked out), it might well be possible for the CSA to recover escapees who made it across the US border–unless the border is supposed (for no
      fathomable reason) to be porous for people heading north but not south.

      The CSA had enough market share in cotton to have significant
      price-setting power, and the CSA constitution (unlike the US constitution) specifically authorized export tariffs. An export tariff on cotton could have funded these slavery-supporting measures and placed much of the burden on foreign cotton buyers–including those in the USA.

    • Douglas Knight

      Many slaves would simply have crossed into the United States and the cost of trying to prevent this would have eventually been too much for the CSA.

      If it is too much, there must be change. But why should that change be emancipation? Why not conquest of the north?

  • Mark F

    A family friend recently died. He kept three wooden cells in his basement. At the time of his death, two were occupied by people who referred to themselves as slaves and to him as master. I attended a ceremony at his house where a former slave of his first professed her servitude and he professed his responsibility as her master and he reverently locked her collar around her neck.

    Now that he’s gone, his two former slaves are quite emotionally lost. One is definitely looking for a new master. I’m not sure about the other.

    I can’t really wrap my head around the motivations for either the master or the slave, but I can’t seem to muster condemnation either.

    Well, it seems like it was a voluntary arrangement despite the terms used. I would have to say that your friend and his slaves locked in basement crates were a bunch of friggin’ weirdos though.

  • Noumenon

    Looks like we all support slavery at times:

    1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. — the 13th Amendment

    link

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      A good point that I should have used.

    • ad

      How did they square the draft with the 13th Amendment? Isn’t the draft a form of “involuntary servitude”?

      • Doug S.

        The Supreme Court, during World War I, ruled on that question:

        As we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation, as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people, can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        In other words, the draft isn’t involuntary because the people, via their representatives, chose to draft themselves. (Not endorsing; just summarizing my understanding of the argument.)

      • Alex Mackenzie

        @ Tyrrell_McAllister That would be the argument I, personally, would use in favor of the draft (that is, a draft in which all voters are equally likely to be picked; historically drafts often had exceptions for those who also had the most political power), based on Rawlsian logic- the majority of the country accepted the given risk of being drafted as the cost of the war.

        However, the wording of the amendment in legal terms clearly doesn’t allow for that. So for anyone who voted *against* the draft to be drafted would still count as involuntary servitude.

      • Tyrrell_McAllister

        Six years later, I’m pretty sure that my understanding was entirely wrong.

        I now think that the argument is this:

        As a citizen, you owe some things to the State just in virtue of being a citizen. Call these “some things” your citizen-debt.

        In particular (the argument assumes) contributing to the common defense is part of your citizen-debt, because the State as such cannot exist unless the citizens protect “the rights and honor of the nation”.

        Furthermore, the phrase “involuntary servitude” in the 13th amendment must refer only to labor above and beyond whatever labor is already owed as part of your citizen-debt. Otherwise, the Constitution would deny the State something that it needs to survive, namely the labor that its citizens owe it. Since the Constitution cannot survive without the State, it would follow that the Constitution is denying itself something that it itself needs to survive. That the Constitution would be so self-negating is the contention that the justices call “refuted by its mere statement.”

        In short, since the draft is just calling in a debt that you owe as a citizen, the draft falls outside of what “involuntary servitude” must be read to mean in the 13th amendment.

        Now, insofar as being a citizen is voluntary, you voluntarily owe everything in your citizen-debt. In that case, citizen-debt labor could be voluntary automatically. It may be that the justices would endorse this argument.

        But I suspect that the justices would go further. They might deny that the concept of “voluntary” used in the 13th amendment is even relevant to citizen-debt labor In that case, the question of whether being a citizen is voluntary wouldn’t enter into the argument.

      • ad

        I have never seen a more succinct demonstation of the fact that the Constitution of the United States means whatever the Supreme Court wants it to.

        Of course, the Amendment itself would appear to demonstrate that the Consitution is sometimes so badly worded that it really needs to be ignored.

      • Noumenon

        That quote struck me exactly the same as it did “ad” — I can’t reply to ad’s post though, only Doug’s.

  • Mario Cruz

    Dude, I kind of respect you O-Bias blog. It’s surprising how stinky is this post. Even when there’s kind of a point in there the way you talk about bed-freeway or solider-slave is a real turn off compared to the stuff you usually write.

  • No One

    What about contracts that specify not only that a person may be enslaved (under certain circumstances), but also designate their children (and their children’s children, etc.) as slaves?

  • John Emerson

    Historically, prohibition of the possibility of selling oneself or selling one’s children into slavery was constitutive of liberalism and the possibility of a free society. (Locke and Rousseau both wrote about it). It isn’t something that people think about much any more because it’s been a dead issue for centuries, but at the turning from serfdom to freedom, that was one of the majot issues. I’m amazed to see Hanson so blithe about it,

    Setting up stacked hypotheticals in order to refute e general principle by showing that it might do harm in a single case is a cheap debater’s trick. “But what if this Haitian girl will starve if not sold into slavery? What if there’s no other option? What then, Mr. pious anti-slavery man?” There’s never no other option. And the compromise anti-slavery immediate answer in this case might be to allow the sale to take place, but hold it to be non-binding, so that as soon as the slave saw a chance to escape they would have a right to do so. Would Hanson have the Haitian state enforce the slave-owner’s rights to his slave?

    Cases like the Haitian girl’s are fairly common in SE Asia, and “because otherwise she’s starve” is the best-case rationalization. Some parents sell their children into slavery to buy TVs. This is really horrible: why did Hanson automatically accept and relay the parents’ self-justification? There is a literature on contemporary slaving and the best-case Hanson cites is not typical. But he wants to get the camel’s nose into the tent and score contrarian points against moralizers and idealists.

    Likewise, renting convicts out to work off their crimes is recent American history, especially in the South (up until the 30s IIRC). It led to a lot of frameup convictions, and the persons enslaved were mostly black. (Recently in Luzerne County PA they had frameup convictions of about 100 kids by corrupt judges paid off by for-pay prisons, so it still could happen today).

    In sum, Hanson seems historically ignorant and more a smirky contrarian market-worshipper than a libertarian of any kind. People like Hanson give rationality a bad name.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      If we hold the contract to be non-binding then why would anyone buy the slave in the first place? If slavery will help the starving girl it must be because the owner expects the contract to be upheld. Citing other examples where bad things follow from slavery just seems to emphasize my point that it depends. Like life vs death or almost anything else, we don’t want to be always in favor or always against, we want our opinion to depend on important details.

      • John Emerson

        I’m not at all interested in the rights of the slaveowner. You were talking about a specific case when the strict enforcement of a valid rule (against slavery) would have led to harm. I was proposing a fudge which, if the slaver knew about it, might have caused him not to make the deal, but I’m not proposing that we inform him of this.

        You were proposing that the valid rule (against slavery) be ignored in order to ameliorate a specific case. I was proposing that other valid rules (against deceiving buyers, and against expropriating property owners without compensation) be ignored at a later date in order to liberate the slaves. Enforcing the original illicit transaction as law transforms what was done from a short-term solution of an immediate problem to the permanent institution of slavery enforced by the law of the land. Purists would refuse the compromise I suggested, but your whole game is to discredit purists. So I got down in the gutter with you and gave an answer as cynical as your own.

        My real objection was your tendentiously using a single case to discredit a valid law. These kinds of messy act/rule problems come up all the time, and people deal with them in various ways, of which I think yours is the worst.

      • Noumenon

        I didn’t understand that you meant the owner wouldn’t know his contract was non-binding. I thought you meant everyone would know it was at-will.

  • John Emerson

    In natural states, having some slavery is better than having violent disorder — even for the slaves. That’s why they rarely revolted.

    They rarely revolted because of violent order and the absence of refuges, not the fear of violent disorder. Defiance was violently and sometimes lethally punished.

    I guess I’ll bow out, but I’m astonished at the depths to which contrarianism has sunk. Apparently nowadays you’re irrational and uncool if you continue to uphold the conventional anti-slavery position. People are falling all over themselves to prove that they’re not PC. Jesus.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    This old posting, “Are you pro-slavery,” is stupidly tendentious. Robin abjures looking to definitions, and then he gleans one from wikipedia while omitting the key to the definition in the first sentence of that article: “Slavery is a legal or economic system under which people are treated as property.”

    If Robin is prepared to defend an institution that reduces humans to chattels, he should do so, rather than resorting to obscurantist games with an Orwellian twist.

    The 13th amendment allows involuntary servitude under very limited circumstances (and scotus cheated with conscription). But there is no question that slavery—property in human beings—has been abolished.

    What kind of special pleading sometimes drives Robin to such utter rubbish?