Arnold Kling  

Opting for Enslavement

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One of the intriguing short chapters in Africa: A Biography of the Continent is called, with irony, "Merrie Africa." It discusses the issue of slavery within Africa.


A history of slavery in Africa claims that between 30 and 60 percent of the entire population were slaves during historical times. If this is correct, then the number of people enslaved in Africa far exceeded the number taken from the continent by the slave trade...

In this part of Africa [Mozambique] famines were frequent and made terrible depredations, but occurred in some areas more than in others, and people from the affected lands would crowd into unaffected areas where food was to be found. They bought food with anything they possessed, including their own freedom, voluntarily making themselves the slaves of those who would give them sustenance. Desperate individuals would even destroy an item of value belonging to a wealthier neighbor, knowing that the punishment for this symbolic act would be enslavement.

Some thoughts of mine follow.

1. One of the most potent ways to accumulate wealth and power is to have other people work for you. Karl Marx was not wrong on this. It was true in Classical times, it is true for the owners and managers of large firms, and it is true for politicians, for whom all of us labor in order to pay taxes. Indeed, in Unchecked and Unbalanced I offer calculations which suggest that some relatively ordinary politicians have power that is greater than that of leading billionaires.

2. The ideal of freedom and equality may be unrealistic, with only rare exceptions. It could be that the most natural human condition is one of dominance and submission. You can start from a different equilibrium, but somehow you end up with a few people in dominant positions and most people submitting, some quite willingly, to domination.

3. Markets can offer freedom and equality when the option for exit is viable. Instead, if I am totally dependent on my employer for a job (that is, my next best alternative is something with a much lower wage rate), then I must behave very submissively toward my employer. How many people are in such a position? Government workers strike me as an obvious example--many of them would be unable to earn as much in the private sector, particularly now. So they would tend to be highly submissive. In fact, nowadays a lot of people would go nearly to the lengths of described in the last sentence quoted above if it would allow them to be employed by (enslaved by?) the government.

4. Labor unions, which ostensibly exist to strengthen workers in dealing with management, may in fact serve to create a submissive labor force. If your union wage is much higher than the wage you could earn elsewhere, then you have very little threat of exit, and you have to be submissive. You submit to a combination of union power and management power.

5. Jonah Goldberg comments on the current political environment.


Several readers claim that I am over-reading the news that, for the first time since the Great Depression, Americans took more aid from the government than they paid in taxes...

We're watching the Democrats scramble to conscript the American people into a mandatory health-care system. The Obama budget was intended to expand the baseline to put the government on the path of ever greater expansion. There's a concerted push to remove the stigma on such aid as food stamps. Barack Obama campaigned on his vision of "spreading the wealth around." He came into office encouraging comparisons to the New Deal, which were made ad nauseum by his biggest supporters. Just in the last week, the Obama administration has floated the idea of using government power to manipulate wages on a massive scale. Leading liberal pundits saw the financial crisis as an opportunity for establishing a European style social welfare state.

6. Today, we think of Marxists as authoritarian. An alternative view is that at least some Marxists sincerely wanted freedom and equality, but that dominance-submission is such a natural equilibrium that the only way to replace the capitalist version of dominance and submission was with a statist-authoritarian version.

7. For libertarians, the outlook is always going to be precarious. It is not just that there are people who desire to enslave others. It may be very natural for most people to opt for enslavement.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (22 to date)
BZ writes:

This reminds me of the seeming dichotomy between natural law theory and the idea here, as Jefferson said "The natural order of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." Which is it? Is our nature to be free, or to be servants?

Dr. Kling seems to suggest that servanthood might be born of either natural motivation, or physical necessity. In the past I've leaned more towards the former, just due to observations about how individuals in groups defer to a dominant individual in certain situations (anything from a jury deliberation, to a group deciding where to go to lunch). However, that sort of voluntary submission seemed to me to be born of our ignorance -- a willingness to defer to those who, at least seem to, possess knowledge we lack.

Anyway, this is both a fascinating and disturbing subject and blog post. I did not expect to be forced to ponder this subject again soon. :(

Philo writes:

These are words of wisdom: "For libertarians, the outlook is always going to be precarious. It is not just that there are people who desire to enslave others. It may be very natural for most people to opt for enslavement."

My impression is that the American spirit of self-reliance and independence is a "frontier spirit" which, the frontier having long been closed, is wearing very thin. That is bad for Americans who want to live among people who firmly reject enslavement, but what country offers a better prospect? Must we pin our hopes on *seasteading*?

Frederick Davies writes:

Reminds me on how the small farmers during Late Imperial Rome found themselves needing to "enslave" themselves to large landowners in times of crisis; I believe that is how the feudal system started.

Jody writes:

Or in the immortal words of the Eurythmics...

Everybody's looking for something
Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you

Ian writes:

This sounds very Hansonian. We pay lip service to the ideals of freedom and equality, but our actions center around dominance and submission.

Kurbla writes:

Politicians have lot of power, but their power is strangely shaped: they can decide about life or death of millions, while they cannot manage to put few millions of dollars on side for their own retirement. Who shaped their power on that particular way, and why?

The majority of Marxists were and still are true believers in equality and freedom. Sure, there are lot of cheaters, opportunists and psychopaths in the movement, but: ideological movements, just like religions, cannot exist without true believers. Movement consisting only of cheaters is like Baron Münchhausen escaping from a swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair.


Les Cargill writes:

Our ancestors were as likely as not slaves/serfs/servile peasants, going back to Egypt. Indeed, when we hear stories of a William Wallace, at least this writer has pangs of "wow, how bloody minded."

Almost all mammals arbitrate, usually violently, for alpha status.

Besides, what have the Romans ever done for us? Beside the aqueducts, the wine, the pax romana.....

cvd writes:

Your analysis is wrong for government workers (I am one).

We are not submissive to our bosses. After all, they can't fire us.

Flip side is actually true. Our bosses have to be submissive to us. If they're not, we might stop working, in which case the boss would be stuck with a bunch of employees that don't work and can't be fired. Then the boss would be left doing all the work.

jc writes:

cvd: touche

(Your analysis mirrors what I see in a government office I now spend some time in. In fact, arguably the 2nd most important person in this center has specifically said that the reason they sought this job was because they wanted a job where they could not be fired; the higher than market salary is a bonus. I'll let others predict what productivity levels are like.)

Mike Gibson writes:

In the Brothers Karamozov, Dostoevsky created a character named the Grand Inquisitor to expound this philosophy of willing submission. Here's one quote from the Inquisitor's speech:

“No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Better that you enslave us, but feed us.’ They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves. They will also be convinced they are forever incapable of being free because they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels. You promised them heavenly bread, but I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved and eternally ignoble human race?”

Floccina writes:

It was true in Classical times, it is true for the owners and managers of large firms

The managers also work for use when we are consumers.

I love your 3 and 4. The way to some independence is through accumulation of assets but there are property taxes to pay.

I think that things like economical solar power and like biotech could increase the level of achievable independence.

dWj writes:

Freedom is a normal good; demand for it increases with income.

Tim Worstall writes:

"They bought food with anything they possessed, including their own freedom, voluntarily making themselves the slaves of those who would give them sustenance."

Anglo Saxon England (ie, pre 1066) worked the same way.

Current writes:

There is three confusing uses of the term submission here. On the one hand it is used for a rational response to poverty, on the other hand it is used for an emotional response to power relations, and on the other as a display. The three are certainly interlinked, but different.

"Instead, if I am totally dependent on my employer for a job (that is, my next best alternative is something with a much lower wage rate), then I must behave very submissively toward my employer."

In this case the display is put on for the watching employer knowing that it is a rational response.

The important question from a psychological and sociological perspective is when does the emotional response begin?

tkwelge writes:

I don't think that people have any less of a love of freedom now than they did at any time during the "frontier" days. Many people are much more socially open minded, and technology has created so many more opportunities. That same frontier spirit can be found on the internet, or in the hearts of every pot head who wishes they could be free. Personally, I don't see how the government benefits me in any way (short of protecting me from hypothetical people who might want to to hyptothetical harm to me), and would benefit tremendously from a roll back of government power. The real problem is that people today believe that the only person who could probably want more freedom is a degenerate or a greedy capitalist, so the push against freedom seems strong. However, nobody wants to subvert their individuality to the will of the majority. I'm just a poor young adult from texas, and the spirit of liberty is within me.

Pedro writes:

I think the idea that people "submit" to the government is wrong. We no longer pay homage to the king.

I do think that people acquiesce to increases in government control and power, but generally they do that out of apathy or a (usually) mistaken belief that they are giving up less than they are getting.

Examples of people willingly being enslaved as a reaction to a desperate situation are not really very relevant to the modern developed world.

Jose writes:

"Desperate individuals..."
Having a job with a corporation, the government or a university hardly makes one desperate. Compliance is a big thing in all of these spheres. Usually that means that one is conscientous and can follow rules, not necessarily submissive. Engaging in a respectful challenge process is also a big thing, at least on paper.
Being unemployed for an extended period of time and running out of resources might make one desperate enough to submit oneself to a gang engaged in prostitution, drug trafficking, or other criminal activity. Those, I submit, are the modern equivalents of slavery, where coercion and the inability to exit, without a big chance of dying, exists. Now if you believe that the government is a big criminal enterprise, that's another story.

ERIC writes:

Interesting information and great comments Arnold. People sure do "seem" strange sometimes, maybe it's not such strange behavior after all.

It makes a great deal of sense to do whatever you need to do to survive. Funny how some of the commenters think that because we live one way, and shouldn't have to live the way we did, that it is somehow "not correct" or "unnatural" for others to do whatever is necessary to survive.

Can you blame them for making a "bad deal" by your standards when the alternative is likely starvation and death?

What obligation does the person with "stuff" have to those without "stuff"? The situation dictates how difficult the choice is. And what right does the unlucky have to the property of the lucky?

I think you correctly identified how people act in government and unions. Great angle.

AAAA writes:

@ cvd and jc

There might come a time when you are fired, you might just be surprised when it happens. I would suggest that you don't do much work to begin with and sadly that is what is expected of you. How much value do you really create? Likely none. Your boss knows this - everyone knows this! Yet we tolerate it because of how entrenched things are.

Difficult to fire and impossible to fire are two different things. I'm sure the "boss" would have no trouble finding people to do your job. We're all replaceable.

For the "above market pay" you likely do unimportant and soul-sucking work. It is a sad existence. Everyone knows the choice you make when you work in a union or for the government. Pretend that you are getting a "work/life balance" all you want, at what cost to you?

If I had to bet, I'd say that given enough time, when things fall apart, they'll fall apart quickly. It won't be your "boss" who's doing the firing; the whole house will be cleaned! Sadly though this may not happen in any of our lifetimes and government workers will have their "cushy" union jobs for entire careers.

jc writes:

@ AAAA

I would like very much for that time to come quickly (where people feel like they must be productive or risk being fired, or at least rewarded less). I am not optimistic that it will come anytime soon. From what I've seen, when places like these are less productive, the answer is often to give them more money.

Fwiw, The boss would love to fire many employees, but feels like he can't (and has little hope for replacements that would be markedly better, based on past replacements for positions that have turned over voluntarily). The employees know that, barring an extreme u-turn like departure from the past, the boss is not allowed to fire them.

Thus, he pretends to be the boss, and they pretend to work.

Whether this is common in the public sector, I do not know for sure. I've seen it the two times I've been peripherally involved. Are my case studies generalizable? I hope not, but would not be surprised if they are to some degree.

AAAA writes:

@ jc

I'm glad to hear you agree.

I think you are right about both types "pretending". From that it would follow that the boss is apathetic and has no incentive to fire and put effort into recruiting someone effective, if someone can be found. I agree that even with the great pay and benefits it is hard to fill public sector jobs for the reasons I've stated above.

Sadly, I think this is is generalizable. The level of honesty in admitting "how things really are" might vary slightly. I mean, you don't really want everyone outside of your group to know how valueless you are, do you! If that got out, it might upset the public enough to force a politician to make an example of someone.

Everyone has something to hide...and (slightly altered) I read on another blog comment (in response to one of Bryan's posts) 'we're all in the business of keeping ourselves in business'!

George X writes:

Philo wrote: My impression is that the American spirit of self-reliance and independence is a "frontier spirit" which, the frontier having long been closed, is wearing very thin.

Bah. We're Americans: when we ran out of frontier, we just made some more. What do you think our national passion for invention is all about? I'd say the internet is a wider and more populous frontier than the Old West ever was.

And it's starting to affect politics: for all the words by stoned anarcho-syndicalist lefties in college dorms over the decades, the Tea Party phenomenon appears to be the first widespread, sustained mass movement in America to have no leader, or leadership—which would be a practical impossibility without email and the web (and maybe Twitter or Facebook or something else I'm too old to be familiar with). I know that I myself owe most of my libertarian and anarchist streaks to seeing how the various parts of the internet have been (successfully) governed, from Usenet discussion group creation through the IETF recommendations to IANA.

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