I agree with Matt that describing Obamacare as slavery is a bad analogy.  However, I think it is important to insist on using the term “slavery” when it properly applies but people refuse to use it for truth-insensitive reasons. For example, I think Cuba is a slave society (see our book, pp. 47-50).  In Cuba, work is mandatory and the government decides who will produce what and at which salary under threat of punishment.  This is sufficiently analogous to the institution of slavery –for example, as practiced in the Antebellum South.  Some people (the government, slave owners) have the legal right to tell others what to do and when to do it.  They also unilaterally determine the amount of compensation, if any, and punishment for disobedience.  Restricting the term “slavery” to the situation in the Antebellum South while refusing to apply it to Cuba is symptomatic of discourse failure, that is, political statements that are not based on a desire to be truthful but on other reasons (posturing, for example.)  The objections to the analogy are unconvincing.  If someone says that people in Cuba are treated much better than slaves, then they should refuse to use the word “slavery” to describe those instances in the Antebellum South where slaves were well treated. If they say that, unlike the Cubans, slaves could be bought and sold, then they would have to say that athletes, university professors, and CEOs are also slaves.  The power to buy and sell someone else’s labor doesn’t seem to be a definitional characteristic of slavery.  Rather, slavery is defined by the legal (that is, coercive) power that some, the slave masters, have to direct the behavior of others. Ergo, Cuba is a slave society.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.a.bryan Ben Bryan

    I’m not really concerned about what we do and don’t call slavery, but I’m concerned about your argument. I take it your replies to objections to the claim that Cuban workers are slaves amount to something like this:

    Objection 1: being treated badly is a necessary condition of slavery

    Your reply: well-treated slaves in the Antebellum South are a counterexample

    Objection 2: being subject to sale is a necessary condition of slavery

    Your reply: CEOs, athletes, professors, etc. who are subject to having their labor sold, are a counterexample.

    Your first reply makes perfect sense. Your second reply does not deal with the objection. It would succeed if the objection were that being subject to sale is a sufficient condition for slavery. If being subject to sale is a sufficient condition, then athletes, etc., are a clear counterexample. But the sale of the labor of athletes, etc., has no bearing on the claim that being subject to sale is necessary, but not sufficient, for slavery. Being subject to sale may be one of a series of conditions that are jointly sufficient. If that is so, then neither an athlete or Cuban worker are slaves. I don’t know what such a set of conditions would be and have no interest in defending such a set of conditions. Your argument, however, would not effectively reply to someone who wanted to defend such a set of conditions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.a.bryan Ben Bryan

    I’m not really concerned about what we do and don’t call slavery, but I’m concerned about your argument. I take it your replies to objections to the claim that Cuban workers are slaves amount to something like this:

    Objection 1: being treated badly is a necessary condition of slavery

    Your reply: well-treated slaves in the Antebellum South are a counterexample

    Objection 2: being subject to sale is a necessary condition of slavery

    Your reply: CEOs, athletes, professors, etc. who are subject to having their labor sold, are a counterexample.

    Your first reply makes perfect sense. Your second reply does not deal with the objection. It would succeed if the objection were that being subject to sale is a sufficient condition for slavery. If being subject to sale is a sufficient condition, then athletes, etc., are a clear counterexample. But the sale of the labor of athletes, etc., has no bearing on the claim that being subject to sale is necessary, but not sufficient, for slavery. Being subject to sale may be one of a series of conditions that are jointly sufficient. If that is so, then neither an athlete or Cuban worker are slaves. I don’t know what such a set of conditions would be and have no interest in defending such a set of conditions. Your argument, however, would not effectively reply to someone who wanted to defend such a set of conditions.

    • Fernando Teson

      Ben: You’re absolutely right. I stand corrected.

    • Anon.

      A better reply in this case would be that the slave market in Cuba is both monopolistic and monopsonistic. The government is the only potential buyer and seller, thus there can be no slave trade. Since the government can direct people to specific jobs, it can obviously direct them to work FOR specific persons or organizations, and the potential for trade does exist.  

  • Andrew

    Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan discussed this issue with respect to conscription: conscripted soldiers have high social status compared to slave farmhands, so the former are not seen to be “slaves,” even though they are legally compelled to perform involuntary servitude for the state. There’s also the social structure of racism on top of the basic involuntary servitude aspect of antebellum slavery that amplifies the “status” aspect of slavery further. To explore this further: let’s think about workers in the old USSR. We could say Soviet citizens were all slaves in the sense that Cubans are slaves (compelled to work on whatever the government says, for compensation dictated by the government.) Yet a “high-status” Soviet worker like a scientist or technical manager seems like less of a “slave,” intuitively, than a “low-status” worker in a Gulag prison camp. This suggests to me that our intuitions of what slavery is, and why it’s bad, are more complicated than simply involuntary servitude; rather, they also encompass social status and concepts like “social death.”

  • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

    I am unsure about your argument on two counts.

    Firstly, within the constraints of a planned economy, people have freedom of occupational choice:

    “The state as the power of the people and for the people,
    guarantees… that every man or woman, who is able to work, have the opportunity to
    have a job with which to contribute to the good of society and to the
    satisfaction of individual needs;…” Confr. art. 9, b), Constitution of Cuba, emphasis mine;

    “Work in a socialist society is a
    right and duty and a source of pride for every citizen.Work is remunerated according to its quality
    and quantity; when it is provided, the needs of the economy
    and of society, the choice of the worker and his skills and ability
    are taken into account; this is guaranteed by the socialist
    economic system, that facilitates social and economic development,
    without crises, and has thus eliminated unemployment and the
    “dead season.”
    Nonpaid, voluntary work carried out for the
    benefit of all society in industrial, agricultural, technical,
    artistic and service activities is recognized as playing an
    important role in the formation of our people’s communist
    awareness.

    Every worker has the duty to faithfully carry
    tasks corresponding to him at his job.”, Confr. art. 45, Constitution of Cuba, emphasis mine.

    Secondly, even people who are not sympathetic to Cuban’s regime, acknowledge that it has  legitimacy See, Gray, John Two Faces of Liberalism (New York: The New Press, 2000),  pp. 109-110.

    • Fernando Teson

      CFV:
      Two things: 1) Looking at what the constitution says is not a good measure of what the regime is. Have you looked at the USSR constitution?
      2) I’m sorry, but the Cuban régime is a criminal enterprise. I cannot quite understand in what sense any liberal worth his salt would regard it as legitimate –except by saying that invading Cuba is impermissible. This is certainly true, but not because the regime is legitimate, but for separate obvious reasons.
       

      • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

        Fernando:

        1. How do you know that in Cuba “work is mandatory”? You need to take a look at Cuban’s laws, don’t you? (In fact, that is what you and Guido did, if I recall correctly the relevant pages of your excellent book).

        In the same way, to know if Cuban’s people has (or has not) freedom of occupational choice, I think it is wise to take a look at what Cuban’s laws says.

        Maybe you want to argue that, as a matter of fact, people lack freedom of occupational choice. However, in that case, you should be open to the argument that work isn’t in fact  “mandatory,” as you claim, and that people might act out of a sense of duty.

        2.  John Gray certainly is a liberal (and a great one, in my view). If you haven’t done it yet, you should read that book.

        • Fernando Teson

          I will read Gray’s book, thanks. I should notice that, for a number of reasons, many otherwise perfectly decent liberals, especially academics, omit listing Cuba among the oppressive regimes of the world. Analyzing those reasons would largely exceed the scope of the post. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, those reasons are not truth-sensitive.

          • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

            Fernando:

            I don’t think those reasons would apply in the case of John Gray. He’s a liberal, but not a liberal in American sense of the term. He’s more like a classical liberal (or conservative), although his views are sometimes rather unclassifiable (His views have shaped a lot my own views on international matters).

  • Felix

    Surely this boils down to how we define Slavery? I think a pretty basic definition would be ‘the ownership of one person by another’. Now it follows that if we own a person, then we also own their labour. Consequently if someone lays claim to your labour, they are making a claim of ownership on you, ergo: slavery.

    I think both the conditions discussed above (1. treatment of persons and 2) buying and selling of labour) are largely irrelevant to a definition of slavery.

    Cuba can be a slave society  in the sense that it compels labour from people, denying them freedom of occupation etc. It forces a person to use their labour in a way they otherwise would not. Likewise, stipulating mandatory insurance (aka Obamacare) is slavery in that it compels us under pain of law to use our labour/property in a certain way, against the individuals choice. Any law which stipluates mandatory spending on something amounts to slavery, as the user is compelled to put their labour towards this obligation rather than what they would wish. Cuba is a ‘slave society’ because it lacks freedom of occupation, but this freedom of occupation  is also infringed when we are compelled to pay taxes etc, because we are being forced to labour towards something that is not our choice.

    I think the problems with most of this lie in the etymology of the term ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ and the historical context of the slavery in the United States. While it may be correct to describe tax/mandatory health insurance as slavery, it seems repugnant because the conditions of this slavery are a stark contrast to the historical norm of slavery.

    • Roentgenster

      “Now it follows that if we own a person, then we also own their labour. Consequently if someone lays claim to your labour, they are making a claim of ownership on you, ergo: slavery. ”

      Uh, logic failure.  ”A -> B” does not mean that “B-> A.”  All dogs have four legs.  Not all things that have four legs are dogs.

      • John

        You’re correct in terms of Felix’s presentation. I don’t think he put the logical proposition of slavery quite right though. I think a more accurate statement is “I own the slave if and only if I own the slave’s labor.” 

        That formulation seems to be in line with slavery in the anti-bellum USA South. Slaves were allowed by law to work for other’s and earn a wage but only with permission of the slave owner and typically only  if the slave owner also received compensation but the use — think either interest or rental rate.

        I do agree with others here who have pointed out that the status of slavery has a number of definitional margins that need to be met so commanding one’s labor may not be a sufficient condition but it does seem to be a necessary one.

  • http://aaronmclin.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    “Rather, slavery is defined by the legal (that is, coercive) power that some, the slave masters, have to direct the behavior of others. Ergo, Cuba is a slave society.”

    Too broad, I think. After all, a police officer has, under certain circumstances, the power to direct my behavior, and to sanction me for disobedience. That does not render me a slave of the officer for the duration of said circumstances.

    Perhaps what’s really being brought to light here is our common use of the term “slavery” as a less a descriptor of a state of being than as a pejorative against the putative slave holder.

    Anyway, in my understanding, “slavery” was the state of ownership (property rights) of both a person’s body and their labor.

    • geoih

      Quote from Aaron: “After all, a police officer has, under certain circumstances, the power to direct my behavior, and to sanction me for disobedience.”
       
      Why? 
       

  • Kunsthausmann

    “With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me…It means you believe in slavery.”   -Rand Paul 

    Hmmm. It’s still not clear why you or Matt think that RP’s characterization is inapt. Some people insist upon a right to health care and, furthermore, that those with the skills have an obligation to render service. Obamacare is merely a tactic to impose the imagined obligation.

    I have an idea: Why not substitute the words ‘agricultural production’ and ‘farmer’ for “healthcare” and “physician”, respectively? This yields:

    ‘With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to agricultural production, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a farmer. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me…It means you believe in slavery.’

    [By the way, this commenting system is horrible. The display lags keystrokes by as much as several seconds, although at least we are no longer pestered to help Twitter to promote its business by using its crude grammar for the vocative case.]

  • Anonymous

     For the record I agree that Cuba is a fiendishly repressive regime. 
    But I still don’t think it’s accurate to say conclude that Cubans are
    slaves.  For one thing it would call into question that status of, say, Singapore where essentially the *only* freedom one has is economic/labor choice but the government literally lashes its citizens to a f$^@!^ing pole and spank spanks them for chewing gum.  Oh, and jails them for speaking out against it.  But it’s silly to say Singaporeans are slaves — they’re just oppressed.  Same for Cubans.

    But if to say slavery isn’t the right word for the lot of Cubans or Singaporeans isn’t to say decent people would wish to be members of either government.  It only means that the vocabulary of anyone who tries to make the comparison is impoverished.

    Similarly, while it’s perfectly fine for decent people to
    stand in the governments of more normal countries like the U.S.,
    Denmark, or Thailand, does it mean that the citizens of those countries
    are slaves simply because they must obey laws and/or pay taxes.  In those cases it mostly just makes them citizens in the Aristotelian sense of being people born into current conditions possibly created by social contracts pre-dating their birth.  In which case I’m no more a “slave” of the government for having to pay taxes or drive on the right side of the road (in the U.S.) than I am a slave to nature for having to either use toilet paper, wash my hands, or preferably both after going to the bathroom.

    I’m also going to balk at the characterization of CEOs and athletes as slaves.  To the best of my knowledge you’re perfectly free to quit such jobs at any time — it’s just extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to take up another career that pays that kind of money that goes for the kind of jobs that involve transferable contracts.   In fact typically such contracts stipulate that part of the pay *derives* from your transferability.  And in fact such employees typically, um, enter into such agreements of their own free will.

    Thus it’s… pretty hard to characterize a job that a) you can quit any time and b) you voluntarily agree to where the penalties for quitting (agreed-to-in-advance legal difficulties notwithstanding) boils down to having to take another, less well-compensated job.

    And, touching on the legal difficulties that might accrue for quitting a job, even if you really were careless or dumb enough to sign a contract that bound you to service, you’d most likely be able to invoke well-established laws against debt peonage and other forms of contemporary, non-chattel slavery to get out of it anyway.

    So, again, not CEOS and athletes aren’t slaves under pretty much any circumstances.

    But that CEO/athlete thing does raise a libertarian-related issue.  To a pragmatic bleeding heart libertarian like me, I always have a very hard time distinguishing constraints on liberty imposed by employers from constraints imposed by government.  In fact, while I’ve never been as contractually bound as a CEO or star athlete I’ve almost always ended up chaffing more at the former than the latter.  (Even the much-reviled departments of motor vehicles are rarely as onerous as dealing with a corporate HR department or an insurers or cable-company’s bureaucracies.)

    figleaf

    • geoih

      Quote from fileaf: ” To a pragmatic bleeding heart libertarian like me, I always have a very hard time distinguishing constraints on liberty imposed by employers from constraints imposed by government. ”
       
      It’s very simple. You can terminate your agreements with an employer whenever you choose and reclaim whatever liberty you feel you might have given up by the agreement. Not so with a government. All government decrees are predicated with the words ‘or we’ll kill you’.
       
       

      • Anonymous

         ”All government decrees are predicated with the words ‘or we’ll kill you’.”

        Yikes!  I’m definitely going to have to reconsider the way I approach those yield signs at intersections!  :-)

        Also, I can terminate my agreements with my government by… moving to a new jurisdiction.  And at least since the “patriotic” Reagan administration I can not only leave my water district, my city, my county, and my state, but I can also leave the country and… if I object to paying U.S. taxes as an ex-pat I can renounce my citizenship too.  (Prior to Reagan you couldn’t dodge taxes by ditching your citizenship.)

        All without ever hearing the words “or we will kill you.”

        I mean, sure, there are a couple of countries where you can’t do that — communist North Korea, Cuba, and crony-capitalist Burma come to mind and I’m sure there are others.  But I think even you’d agree, as I do, that those are particularly repressive regimes.

        But you were saying?

        figleaf

        • geoih

          So you agree with me. If I don’t abide by the rules of your state, I have to leave, or you’ll kill me.

          First I would ask, why should I have to leave anywhere? If you wish to have a state that creates rules that I don’t want to follow, then you take your state somewhere else.

          You can use an absurd example, like not obeying a yield sign, but my premise still applies. If I don’t obey your yield sign, the state can fine me. If I refuse to pay the fine, they will fine me some more and imprison me. If I do not willingly surrender my liberty and go to prison, they will physically force me, up to and including killing me, if I resist.

          Just because few, if any, people would go to such an extreme over a yield sign, doesn’t make it any less true. There are numerous examples of such mundane situations being taken to extremes by the state in this country (e.g., people imprisoned for buying nasal decongestant).

          All actions by the state are corrupt, and politics is a mere continuation of war by other means.

          • Andrew

            You’re welcome to tell your employer that you don’t want to work for them anymore, but I don’t think they’ll take kindly to the idea that you get to keep working at that physical location.

            While it is true that governments and corporations aren’t isomorphic, the artificial distinctions you make here are not productive.  Yes, governments and corporations are different.  In fact, one government is different from another government.  And one corporation is different from another.  But what they have in common is the ability to compel and coerce based on their greater power.

  • Keith Waters

    “If they say that, unlike the Cubans, slaves could be bought and sold,
    then they would have to say that athletes, university professors, and
    CEOs are also slaves. ”

    You really do know better. As has been pointed out, these people agree to the restrictions. I have a friend who was the LPGA on-site meteorologist. His company lost the contract, and he couldn’t go to work for the competitor with the same job because he agreed to the non-compete. Also, teams trade the players’ contracts.  Players can put certain stipulations in their contracts.

    Better luck next time.

    • Fernando Teson

      So, let’s see if I understand:  is the fact that Cubans, unlike slaves, cannot be bought and sold, what prevents us from analogizing Cuba to a slave society? Maybe then I was too quick to accept the premise that Cubans cannot be bought and sold. When Castro’s henchmen grab someone at gunpoint from sugar plantation A and order her to work on sugar plantation B, how do you characterize that fact? Is it more analogous to slavery or to your meteorologist friend, do you think?

  • MBH

    RomneyCare. The legislation is RomneyCare.

  • http://naturalrightslibertarian.com Mark D. Friedman

    Fernando,
    I hate communism in general and Cuban communism in particular as much as you do. And, I agree that liberal hypocrisy on the subject is appalling. Nevertheless, I don’t think the slavery analogy is useful because once we depart from the standard (harsh) case, the line drawing between slavery and non-slavery becomes arbitrary.

    Nozick has an interesting thought experiment that I think illustrates this (ASU, 290-2). He starts out with the standard plantation case, then changes the facts so that the master is much gentler, then there are 10,000 masters who vote on how the slave will be treated, then even the slave gets a vote. He then challenges the reader to point out exactly where in this process slavery ended. His point is that being subject to a tyranny of the majority is still a form of “slavery,” but it is not the same type as in his starting point.

    • http://naturalrightslibertarian.com Mark D. Friedman

      How about describing the Cuban political apparatus as “authoritarian,” “oppressive,” “in complete disregard of the rule of law,” “massively rights-violating,” “morally illegitimate” or whatever comparable term you like? I think all of the above are accurate.  

      • Fernando Teson

        True, and in fact I use those terms in my writings about tyranny. My point, however, was a bit different. It was about the use of persuasive words, or rather the manipulation of value-laden words, either using them as if they were descriptive but in reality to praise or condemn or, as in the case of Cuba, refusing to use the word to refer to a case with strong resemblance with the paradigmatic cases, just to avoid the moral condemnation that the word implies.

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  • Anonymous

     I’m not intimately familiar with fats on the ground in Cuba, but as described here, I provisionally agree with this — at least it’s within debatable proximity of the actual meaning of the term slavery.  And it just serves to illustrate further how fevered the imagination of Senator Paul really is to be imagining either a government-compensated health services system to be slavery, or that a Cuba-esque situation in which physicians are coerced by armed government agents into working for free is what people who say there is a positive right to health care are proposing, or simply to be wildly wrong about what slavery is as a general conceptual question.

  • geoih

    You know, freedom, liberty, that whole individual rights thing. Or are you merely a sheep in the heard? 

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