Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Today was Juneteenth, and so the historical ending point of slavery in the US has passed through more minds than it usually does this week. And yet, archaic institution or not, slavery captures a lot of creative thought.

There are several modern arguments hidden in the corners of the moral and ethical spectrum of opinions that favor slavery. All - well, almost all - are unwilling to say that the institution of slavery as practiced in the US was a-OK. Hereditary racially-based lifelong slavery in which the owners have unlimited rights to dispose of their property as they see fit? Certainly not!

But while I think that the wrong was in the humans-owning-other-humans part, others would suggest it is in the other details. Why, if it is entered into with agreement by the party being enslaved, appropriate rights left to the slave, has nothing to do with racial oppression, what of it? Shouldn't people be free to enter into such a contract?

It is a perfectly libertarian turn of phrase. If slavery is a transferable contract, shouldn't it be legal? Leaving aside the sticky issue of people being pressed into slavery under duress, false pretenses, et cetera. There is a subtle point in the works. While undoubtedly there are those foolish enough to sign themselves onto an open-ended transferable contract - and some of the more clever transferable labor contracts look something like that - there remains the freedom to walk away from a contract at any time - throw up your hands and walk off the job. You may be out money; you may even be liable for financial penalties; but you retain that liberty.

Perhaps most importantly, it retains a sharp distinction between people and property, which is a dangerous line to blur. And perhaps we should carefully look at the things that look like slavery - prison labor to fill pockets, transferable contracts, and the penalty clauses allowed to labor contracts - and ask ourselves "What is the difference between this, and some nicely cleaned-up version of slavery?"

And those of you in the BDSM crowd who are into the master-slave relationships and roleplay on a purely consensual basis, who can end it at any time? You can ignore all that.

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