Abolitionists: Then and Now

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Slavery is the most extreme form of human domination. On an individual basis it is the most power that one individual can exercise over another, and as an institution it is the ultimate expression of state power. The most common form of slavery throughout history—one which is largely or completely dead today—has been chattel slavery, or the type of slavery in which people are treated as personal property of the owner, and are bought and sold as if they were commodities. This devastating practice deprives the enslaved individual of freedom of movement, freedom to choose his or her work, freedom to refuse to work, freedom to learn as they wish, freedom to exercise their intellectual and creative faculties, freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor, freedom to live life as they see fit—indeed, chattel (and to different extents all forms) slavery deprives people of their very humanity.

This deplorable practice is likely the longest running institution in human history, having pre-dated recorded history and lasting as a legal practice until 1981 when Mauritania became the last country in the world to outlaw it. In many parts of the western world it was seen as an indispensable and irreplaceable economic and social practice until the Enlightenment Era and then, in scarcely longer than a 100 year period, it was outlawed everywhere with Brazil being the last to abolish it in 1888. Of course there were probably always some voices speaking out against slavery but they were seen as extreme radicals on the fringe who had no concept of reality and only busied themselves with fantasy and utopian ideas.

In the western world the institution of slavery was first spoken out against by rogue, sympathetic priests and later, fringe religious sects such as the Quakers. And though largely not practiced in Western and Northern Europe, these European governments were instrumental in sanctioning, and indeed creating, the Columbian slave trade and the extremely brutal new world system of slavery. Most Europeans and European emigrants to the new world had a passive attitude towards slavery and cared little about it. After all, here was a system which had been in place for in one form or another for over 10 thousand years. Who were they to question it? But there were some who did. Early abolitionists had to not only show the practical inefficiencies of slavery in the new, market based capitalist economy which was developing in the 18th and 19th centuries, but had to introduce a new morality. Slavery had on its side mainstream tradition, mainstream religion, 10 thousand years of history, and no clear alternative. To combat this, abolitionists had to make people rethink their view of all of these things—and to change people’s minds about religion and tradition and history is no simple task.

In the US we take it for granted that most of the country (the “nice” northerners) wanted an end to slavery and that it was just some backward, redneck, evil southerners who wanted to keep slavery going. This is just simply not true. Even as late as the Civil War northern Democrats and moderate Republicans were not in support of full emancipation. The radical abolitionist Republicans were not only a minority in congress, but in the North as a whole. Slavery persisted and it took force to end it exactly because the majority of people in the country as a whole supported it, passively went along with it, or did not care enough about it to do anything. It took a war to end this institution—a war that had to constantly be defended and justified as not being about slavery to be supported by most northerners. But to even get enough people to have a minority who supported abolition in Europe and the Americas took a long time, and an immense amount of effort on the part of a few.

Apart from having been around for all of the history of civilization, the problem with getting rid of this practice was the lack of imagination to picture a world without it. We take this, too, for granted today because we have lived in a world free of mass and legalized slavery for 150 years. But around the time of the abolitionist movements in Britain and America few were convinced of the viability of a world without slavery. Robert Higgs of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) described 10 reasons that people had and argued to not abolish slavery. Here they are in a paraphrased and shortened version:

1.) Slavery is natural—some people are naturally superior and we must expect that they will be the masters of inferior people.

2.) Slavery has always existed.

3.) Every society on Earth has slavery and so it must be necessary. Certain kinds of work are so difficult or degrading that free people will never do them, and so we must have slaves to do them.

4.) Slaves are not capable of taking care of themselves. It would be cruel to free them because they would fall into destitution and suffering.

5.) Without masters, the slaves will die off.

6.) Where the common people are free, they are worse off even than slaves and so we are doing slaves a favor.

7.) Getting rid of slavery would cause great bloodshed, chaos, and other evils.

8.) Without slavery the social order would break down because former slaves would run amuck, stealing, raping, killing, and causing mayhem.

9.) “Trying to get rid of slavery is foolishly utopian and impractical; only a fuzzy-headed dreamer would advance such a cockamamie proposal. Serious people cannot afford to waste their time considering such farfetched ideas.” (direct quote)

10.) “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.” (direct quote)

Abolitionists had to counter these, as well as probably countless other arguments that most people of mainstream society would throw at them. And they were not just battling slave owners and normal non-slave owning citizens either, they had to come in direct contact with the state. Institutionalized, large scale slavery as seen in Greece and Rome, and later in the US, Brazil, and the Caribbean cannot survive without the backing of government power and force. The four million black slaves in the US in 1860 were enslaved by the government. In 1865, the US government did not set them free, but rather simply stopped enslaving them. In many parts of the world, such as Britain, this happened because public opinion had been turned by the abolitionists, and in the US, the radical fringe Republicans were able to use a devastating war to push through their ideas of emancipation. Either way, it was the government (or mainstream majority of government) which had to fought and convinced to stop enslaving millions. In Britain, where abolition occurred peacefully, it took a small movement to slowly gain enough supporters and momentum to force Parliament to first outlaw the slave trade (1807), and then slavery itself in the British Empire (1833).

In the US abolition has a slightly different story. In those States where slavery was not an economic essential, it was slowly abolished over time much like it was in Britain. In those regions and States where it was seen as essential, slavery became even more deeply entrenched, and the power of those defending it grew at both the State and Federal level. To fight against slavery, then, was to fight against your government which supported it and made it possible. Abolitionist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau understood this better than most. He was an ardent opponent of the Mexican-American War—seeing it as a way for the South to expand slavery—and refused to pay taxes because he refused to financially support the war or the institution of slavery any longer. In his work Civil Disobedience, he wrote, “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and to enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” He also wrote, “if I deny the authority of the state when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end.” For fighting slavery and the power behind it Thoreau was harassed and was once thrown in jail. Aside from this, the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made you a criminal for helping runaway slaves. By fighting slavery, abolitionists were fighting this excessive and extreme form of government. Slavery was and is the ultimate form of state power.

Though the abolitionists largely succeeded in making slavery considered an unacceptable practice in many parts of the world, they fell short because they misunderstood their true goal. They failed to see what the true evil behind what they were abolishing was. They succeeded in abolishing this extension of state power, but not state power itself. Though this is the topic for a different paper (or many), and though I have probably lost most readers with the previous few sentences, state power is the manifestation of all that is wrong in today’s world, and the cause of much of what is bad. The abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to go the extra mile and understand that the difference between a slave and subject is only one of degree (be that an extremely large degree). In both cases your life is not fully your own, and in both cases you are compelled by force or threat of force to act in a certain way—even against your personal principles and convictions.

The abolitionists of today are the free-market libertarians and free-market anarchists. And what is the object of their abolition? The state. They understand that slavery was not just one bad instance of state power, but that state power is itself evil. Though differing in their degree of abolition, both of these groups understand the scope of the danger of state power and the state itself. Libertarians would abolish the extensions of state power into the personal and economic affairs of citizens (or subjects), while free-market anarchists would abolish the state entirely. And I must say that I fall clearly into the latter camp. Much like slavery, there is no moral justification for the existence of the state, and, practically speaking, I see no reason or evidence why a society of free individuals voluntarily interacting with one another would do anything less than usher in a period of happiness and prosperity unlike anything we have ever seen in history. I would even venture to ask that if you have objections to a free, stateless society, are your objections or worries much different than the 10 reasons for not abolishing slavery written above? I ask you to think hard about the words of Robert Higgs in terms of states and its subjects and ask yourself if you see any parallels.

Similar to how most people rarely questioned the need for slavery, today most people rarely question the need for government. But do we truly need it? Like we have outgrown the thought of the necessity of human bondage, could we not eventually outgrow the thought that we need the thieving, murderous, violent, and inefficient organization known as government? Like the world after slavery, could we not find a more efficient and moral way to provide the things that the state attempts (and largely fails) to provide now, only without institutionalized coercion, theft, and violence? Whether you are ready to believe it or not, this alternative is upon us now. It was born in the thought of the Enlightenment and the fires of the Industrial Revolution. This alternative, whether called the free market, capitalism, anarcho-capitalism, or libertarianism, is liberty. It is embracing the idea that every person owns themselves completely, and has the sole right to determine his or her actions. It is doing away with the dated, coercive way of organizing society in the old world, and accepting human dignity and freedom as the organization of the future. Like the earlier abolitionists, and like the libertarians and market anarchists of today, we must all have imagination. We must understand the injustices and wrongs surrounding us in our society today, understand their root, and have the creativity and courage to imagine and fight for this alternative.

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