Democratic Slavery

Natural rights libertarians hate coercion, particularly when employed by the most powerful and dangerous entity of all, i.e. the state. We despise it because it robs us of the moral discretion that is the birthright of every competent adult. It can be justified only in very narrow circumstances, as argued here: // and here: //  The fact that this coercion is administered by officials elected by a majority of our fellow citizens is irrelevant from the moral point of view.

Clearly, there are cases where resort to the ballot box is necessary. For example, when our legislators decided that we would all drive on the right side of the road, rather than on the left (as in many other countries), this was clearly a proper subject for the democratic process.  Obviously, a uniform rule is necessary, and this decision does not arbitrarily favor one interest group or economic constituency over another, and thus is morally unobjectionable.

On a more substantive level, any state, even an impeccably just one, will have to establish and maintain a strategic defense posture. National defense is a classic example of a public good, and as such it is impossible that each of us should enjoy our own personal preference. For example, we will as a nation have to decide whether or not to build and maintain a missile defense system, aircraft carriers, a large army, etc.  Whatever decisions are made, everyone gets the same benefit (if there is one) and pays (or avoids) the costs. In this case, there is no alternative to democratic politics, and one can only pray that our fellow citizens elect representatives who will choose wisely.

However, what is remarkable to libertarian eyes is the extent to which we and other so-called liberal democracies use the political process to enact laws that foreclose personal choice in important matters, when it is perfectly possible to accommodate it.  These laws are unjustifiably coercive, and thus violate basic moral principles.

A great many examples come to mind, but I will limit myself to three important cases. These are merely illustrative. Virtually everything our government does shrinks the scope of our moral discretion, not to protect the rights of others, but simply to enforce the preferences of the majority (acting through their elected representatives).

For instance, our state forces us to participate in federal entitlement programs.  Workers must contribute 12.4% of their pay (6.2% is withheld from the employee and matched by the employer, up to a $113,700 cutoff) into the social security system.  An additional 1.45% of the workers’ pay is withheld for Medicare, and this mandatory contribution to retirement health care is matched by the employer. Those wishing to use these funds for other purposes, or to make different investment decisions, are simply denied this choice.

On another front, the state compels participation in its quasi-monopoly on K-12 education. First, the authorities impose property and income taxes on parents to finance the public system, then relegate their children to the public school closest to them. Of course, parents are “free” to send their kids to private school, but the taxes levied by the government rob most middle class parents of the resources required to do so.   

Our democracy has also seen fit to deny us the right to decide what medicines to take. If you believe that a particular pharmaceutical will improve your health, you will be unable to obtain it unless and until the producer is able to convince the FDA that this drug is safe and effective. If you happen to disagree with the agency’s assessment, or belong to a small sub-group that might still benefit from the drug, this option is foreclosed. Moreover, for many medicines with small potential markets, it is simply not worth the pharmaceutical company’s time and the enormous cost required to prove safety and effectiveness to the FDA’s satisfaction, so here again the consumer is simply denied free choice.

Paternalism is justified between parent and young children (at least). We don’t want eight year olds making medical decisions for themselves, or deciding whether or not to possess a firearm or experiment with heroin. But this authority is unobjectionable only because children and adolescents are typically not fully formed moral agents.  When the state forces innocent people (those not threatening to harm others) to do certain things “for their own good,” or in order to benefit other people, it simply treats them, to that extent, as slaves.

I appreciate that given the horrible, lurid images conjured up by the mention of “slavery,” this claim will seem exaggerated or even absurd to many. But it is not a necessary aspect of slavery that the master be brutal and cruel; a competent adult that is subject to the will of even a relatively benign master(s), is still a slave. This is exactly the argument made by Nozick in his “Tale of the Slave” (ASU, 290-92).

His thought experiment involves a series of nine vignettes, starting with the classic image of a “slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims.” In subsequent steps the master becomes kinder, even allowing “his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages.” Eventually, the slave-owner transfers ownership of his slave to a group of 10,000 masters, who vote on how he is to be treated. However, they permit the slave to “enter into discussions [with them]…to try to persuade them to adopt various policies.”

Eventually, the 10,000 masters even give the slave a vote equal to theirs. As Nozick pointedly asks, “which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?” And Nozick is right. There are better and worse masters, single masters and groups, but when moral agents are denied the right to decide things for themselves, they are treated as nothing but slaves by those running things. On behalf of those of us who ardently desire not to be subjected to our state’s social engineering projects, nor subject to its paternalistic dictates, I can only but echo the words of Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!”



This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Democratic Slavery

  1. Alex says:

    Re: The Tale of the Slave,

    I initially was very pleased with the parable, because so many seem to be blind to the coercive aspect of government. However, thinking on it more, I do think it falls a little flat. Please allow me to make an analogy to make my point:

    A baby is born to two parents. The child learns to walk, talk, and eventually attends grammar school. Fast forward some time, and that child is entering high school, and then has graduated. Continuing onward, they go through all the expected stages of life; marriage, kids, grandkids, retirement.

    At what point did the person cease to be young?

    While I am very inclined to agree with Nozick’s point, I feel as though he is portraying slavery in a sense that it is absolute, either you are a slave or you are free, but I think ultimately it’s more gray than that. It seems as though many people tolerate intrusions into their lives that I would be very unwilling to tolerate. Still others, socialists perhaps, would welcome further intrusion and would even call it freedom. The freedom/slavery dichotomy seems very subjective to me, even though I am actually on Nozick’s side. I consider it immoral to force people to adhere to my own concept of morality, yet others would consider it immoral to tolerate acts that they consider immoral and thus private life becomes part of the public sphere.

    I think there is a concept of slavery that virtually everyone would agree actually is slavery, i.e. the American south in the 1800’s. But everyone’s idea of freedom is greatly different, and there doesn’t seem to be a good objective standard to appeal to.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Hi Alex:
      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think there is any actual inconsistency between the points you are making and what Nozick is trying to accomplish with his “Tale of the Slave.” I think he would readily acknowledge that some forms of “slavery” (if I can call it that for the moment) are much worse than others, and that there is no bright line at which a person becomes a “slave” rather than a person subject to objectionable interference. This is why he starts with the “classic” portrait of slavery and then gradually relaxes the degree of control exercised by the master.

      What Nozick is trying to show is that the democratic process cannot morally sanitize slavery or, if you prefer, the impermissible interference in people’s lives. To return to my FDA example. Assume you are a competent adult with a serious disease and you have identified a medication you wish to take for it. I come along and through the use of force prevent you from obtaining this medicine until I approve it for you. This may take years, by which time you may be dead, and the cost my approval imposes on the maker may be such that the price of the drug will be too high for you to afford.

      This use of force seems to me, to this extent, to be a form of “slavery” or at least a highly objectionable interference with your autonomy. But, since the FDA operates within the democratic/political context, most people don’t think twice about it. But if it would be wrong for me to assume this authority over you, it is equally wrong for the state to do so. Does this explanation help?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *