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Distinguishing Liberty from Slavery


At its heart, liberty means renouncing the use of coercion against others. That is why those who would employ coercion against others must invent arguments to defend their actions as consistent with liberty. That is also why slavery — the opposite of liberty — is a useful touchstone in evaluating defenses that coercion is consistent with liberty, when it always increases the enslavement of someone.

One of those most adept at using slavery to test supposed justifications for coercive policies was F.A. Harper. He recognized that 'Strange is a concept of 'liberty' [where]…you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others.' He rebutted arguments for why obvious violations of people's liberty — as with innumerable government price controls, regulatory restrictions and tax impositions — do not 'really' take it away, by showing that they were consistent with slavery. Mere rhetorical tap-dancing cannot demonstrate that liberty is maintained by government acts or approaches that are consistent with slavery.

Harper's use of this approach was particularly pronounced in Liberty: A Path for its Recovery. There he used them to clarify Abraham Lincoln statement that 'We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different but incompatible things.'

Consider some common 'liberty is not really lost' defenses that are offered and Harper's responses.

  • Our liberty is maintained because the federal government can only do what advances the general welfare.
  • Suppose that the master pleads innocence of slaveholding on the ground that he is spending the slave's earnings for what he considers to be the slave's own welfare. Would that change the degree of liberty of the slave? Is liberty to defined in such a way as to allow me to take from you the product of your labor, so long as I claim that I shall use it for your welfare, or for the 'general welfare'? Should the robbing of banks be allowable under liberty, provided the bank robbers promise to put the proceeds of the robbery to some use they claim to be worthy, or even to some use that a majority of the people have judged to be worthy?

  • Our right to petition the government for redress of our grievances guarantees that liberty is maintained.
  • Being able to review a decision or to request its review…does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again, without end. A slave, similarly, might ask his master for his freedom time and again; he is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that his is allowed to ask for liberty.

  • Though our power to vote, infringements on our liberty are prevented.
  • [L]iberty is…the right of a person to have control over his own affairs…the expansion of governmental activities…[requires that] Minorities become the slaves of the others … Participation in these steps that make it possible for someone to rule others does not ensure liberty. It is fantastic nonsense to assert that the democratic process will assure liberty to the individuals of any nation…it would be more accurate to say that it is a most certain path to slavery.

    [C]hanging of top personnel in the government, or 'reform governments,' [is not] any answer to the basic problem. The gaining of better administration of an evil in the form of unwarranted power is a victory without virtue. The most efficient and best possible administration of slavery will not transform it into liberty.

  • Government does not violate our liberty because it just provides goods and services people want.
  • The excess that the government takes is no longer available for the citizen to spend as he wishes, as required under liberty. It may be said that the people want these services and would buy them anyhow if they were performed by private business instead of by government. But the slave who is given some turnips by his master cannot be called free economically because of the fact that he might have wanted to buy some turnips with some of his wages as a free man, had he been free. The citizen, likewise, is not judged to be free because of the fact that he might have bought, in a free market, services similar to those offered by the governmental monopoly where users and non-users alike are forced to pay the costs in their tax bills.

    In the same sense that the welfare state grants benefits, the slave-master grants to his slaves certain allotments of food and other economic goods. In fact, slavery might be described as just another form of welfare state, because of its likeness in restrictions and 'benefits.'

  • Liberty is maintained because there is nothing like slavery in America today.
  • Partial liberty under slavery is well illustrated…masters granted their serfs two days out of the week to work for themselves. They had that degree of economic liberty…The test of economic liberty…[is] the right to the product of one's own labor. One who is deprived of these rights is a slave. To whatever extent he is deprived of these rights, he is to that extent a slave.

    [A] temporary grant of freedom by the welfare state…[is like] when a master allows his slave a day off from work to spend as he likes…the person who is permitted some freedom by the welfare state is still a vassal of that state just as a slave is still a slave on his day off from work.

    Slavery cannot be transformed into no slavery by having a group of owners combine to do the same thing…even when it is government that does the taking…

    [T]he slavery of person to person…has been judged to violate the rights of persons to be free. But there is rapidly arising a form of slavery even more dangerous and deadly … The superstition prevails that if the government takes from unwilling people the product of their labor to pay for governmental costs of which they disapprove, it becomes a commendable act unlike that of the master taking from his slave…as though… robbery becomes a commendable act if a large enough number of people approve of it…the government is…engaging more and more in the enslavement of the citizens. If this process had involved the complete enslavement of certain persons, it would be more noticeable and we would then be able to see it in its true light.

  • Our voluntary tax system demonstrates that our tax burdens are consistent with liberty.
  • The mere fact of taxes having been paid is no test of basic willingness; it is no evidence that a form of slavery does not exist…that a slave works in his master's field, similarly, is no evidence that slavery is not involved. The giving of one's wallet to the hold-up robber is no evidence that the robbery did not take place… there is an overhanging threat which causes the seemingly peaceful submission; the unfortunate victim is allowed no alternative consistent with liberty.

    Acquiescence of the citizens to that part of their taxes in excess of what is necessary to preserve liberty is no evidence that liberty has not been lost thereby. Loss of liberty is not to be measured by the extent of refusal to pay taxes any more than slavery is to be measured by the degree of rebellion of the slaves. Slaves are none the less slaves because they are not always attached to their masters by a chain!

  • The size of the tax burden is not so large as to infringe on liberty.
  • The administrative costs…of control operated by the government greatly understates the total loss of liberty which it entails…Iike that of a slaveholder who may spend no more than the equivalent of one-tenth of what the slave produces as the cost of hiring an overseer to hold the slaves under the yoke of complete slavery; it is not necessary to spend all that the slave produces as the cost of depriving him of his liberty.

F.A. Harper's powerful use of slavery to test liberty claims gives new life to Patrick Henry's famous 1775 declaration: 'Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!'

He reminds us of the fact '[T]hat some other person or persons will decide what you shall do, and force you to do it…[is] a definition of slavery rather than of liberty,' and demonstrates that 'The belief of the master that his judgment is superior to that of the slave or vassal, and that control is 'for his own good,' is not a moral justification for the idea of the welfare state.' He showed how inadequate supposed proofs that the modern coercive state has not destroyed liberty are by bringing us back to the fact that 'Liberty…specifies the right to do what [one] desires, rather than the obligation to bow to the force of others in doing what they desire him to do; otherwise slavery becomes 'liberty, and true liberty is lost.'

Harper saw how confusion about liberty, constantly bent, spindled and manipulated by the misleading assertions of those who wish to justify their coercion of others, was a dangerous threat to maintaining it. And he knew how high the stakes were—that '[I]t is, in fact, a main purpose of liberty that the blind are free to follow those who can see. The danger is that in the absence of liberty the blind may become authorized to lead those who can see—by a chain around their necks!' If we are to stop or reverse the continuing erosion of our liberty, we need to see that as clearly as he did, so that we can better defend the truth about liberty, allowing other open-minded individuals to also discover it, despite persistent attempts to cloud the most essential issues.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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