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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