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Commentary

Why We Couldn't Abolish Slavery Then and Can't Abolish Government Now


     
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Slavery existed for thousands of years, in all sorts of societies and all parts of the world. To imagine human social life without it required an extraordinary effort. Yet, from time to time, eccentrics emerged to oppose it, most of them arguing that slavery is a moral monstrosity and therefore people should get rid of it. Such advocates generally elicited reactions that ranged from gentle amusement to harsh scorn and violent assault.

When people bothered to give reasons for opposing the proposed abolition, they advanced many different ideas. In the first column of the accompanying table, I list ten such ideas that I have encountered in my reading. At one time, countless people found one or more of these reasons an adequate ground on which to oppose the abolition of slavery.

In retrospect, however, these reasons seem shabby—more rationalizations than reasons. They now appear to nearly everyone to be, if not utterly specious, then shaky or, at best, unpersuasive, notwithstanding an occasional grain of truth. No one now dredges up these ideas or their corollaries to support a proposal for reestablishing slavery. Although vestiges of slavery exist in northern Africa and a few other places, the idea that slavery is a defensible social institution is defunct. Reasons that once, not so long ago, seemed to provide compelling grounds for opposing the abolition of slavery now pack no intellectual punch.

Strange to say, however, the same ideas once trotted out to justify opposition to the abolition of slavery are now routinely trotted out to justify opposition to the abolition of government (as we know it). Libertarian anarchists bold enough to have publicly advanced their proposal for abolishing the state will have encountered many, if not all, of the arguments used for centuries to prop up slavery. Thus, we may make a parallel list, as shown in the table’s second column.

In the table, my repetition of the cumbersome expression “government (as we know it)” may seem odd, or even irritating, but I have chosen to tax the reader’s patience in this way for a reason. When the typical person encounters an advocate of anarchism, his immediate reaction is to identify a list of critical government functions—preservation of social order, maintenance of a legal system for resolving disputes and dealing with criminals, protection against foreign aggressors, enforcement of private property rights, support of the weak and defenseless, production and maintenance of economic infrastructure, and so forth. This reaction, however, shoots at the wrong target.

Libertarian anarchists do not deny that such social functions must be carried out if a society is to function successfully. They do deny, however, that we must have government (as we know it) to carry them out. Libertarian anarchists prefer that these functions be carried out by private providers with whom the beneficiaries have agreed to deal. When I write about government “as we know it,” I am referring to the monopolistic, individually nonconsensual form of government that now exists virtually everywhere on earth.

Readers may object that at least some existing governments do have the people’s consent, but where’s the evidence? Show me the properly signed and witnessed contracts. Unless all of the responsible adults subject to a government’s claimed authority have voluntarily and explicitly accepted its governance on specific terms, the presumption must be that the rulers have simply imposed their rule. Propaganda statements, civics texts, opinion surveys, barroom allegations, political elections, and so forth are beside the point in this regard. No one would think of proffering such forms of evidence to show that I have a valid contract with Virgin Mobile, which supplies me with telelphone service. When will the governments of the United States, the state of Louisiana, and St. Tammany Parish send me the contracts wherein I may agree (or not) to purchase their “services” on mutually acceptable terms?

The similarity of arguments against the abolition of slavery and arguments against the abolition of government (as we know it) should shake the faith of all Americans who still labor under the misconception that ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” From where I stand, it looks distressingly like an institutional complex that rests on the same shaky intellectual foundations as slavery.

Arguments Against the Abolition of Slavery and Arguments Against the Abolition of Government (as We Know It)

Slavery is natural.

Government (as we know it) is natural.

Slavery has always existed.

Government (as we know it) has always existed.

Every society on earth has slavery.

Every society on earth has government (as we know it)

The slaves are not capable of taking care of themselves.

The people are not capable of taking care of themselves

Without masters, the slaves will die off.

Without government (as we know it), the people will die off.

Where the common people are free, they are even worse off than slaves

Where the common people have no government (as we know it), they are much worse off (e.g., Somalia).

Getting rid of slavery would occasion great bloodshed and other evils.

Getting rid of government (as we know it) would occasion great bloodshed and other evils.

Without slavery, the former slaves would run amuck, stealing, raping, killing, and generally causing mayhem.

Without government (as we know it), the people would run amuck, stealing, raping, killing, and generally causing mayhem.

Trying to get rid of slavery is foolishly utopian and impractical; only a fuzzy-headed dreamer would advance such a cockamamie proposal.

Trying to get rid of government (as we know it) is foolishly utopian and impractical; only a fuzzy-headed dreamer would advance such a cockamamie proposal.

Forget abolition. A far better plan is to keep the slaves sufficiently well fed, clothed, housed, and occasionally entertained and to take their minds off their exploitation by encouraging them to focus on the better life that awaits them in the hereafter.

Forget anarchy. A far better plan is to keep the ordinary people sufficiently well fed, clothed, housed, and entertained and to take their minds off their exploitation by encouraging them to focus on the better life that awaits them in the hereafter.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

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CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government

The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups. Learn More »»






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