Property Rights – Revisited

In a comment to a previous post on property rights, Anirudh wrote:

If a person is his own private property, then what is stopping him from selling himself into slavery or into some sort of debt bondage? Isn’t it a slippery slope to base your opposition to slavery in terms of property rights?

First of all, self-ownership is axiomatically true. Meaning, you either accept it as self-evidently true and need no further proof; or you reject the self-ownership axiom and admit that it is both possible and permissible to own persons. In the latter case, as I have claimed before, we are talking about a society that admits slavery and therefore not the society that we aim to have or aim to explain the workings of. It is not morally permissible to own people.

Secondly, even if selling oneself into slavery were permissible, it leads to a logical inconsistency. If person A were to sell himself to person B, then everything A owns belongs to B. Therefore the proceeds of the sale of A to B also belongs to B. Therefore, in reality B acquires ownership of A at zero cost because if the sale was at say $1 million, then B gives A $1 million, and then having acquired ownership of A, B acquires all the property that A owns, including the $1 million B paid to purchase A.

Only if we were to take leave of logic would we be able to admit that it is possible for a person to sell himself into slavery. Therefore logically, given the axiom of self-ownership, it is not possible for a person to sell himself to another.

Chattel slavery was fairly common in the past (and unfortunately it still is in some parts of the world) but it was never in any sense voluntary. People did not voluntarily become slaves.

Slavery has to be distinguished from bonded labor and indentured servitude. Here the person is not selling his self — only his labor and that too for a limited, contractual term. See more about that in the wiki article on indentured servitude.

One final point. I am against slavery. It’s abhorrent and uncivilized. People who enslave others are primitive savages who must be opposed and defeated by force if necessary. Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

Prosperity of societies is not consistent with slavery. Even partial, disguised slavery leads to avoidable misery and social losses. It is my opinion that all societies practice a form of disguised slavery, and I argue that the greater the degree of disguised slavery in a society, the greater is the loss to the society.

We all readily admit that a slave is a person who toils for the benefit of his owner who takes all of the product that his slaves produce and only allows the slaves to consume a very small amount of the total production — usually just enough for the slaves to keep working.

A person who toils 100 percent of his time for this master is a full-time slave. The slave does not have the power to negotiate with his master. A master that takes on half of what another person produces on non-negotiable terms therefore owns half a slave.

The important point here is the word “non-negotiable.” When a person negotiates a contract (say for selling something, including his labor), he is free to say ‘No, thank you’ and walk away. A slave does not have the freedom to negotiate; he is forced to take the terms the master offers and cannot say, ‘No, thank you.’

I am afraid that I cannot avoid concluding that we are — every one of us — in reality partial slaves because we are forced to toil for others on non-negotiable terms.

That’s how the world works.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

One thought on “Property Rights – Revisited”

  1. Atanu,

    You mentioned the word “non-negotiable” as a critical differentiating factor between a contract and slavery.

    By that measure taxation, (Esp. Income tax) isn’t it a form of partial enslavement? As one party (The taxpayer) has little to no negotiating power and should agree with what the Government of the day or what the majority think the Income-tax ought to be for a particular person or income group.

    According to the latest figures I know, In India, The income tax for people who earn more than 15,00,000 ₹ is 1,87,500 ₹ + 30% of total income exceeding ₹15,00,000. (Source: https://www.iciciprulife.com/insurance-library/income-tax/income-tax-slabs-rate-deductions.html)That amount is just taken away unless you invest in some form of Government Bonds etc. (Which again is owned by the Master in this case). Unlike developed countries, this does not even come back to the person in terms of social security or any other public service goods which are inadequate or non-existent in India. Aren’t we Incentivising against prosperity and asking people to be corrupt and dishonest by doing this? The more you earn, the more you are taxed.

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