How should we morally reject slavery and tyranny?


The other day (N.B. months ago at this point) I got into a very interesting discussion with C. Michael Pickens, a prominent member of the Washington State Libertarian Party, on what principles should form the proper ground of a theory of liberty. In his original Facebook post, Michael claimed that "Liberty is an optimistic concept based on the philosophy of self-ownership." Someone else asked whether liberty could be grounded in concepts of free will and autonomy; Michael replied that these are themselves based in self-ownership.

In the discussion, I (and the other guy) both raised the possible issue of indentured servitude—I had in mind specifically the condition of indentured servants during the early American colonial period, which was a condition of chattel slavery in all but name. Michael wasn't arguing that slavery was permissible—obviously it isn't, regardless of your libertarian principles, unless you're a Confederacy-fetishist douchebag like, say, this guy—but rather that selling yourself into indentured servitude is not wrong and should be permitted.

But there's more than one road to liberty, and I think I have some axioms that lead to libertarian conclusions while also disallowing both slavery and indentured servitude.

As I learned by reading Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?, libertarian philosophies actually come from two distinct strains of thought in the Western tradition. One way, derived from the concept of natural law, argues that there are inherent (or God-given, depending on who you ask) moral truths about humans that cannot be denied. In particular, natural-law libertarians often cite self-ownership as the basis for libertarian politics; and indeed, this is what Michael Pickens said.

Now there's another road to liberty, through theories of utilitarianism. This may strike readers as counter-intuitive, because utilitarianism as expounded by, say, the likes of Jeremy Bentham ("maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of people") or collectivist planners in Communist governments, doesn't seem very libertarian at all.

However, no less than John Stuart Mill (he of "On Liberty") arrived at libertarianism by concluding that liberty was the best way of maximizing each individual's utility! Moreover, you can follow the reasoning of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek in the calculation problem: ceteris paribus, nobody knows what an individual wants better than that person themselves, so in general it's better to let people do as they will as long as it doesn't interfere with anyone else.

I think that preference or desire utilitarianism (which says basically "act in such a way that satisfies more preferences than it thwarts") makes the path clearer, though any other utilitarian formulation can do the job.


The problem with the doctrine of self-ownership, as I see it, is that it smells like a motte-and-bailey: where one explanation is given that's controversial and desirable, but when challenged one retreats to a safer and easily-defended explanation. Let me elaborate.

Self-ownership, literally understood, means that each person holds property rights to their own body. This is then extended, so that each person holds property rights on stuff they make or improve (e.g., a homestead), et cetera. It is often claimed that self-ownership is the necessary ground of all other liberty:
Bound up in the principle of freedom of association is every defining libertarian principle: self-ownership, the meaning of property titles, and nonaggression. [Lew Rockwell, "What Libertarianism Is and Isn't," 31 March 2014]
And moreover, self-ownership libertarians often exhibit a curious narrowness, haughtily disdaining anything but the relationship between a man, his property, and the State:
Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation. It has nothing to do with left-wing campaigns against “white privilege,” unless that privilege is state-supplied.

Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun. Disagree with this statement if you like, but in that case you will have to substitute some word other than libertarian to describe your philosophy. [Ibid.]
It's fortunate for Rockwell that libertarianism (in his words) has nothing to do with aesthetics, because he has really poor taste.

Self-ownership is also co-morbid with a high frequency of intellectual arrogance and, ah, dubious sweeping assertions about other philosophies:
The principle of self-ownership is one of a handful of principles that guide a Libertarian. To date, no one has presented any refutation of the principle, and it is a fundamental principle that makes slavery immoral, whereas, all claims dismissing self-ownership give a moral free-pass for slavery.
Slavery often has a subtly different meaning, specified as "forcefully or nonconsensually directing the actions of another," for a simple reason. If you believe in self-ownership as literally meaning "you hold property rights in your own body," there's nothing stopping someone from selling themselves into indefinite servitude: slavery, in all but name. Michael Pickens confirmed this view:
You can do whatever you want as long as you don't infringe on the person or property of another. Many people have sold themselves into debt slavery.
I have huge moral reservations against any path that leads to permitting indefinite servitude, a bona fide road to serfdom, because it's entirely possible to follow that to an end that's just feudal hierarchy all over again. Looking back over the last six thousand years of history, I think we've had enough feudalism.

The issue boils down to a key feature of property rights, which is that property rights can be transferred. If you take a strong view of ownership, it follows that one can literally give up ownership of oneself. If human self-ownership is of the same character as, say, human ownership of a chair, then self-ownership can be given up irrevocably just as the chair can: it doesn't return to being your chair unless actively sold back to you.
Another potential issue facing the strong view is that property rights include the right of arbitrary disposal. That is, and strong-view libertarians usually hold this, that an owner can do absolutely anything with his property as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. If he wants to destroy his chair, that's fine, he owns it. If he wants to pollute his pond, also fine.

Needless to say, the strong-view conclusion is heading way into the political fringe. Softer views often modify the claim slightly, and claim that it's more metaphorical than literal. But then it's a sort of special pleading, where "ownership" means something special when applied to humans, and something different when applied to anything else.

The conversation about voluntary indefinite servitude was where things started to get interesting. Specifically, the idea that at some point in time t = t_0, you have sufficient moral agency to agree that, for all time t > t_0, your property rights are at the disposal of another person.

But there's a very open question: are the "you" of t = t_0 and the "you" of t = t_1 > t_0 actually the same person? What right does the t_0-you have to abridge the agency of all future you's? I think not; and in fact, indefinite servitude fundamentally being coercion of all your future selves seems like a damn good reason to morally reject such servitude. Sure, it seems morally obvious to us in this time and place that slavery, no matter how "voluntarily" agreed to, is wrong; but can we defend this position even on another set of terms?

I think we just did.