Abolition: An Acid Test
[From the October 1969 issue of Libertarian Forum.]
It has come to our attention increasingly of late that many self-proclaimed libertarians balk at the idea of abolishing slavery. It is almost incredible to contemplate, for one would think that at least the minimal definition of a libertarian is someone who favors the immediate abolition of slavery. Surely, slavery is the polar opposite of liberty?
But it appears that many libertarians argue as follows: the slave-masters bought their slaves on the market in good faith. They have the bill of sale. Therefore, respect for their property rights requires that slavery be left intact, or at the very least that the slave-master be compensated for any loss of his slave at the market value.
I used to believe, and have written articles to that effect, that the idea that right-wingers uphold "property rights over human rights" is only a left-wing smear. But evidently it is not a smear. For these libertarians indeed go to the grotesque length of upholding property rights at the expense of the human right of self-ownership of every person. Not only that: by taking this fetishistic position these pro-slavery libertarians negate the very concept, the very basis, of property right itself. For where does property right come from? It can only come from one basic and ultimate source—and that is not the pronouncement of the State that Mr. A belongs to Mr. B. That source is the property right of every man in his own body, his right of self-ownership. From this right of self-ownership is derived his right to whatever previously unowned and unused resources a man can find and transform by the use of his labor energy. But if every man has a property right in his own person, this immediately negates any grotesquely proclaimed "property right" in other people.
There are five possible positions on the abolition of slavery question. (1) That slavery must be protected as a part of the right of property and (2) that abolition may only be accompanied by full compensation to the masters seem to me to fall on the basis of our above discussion. But the third route—simple abolition—the one that was adopted, was also unsatisfactory, since it meant that the means of production, the plantations on which the slaves worked, remained in the hands, in the property, of their masters. On the libertarian homesteading principle, the plantations should have reverted to the ownership of the slaves, those who were forced to work them, and not have remained in the hands of their criminal masters. That is the fourth alternative. But there is a fifth alternative that is even more just: the punishment of the criminal masters for the benefit of their former slaves—in short, the imposition of reparations or damages upon the former criminal class, for the benefit of their victims. All this recalls the excellent statement of the Manchester Liberal, Benjamin Pearson, who, when he heard the argument that the masters should be compensated replied that "he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated."
It should be clear that this discussion is of far more than antiquarian interest. For there are a great many analogues to slavery today, an enormous number of cases where property has been acquired not through legitimate effort but through State theft, and where, therefore, similar alternatives will have to be faced once more.