Freedom in Mind

Chapter 10
Rich Men Make the Best Slaves

Would you like to own an artist?

As a mental exercise, let's take the idea of patronage to its extreme, and suppose you own a slave who is an artist—a fine pianist, say. You have a slave who loves above all to play piano, so you make that his job. He is a slave who is ordered by his master to do the one thing he wants most to do. If he were to become a free man, he would go right on playing the piano. It is what he wants to do.

Suppose your slave becomes a famous celebrity. Audiences are willing to pay money to hear him. Naturally, the money comes to you the owner, but naturally you want to keep this prize slave happy, so you spend a good part of the money on him. What a deal! Your slave is rich and happy, and you are rich and happy.

There might come a day when your rich and famous slave looks you in the eye and says, "What do I need you for?" He can now afford to escape and live free. As his owner, you could shackle him to the piano—and see if people would still pay—and see if he would still play. You might think it wiser to reason with him. "You need me, because you need a manager. Without me you would have had no piano to practice on, no instruction, and no management."

The slave could give you a choice: set him free and work for him, or get thrown off the gravy train. Or, he could acknowledge your contribution to his success, and go on being your slave. In fact, even if slavery were outlawed, he could still let you be the boss. In other words, whether he is a slave or not, the choice is his.

Perhaps your best bet would be moral force. You say to your slave, "As long as you admit that you owe your success to me, then I am willing to set you free. We can be partners. I count on your moral sense to make you stick to the contract we will sign guaranteeing me my share of your earnings."

That would be the non-coercive way. The coercive way would be to get a law passed requiring all freed slaves to reimburse former owners, with interest, for everything it cost to buy them, raise them, and manage them.

Under that law, a slave set free is still a slave part time. A good part of his labor is not his own, but still his former owner's. He is now a free man doing slave labor.

We have arrived at the moral justification for slave labor. You were not born a slave, but you were born into a society. The society helped raise you, protect you, educate you, and solve problems for you. If you are not a success in life, then the society will go on helping you. On the other hand, if you are a success, you owe society some reimbursement. You have a moral obligation to give something back.

That's the non-coercive way, using moral force. The coercive way is to have the government put you to work for me. Society takes possession of part of your working time, by docking your pay. The justification is that it is money you owe.

How do we decide how much you owe? We vote on it. We elect representatives who make sure that the more you succeed, the more you owe.

Why would that be? Well, if you are richer, then presumably you earn more money per hour. The same amount of slave labor will produce more wealth. If you have accepted the justification for slave labor, then that's fair. If you have not, then you look for loopholes, or move to another country.

In other words, the choice is yours. You can accept the justification for slave labor, or you can ask a hard question: isn't the justification for slave labor also a justification for slavery? What if your elected representatives decide that you owe all of your time to society? They did in fact so decide in the Second World War, by making it possible to pay almost one hundred percent in income tax. Only fair, they said, when young men were dying in defense of freedom.

Did anyone back then wonder about the contradiction of drafting men into involuntary service to defend freedom? Fortunately, so many volunteered to defend freedom that the subject hardly came up.

Come to think of it, rich men volunteer a lot. They accept their debt to society, and set out to repay it. With money left over after the government's cut, they set up foundations to do charitable work. They do their own labor, and they do their slave labor, and they go on to do labors of love for others.

It's easy to see why successful people like to help others. We live in a society made rich by a division of labor. Dividing the labor works because different people have different capabilities. You do your thing better than I can, and I do my thing better than you can. Instead of doing my thing well and your thing poorly, I do more of my thing and trade the results for your thing. By cooperation and trade, we increase efficiency more and more, which makes us richer and richer.

The more I appreciate my prosperity, the more I appreciate your part in it. Even if I don't get along with you personally, I see how valuable you are to my prosperity. The more I cherish my happiness, the more I want you to be able to do your thing. If your house burns down, then whether I like you or not, I am eager to get you fixed up with a house so you can resume your contribution to my prosperity.

To make this point even more obvious, imagine inviting a group of friends over to celebrate some event that makes you happy. Each friend is down in the dumps about some personal trouble. They try to celebrate, but it falls flat. If you want to celebrate your happiness, you will have to start by cheering up your guests. Sure, you can celebrate alone, but cooperation would make it a lot better.

There's no mystery about it. All you have to do is look and see how cooperation makes your own life better all the time. Nobody has to tell you to cooperate. Unless you live alone in the wilderness, you already want to cooperate, and you already see how important it is to you that others are hale and hearty and able to cooperate.

If you get rich by creating wealth, then you can see even more clearly how vital other people's welfare is to your prosperity. When you employ ten people, who call in sick one percent of the time, it costs you some in lost production. When you employ ten thousand people, who call in sick one percent of the time, it costs you a lot. A cure for the common cold would be a good thing for society, and a profitable thing for you.

To claim that a man whose prosperity depends on cooperation does not value his cooperators is to pretend that he does not value his wealth. To claim that a rich man does not want to benefit others is to pretend that he does not want to get richer. Wealth by trade is the result of providing something that makes people better off. Telling a businessman that he has an altruistic duty to do good is like telling a comedian that he has an altruistic duty to get laughs.

Some of the richest men in America got that way by inventing and improving computers. A computer mostly does the same old things a lot faster. That is, it increases efficiency. Increasing efficiency is what got us to the point where poor people now live better than kings of old. Efficiency was increased by free trade and the division of labor, by machines, and by better ideas. So it is not strange that the computer has done enormous good for all of us by doing things faster. People who try to maintain that rich men get rich by stealing have a hard time with the Computer Kings. By making it possible to do things faster, they provided time, the most precious of commodities. Where did they steal that from?

The Computer Kings got rich making others rich. They got rich putting you on the internet. They got rich making everything work not only faster but better. It would be utter absurdity to tell these rich men that having done all this for society, they must also do a share of slave labor.

Coercive government announces this absurdity as public policy. Political candidates get elected by promising to "soak the rich". TV commentators make it clear that the more we enslave the rich, the better off we can be.

You might think that this adoration of slavery is justly condemned by the rich, and considered beneath contempt. You would be wrong.

Whatever rich men think privately, what they say publicly is that they are dedicated altruists, which is the doctrine of self-sacrifice. Having benefited society in order to get rich, and paid half their income in taxes, and donated generously to charity, they then let the government step in and help run the business. They are in the position of the slave pianist: they think slavery must be okay if they get treated so well.

There could come a day when rich men look coercive government in the eye and say, "What do we need you for?" They could give government a choice: set us free and protect our rights, or get off the gravy train. Since the gravy train is what gets politicians elected, freedom would be the reluctant choice.

First, however, the rich would have to free themselves from the moral shackles of altruism. They would have to realize that what they took for a doctrine of benevolence is actually a doctrine of slavery. Altruism does not tell you that benevolence is good, but that benevolence is insignificant. It does not say follow your heart; it says do your duty. Not only do you have a duty of service to others, says altruism, but your service must not provide a mutual gain. Your service must cost you. The more self-sacrificial you are, says altruism, the more moral you are.

Rich men are smart men. They see quickly that altruism is telling them to become poor. They also see that if they stop creating wealth, all of society is harmed. Many get stuck in the paradox, and live in guilt, secretly thinking they may deserve slavery.

"Well," they end up saying, "There's no reason to go to extremes. The trick is to find just the right mixture of freedom and slave labor, so nobody gets too rich, and nobody gets too poor. We don't need a free market, we need a fair market. We need rules of the game, referees, and a level playing field."

To put that another way: "It was an exciting struggle getting rich, but now I can relax and coast."

A moral code consists of rules for meeting a standard of morality. Altruism says that the standard is other people. What other people? Any and all. Altruism says that to find out if you are moral, you have to consult others. What others? Any and all. Altruism says that your labor is not owned by you, but by others. What others? Any and all.

Altruists admit that fallible humans cannot reach the ideal, which is universal service to others, or in plain words, universal slavery. They even admit that universal slavery is not compatible with industrial civilization. Altruists are willing to give you a pass on getting rich, as long as you give away the credit. After all, it is obvious even to an altruist that rich men make the best slaves.

How does one reconcile a doctrine of freedom with a doctrine of universal slavery? By proclaiming that slavery is immoral, and slave labor is moral. That way, you own yourself in principle, but your labor is mine in practice. You have the freedom to earn money any way you like, and I have the freedom to dock your pay all I like. You are not the slave pianist, because you are not a slave: you are an artist with obligations.

That's the key to turning universal slavery into phony benevolence: unchosen obligations. If you value others, you want to do nice things for them. It seems but a tiny step from that to accepting an obligation to do nice things for them. You are ordered to do the very thing you want to do. No use arguing with that: it seems a benevolent rule.

Here's an easy way to put yourself in charge of a group. Find out what the members want to do, and insist that they do that. It worked for altruism. People think they are altruists, because it says they are obligated to do what they want to do: protect the people whose cooperation makes their life better. The attractive thing about making it into an obligation is that you can stop worrying that others might not want what you want. But is that worry justified?

When you drive on the freeway, you must be on the lookout in case somebody does not want what you want, speed with safety. Still, the whole point of the freeway is to have speed with safety. People who don't want that stay off the freeway. What you are really looking out for is bad judgment.

The whole point of living in a society is to have a better life through cooperation in the division of labor. People who do not want that can choose subsistence living outside society. People in society who are not criminals do want what you want: to protect the people whose cooperation makes their lives better. What you really have to worry about is bad judgment.

The freeway driver who impulsively cuts in front of you is not deciding against safety, but making a bad judgment. The neighbor who treats you as an enemy is not giving up on society, but making a bad judgment. You hope that all those ignored freeway rules will guard you against bad judgment. You hope that ordering people by law to do what they logically want to do will guard you against bad judgment.

You missed something, though. You chose to do nice things, then you chose to be obligated to do nice things, then you chose to allow everybody to be obligated to do nice things. You forgot to ask: nice things according to who?

If you jump into a river to save a child, you are a hero. If you are thrown into the river and ordered on pain of death to save the child, you are a victim. Having a choice makes all the difference. If your life proceeds according to the decisions you make, you are free. If your life proceeds according to the decisions others make, you are enslaved. Your choice to allow everybody to be obligated to do nice things was a choice for slavery.

After that choice, it will do no good to ask coercive government, "What do I need you for?" The answer will be, "For a moral standard. You need me to tell right from wrong."

Rich men make the best slaves because they trust others to provide the moral standard. Not that they have to. They could learn to figure it out themselves.

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