Mises Wire

Taxation, Slavery, and Consent

I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into the purse of my master. When I carried to him my weekly wages, he would, after counting the money, look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness, and ask, “Is this all?” He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes gives me six cents, to encourage me. (emphasis added)1

This passage comes from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. With these words, Douglass is describing the experiences of many slaves who lived in the border states of the antebellum United States. It was common for slaves to be granted the “freedom” to contract out their labor for wages, enjoying the ability to move throughout the town, interact with people voluntarily, and sometimes even live on their own. But they were still owned, and this ownership was demonstrated through the demand for a percentage of their earnings from their master. Economically, these slaves were treated as “capital” earning a rent for their owners.

Douglass’ situation was even more controlled than other slaves in a similar position. Even in the deep south, these kinds of arrangements were not unheard of. A slave in Savannah, Georgia, named Charles Ball, worked as an undertaker. From the perspective of other slaves, Ball enjoyed a great many freedoms. He was able to live apart from his owner, and he even hired other slaves with similar ownership arrangements to help him with his work. Compared with Douglass’ experiences, Charles Ball was allowed to keep a sizeable chunk of his income. His master only required the annual payment of $250 a year, paid through monthly installments.2

In Mississippi, another slave named Simon Gray became the captain of a flat boat, even employing white workers as part of the crew he managed. He was allowed to own and operate firearms, travel freely throughout the country, and he handled large sums of money for the company that employed him. He was allowed to take vacations in Arkansas, and his salary after the “tax” that he paid his owner afforded him the ability to rent a house for his family.3

Frederick Douglass himself said of this type of slave – the “city slave” – that he was “almost a free citizen” because he “enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the whip-driven slave on the plantation.”4

Libertarians often compare the government to a slave owner and the taxpayer to a slave. This analogy gets received with hostility, and understandably so. Chattel slavery was brutal and barbaric, and the slaves usually received treatment that people living in Western countries today can hardly imagine. But the question is, from the libertarian perspective, “is the city slave like Charles Ball any less of a slave than the whip-driven slave of the cotton plantation?”

The answer, of course, is no.

Charles Ball and Frederick Douglass, with these contract-labor arrangements, enjoyed freedoms and privileges that other slaves at the time could have only dreamed of. But they were still, unequivocally, slaves. Likewise, the citizens of the United States or Britain or any other similar first-world country enjoy living in an area that is demonstrably preferable to places like North Korea or Rwanda. Compared to the poor soul who suffered the hell of the gulag, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the average American citizen is quite free (though perhaps not the average American citizen who gets arrested for the heinous crime of peacefully owning an illegal plant, as our modern prison system is not as unlike the Soviet gulag as we would like to believe).

When libertarians compare taxation to slavery, we are constantly reminded of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. It is pointless to deny that this is the case. But those who object to our analogy about slavery fail to understand the key component of what slavery has always been. Slavery has never been defined by the brutality of the conditions under which a person labored; slavery has only ever been defined by the lack of consent to a labor arrangement.

Modern taxation has simply codified the arrangement that separated the plantation slave from the city slave.

  • 1Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 102.
  • 2Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), 42.
  • 3Ibid., 42-43.
  • 4Frederick Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom (Chicago: Johnson, 1970), 115.
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