Freedom in Mind

Chapter 12
Thomas Jefferson's Dilemma

Thomas Jefferson hated slavery. As soon as he was elected to legislative office in the colony of Virginia, he proposed a law to permit slave owners to free their slaves. When he was asked to draft a Declaration of Independence for the colonies, he included an indictment of the King for "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery...."

The proposed law did not pass. The indictment of slavery was voted out of the Declaration. Jefferson had inherited a plantation with slaves, so he was stuck with the very thing he abhorred.

Imagine yourself in that position. If you don't want to be a slaveholder, there is an easy way out: sell your slaves. Families will be torn apart, skilled workers will be uprooted, settled lives will be cruelly disrupted. History will not mind, though; it will praise you for refusing to own slaves.

That is your dilemma: you hate slavery, but not your slaves. Slavery is a monstrous evil, but slaves are people. You cannot expect them to begin living an entirely different life without first learning how. You cannot throw them out of the nest with no safety net. There has to be a process for getting from here to there.

Jefferson's solution was to establish individual rights as a basis for a new country. Such a country, he said, could not in the long run tolerate slavery. In his "Notes on Virginia," he looked forward to "a total emancipation...."

The emancipation arrived as expected. But then something unexpected happened. Jefferson's dilemma did not fade away. It is with us still.

Slavery has been abolished almost everywhere, but slave labor is still the rule. Putting you to work for me is treated as a moral imperative, even by people who admit that docking your pay for my benefit really is slave labor. If you are a good citizen and I am a welfare recipient, then I have a ready argument: "You cannot expect me to begin living an entirely different life without first learning how."

Most welfare recipients are not descendents of slaves. Most stay on welfare only as long as they have to. Just the same, they live with the knowledge that welfare is there if they need it—not because others are kind enough to provide it, but because others are forced to provide it. That is supposed to make them feel safer, because people cannot be depended upon to voluntarily provide charity. On the other hand, people supposedly can be depended upon to vote for slave labor.

If you hate the idea of coerced charity, do you hate the beneficiaries of it? Many hate the idea, but not the people. They know that forcing one man to labor for another is a form of slavery, but they also consider it a form of charity. Like Jefferson's friends who refused to vote slavery out, they understand the moral argument against slave labor, but see no way to abolish it without causing chaos. "We must have the safety net," they insist.

When thirteen British Colonies united themselves into a new country, they founded it on the principles of freedom and individual rights. They knew that neither indentured servitude in the North nor slavery in the South fit in. They acknowledged the dilemma, but did not know how to solve it. Today we still claim freedom and rights. Some know that putting you to work for me does not fit in. They acknowledge the dilemma, but know no way to solve it. So they substitute other words for slave labor. They call it civic duty, societal obligation, social justice, leveling, or redistribution. Without it, they say, we will have the law of the jungle.

"There must doubtless be," wrote Jefferson, "an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us." It is easy to see that unhappy influence today. People organize their lives around tax loopholes and tax brackets, trying to minimize their slave labor. People who envy the rich are encouraged to vote for more stealing from the rich. Since looting and forced labor are features of government, they are features of society. Big city areas that are supposed to benefit from your forced labor are said to have reverted to the law of the jungle. Young people watch violence used as a tool of social justice, so they find nothing wrong in violence. The same atmosphere of coercion that Jefferson bemoaned as a feature of slavery is now accepted as the normal atmosphere of society.

Jefferson's countrymen told him that slavery could not be abolished because their well-being depended on it. Their modern counterpoints tell us that slave labor cannot be abolished because our well-being depends on it. If the government could not dock your pay, it could not take care of you. A sudden thrust into freedom would leave you confused and unable to take care of yourself. There has to be some painless process to get from here to there.

Jefferson's hope for a voluntary end to slavery was not realized. Slavery ended as violently as it had begun. Prospects for a voluntary end to slave labor are better, because, thanks to Jefferson, a moral principle has become universally accepted: slavery is wrong. It is degrading to the slave, and corrupting to the master. In modern terms, slave labor is degrading to those forced to pay others, and corrupting to those others. The essence of slave labor is the substitution of force for reason and forage for production—a reversion to the law of the jungle.

In Jefferson's time, abolitionists were derided as impractical idealists who did not understand the plantation economy. Today, abolitionists are derided as impractical idealists who do not understand the welfare state economy. In both cases, the answer is the same: moral transgression is not a practical part of any economy.

In Jefferson's time, abolitionists were attacked for blind hatred of the southern way of life, and callous indifference to the suffering abolition would cause. Today, abolitionists are attacked for blind hatred of those who benefit from slave labor, and callous indifference to the suffering abolition would cause. In both cases, the answer is the same: vilifying enemies of an evil does not justify the evil.

In Jefferson's time, slavery was not universal among the states, but confined to particular areas. Today, slave labor is universal. Policy discussion is not about the propriety of appropriating your labor for others, but about how much appropriation is optimum.

If you were to travel back to Jefferson's time, you might be struck by the common-place acceptance of slavery. You might find slavery itself taken as much for granted then as slave labor is now. You might see irony in the fevered discussions of freedom and independence carried on in front of slaves—like the irony now of discussions among freely elected politicians about how much of your work time they should claim.

In your time travel, you would hear familiar arguments for slavery. Instead of the argument that slave labor is needed so the government can provide for people, you would hear the argument that slavery is needed so the plantation can provide for people. Instead of the argument that slave labor is justified by our duty to care for the poor, you would hear the argument that slavery is justified by our duty to care for the ignorant. Instead of the argument that slave labor provides the best security for the most people, you would hear the argument that slavery provides the best living for the most people.

The argument that stopped Jefferson back then is the same one that stops abolitionists now: abolishing slave labor is desirable, but cannot be achieved without too high a cost in human suffering. Attention is shifted from the manifest suffering of the slave laborers to the potential suffering of the beneficiaries. Anger is focused not on the injustice of coercion but on the inconvenience of abolition.

In his day, Jefferson's dilemma was bitingly real, because the underlying principles were just beginning to be grasped. In our day, the dilemma is artificial, because the principle of self-ownership has become established. If your life is yours by right, then your labor is yours by right. To embrace the idea of freedom is to reject the idea of slavery, whether full time or part time.

When you look at your pay check, and compare gross earnings with take-home pay, you see how much of your labor was slave labor. You might wonder why the principle of self-ownership does not apply to that part of your labor. On the other hand, if your take-home pay is greater than your grandfather's gross earnings were, you may decide not to worry about it. But on the other hand, your grandfather could afford a better house than you can, and your grandmother did not have to work. Still, your grandfather did not have a computer, or a satellite TV, or a pocket telephone. On the other hand—oh, to hell with it.

Jefferson never said to hell with it. He did not succeed in abolishing slavery in his lifetime, but he did succeed in limiting it. His greatest success was in laying the moral foundation that made slavery intolerable. Sooner or later, that moral foundation will also make slave labor intolerable. Slave labor will be seen not as the best way to pay for government, but as the worst way.

If you want ice cream, you have to earn it. Taking ice cream without paying would make ice cream unavailable. Wanting ice cream is wanting to pay for ice cream. In the same way, if you want your rights protected, then you want to pay for government. It is nonsense to argue that people are willing to pay for the momentary pleasure of ice cream, but not willing to pay for the life-long necessity of police protection.

Exactly, say anti-abolitionists. Payment for government is too important to be a choice. It must be mandated. A certain amount of forced labor for the government is the price of freedom. In other words, to protect rights, government must violate them. To do charitable deeds, government must use forced labor.

Here is how charity works. You see that I am in trouble, and you don't want me to be in trouble, because that interferes with my contribution to your well-being. So you help me. Governmental charity is not as simple. You think people have a right to assistance, so you rely on a governmental agent, who discovers that I am in trouble. The agent hires investigators to find out what help I need and make sure I deserve it. First the agent gets paid, then the investigators get paid, then, if any money is left, I get helped.

That is the argument for slave labor that was not used in Jefferson's time: people in trouble have a right to be helped. My need is a claim on your labor. It is an argument that attracts those who feel needy, and repels those who feel capable. The argument's relation to reality can be judged by noting that it is always accompanied by the admonition not to go too far. It's not that anything I want is a claim on your labor; just things I really need, as determined by government. Since you are not a slave, nobody can claim all of your labor; just the amount that is fair, as determined by government.

Slavery ended because, over time, people saw that it violated the principle of self-ownership. They added a prohibition of slavery to the Constitution. As more and more people see that slave labor also violates the principle of self-ownership, they will want the Constitution to prohibit that also. Fortunately for them, it already does. Here is Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

When you compare your gross earnings to your take-home pay, and find out how much of your work is involuntary servitude, you might ask an obvious question: "Hey! What crime did I get convicted of—the crime of listening to Thomas Jefferson?"

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