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The  Independent  Institute   Commentary

Why  We  Couldn't  Abolish  Slavery  Then  and  Can't Abolish  Government  Now  
By  Robert  Higgs  |  Posted:  Thu.  August  20,  2009

Slavery  existed  for  thousands  of  years,  in  all  sorts  of  societies  and  all  parts  of  the  world.  To imagine  human  social  life  without  it  required  an  extraordinary  effort.  Yet,  from  time  to  time, eccentrics  emerged  to  oppose  it,  most  of  them  arguing  that  slavery  is  a  moral  monstrosity  and therefore  people  should  get  rid  of  it.  Such  advocates  generally  elicited  reactions  that  ranged from  gentle  amusement  to  harsh  scorn  and  violent  assault. When  people  bothered  to  give  reasons  for  opposing  the  proposed  abolition,  they  advanced many  different  ideas.  In  the  first  column  of  the  accompanying  table,  I  list  ten  such  ideas  that  I have  encountered  in  my  reading.  At  one  time,  countless  people  found  one  or  more  of  these reasons  an  adequate  ground  on  which  to  oppose  the  abolition  of  slavery. In  retrospect,  however,  these  reasons  seem  shabby—more  rationalizations  than  reasons.  They now  appear  to  nearly  everyone  to  be,  if  not  utterly  specious,  then  shaky  or,  at  best, unpersuasive,  notwithstanding  an  occasional  grain  of  truth.  No  one  now  dredges  up  these  ideas or  their  corollaries  to  support  a  proposal  for  reestablishing  slavery.  Although  vestiges  of  slavery exist  in  northern  Africa  and  a  few  other  places,  the  idea  that  slavery  is  a  defensible  social institution  is  defunct.  Reasons  that  once,  not  so  long  ago,  seemed  to  provide  compelling grounds  for  opposing  the  abolition  of  slavery  now  pack  no  intellectual  punch. Strange  to  say,  however,  the  same  ideas  once  trotted  out  to  justify  opposition  to  the  abolition  of slavery  are  now  routinely  trotted  out  to  justify  opposition  to  the  abolition  of  government  (as  we know  it).  Libertarian  anarchists  bold  enough  to  have  publicly  advanced  their  proposal  for abolishing  the  state  will  have  encountered  many,  if  not  all,  of  the  arguments  used  for  centuries to  prop  up  slavery.  Thus,  we  may  make  a  parallel  list,  as  shown  in  the  table’s  second  column. In  the  table,  my  repetition  of  the  cumbersome  expression  “government  (as  we  know  it)”  may seem  odd,  or  even  irritating,  but  I  have  chosen  to  tax  the  reader’s  patience  in  this  way  for  a reason.  When  the  typical  person  encounters  an  advocate  of  anarchism,  his  immediate  reaction is  to  identify  a  list  of  critical  government  functions—preservation  of  social  order,  maintenance  of a  legal  system  for  resolving  disputes  and  dealing  with  criminals,  protection  against  foreign aggressors,  enforcement  of  private  property  rights,  support  of  the  weak  and  defenseless, production  and  maintenance  of  economic  infrastructure,  and  so  forth.  This  reaction,  however, shoots  at  the  wrong  target. Libertarian  anarchists  do  not  deny  that  such  social  functions  must  be  carried  out  if  a  society  is to  function  successfully.  They  do  deny,  however,  that  we  must  have  government  (as  we  know it)  to  carry  them  out.  Libertarian  anarchists  prefer  that  these  functions  be  carried  out  by  private 1/4


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providers  with  whom  the  beneficiaries  have  agreed  to  deal.  When  I  write  about  government  “as we  know  it,”  I  am  referring  to  the  monopolistic,  individually  nonconsensual  form  of  government that  now  exists  virtually  everywhere  on  earth. Readers  may  object  that  at  least  some  existing  governments  do  have  the  people’s  consent,  but where’s  the  evidence?  Show  me  the  properly  signed  and  witnessed  contracts.  Unless  all  of  the responsible  adults  subject  to  a  government’s  claimed  authority  have  voluntarily  and  explicitly accepted  its  governance  on  specific  terms,  the  presumption  must  be  that  the  rulers  have  simply imposed  their  rule.  Propaganda  statements,  civics  texts,  opinion  surveys,  barroom  allegations, political  elections,  and  so  forth  are  beside  the  point  in  this  regard.  No  one  would  think  of proffering  such  forms  of  evidence  to  show  that  I  have  a  valid  contract  with  Virgin  Mobile,  which supplies  me  with  telelphone  service.  When  will  the  governments  of  the  United  States,  the  state of  Louisiana,  and  St.  Tammany  Parish  send  me  the  contracts  wherein  I  may  agree  (or  not)  to purchase  their  “services”  on  mutually  acceptable  terms? The  similarity  of  arguments  against  the  abolition  of  slavery  and  arguments  against  the  abolition of  government  (as  we  know  it)  should  shake  the  faith  of  all  Americans  who  still  labor  under  the misconception  that  ours  is  a  “government  of  the  people,  by  the  people,  for  the  people.”  From where  I  stand,  it  looks  distressingly  like  an  institutional  complex  that  rests  on  the  same  shaky intellectual  foundations  as  slavery. Arguments  Against  the  Abolition  of  Slavery  and  Arguments  Against  the  Abolition  of Government  (as  We  Know  It)


Slavery  is  natural.

Government  (as  we  know  it)  is  natural.


Slavery  has  always  existed.

Government  (as  we  know  it)  has  always existed.

Every  society  on  earth  has  slavery.

Every  society  on  earth  has  government (as  we  know  it)

The  slaves  are  not  capable  of  taking  care of  themselves.

The  people  are  not  capable  of  taking  care of  themselves

Without  masters,  the  slaves  will  die  off.

Without  government  (as  we  know  it),  the people  will  die  off.

Where  the  common  people  are  free,  they are  even  worse  off  than  slaves

Where  the  common  people  have  no government  (as  we  know  it),  they  are much  worse  off  (e.g.,  Somalia).


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Getting  rid  of  slavery  would  occasion  great bloodshed  and  other  evils.

Getting  rid  of  government  (as  we  know  it) would  occasion  great  bloodshed  and other  evils.

Without  slavery,  the  former  slaves  would run  amuck,  stealing,  raping,  killing,  and generally  causing  mayhem.

Without  government  (as  we  know  it),  the people  would  run  amuck,  stealing,  raping, killing,  and  generally  causing  mayhem.

Trying  to  get  rid  of  slavery  is  foolishly utopian  and  impractical;;  only  a  fuzzy-­ headed  dreamer  would  advance  such  a cockamamie  proposal.

Trying  to  get  rid  of  government  (as  we know  it)  is  foolishly  utopian  and impractical;;  only  a  fuzzy-­headed  dreamer would  advance  such  a  cockamamie proposal.

Forget  abolition.  A  far  better  plan  is  to keep  the  slaves  sufficiently  well  fed, clothed,  housed,  and  occasionally entertained  and  to  take  their  minds  off their  exploitation  by  encouraging  them  to focus  on  the  better  life  that  awaits  them  in the  hereafter.

Forget  anarchy.  A  far  better  plan  is  to keep  the  ordinary  people  sufficiently  well fed,  clothed,  housed,  and  entertained  and to  take  their  minds  off  their  exploitation  by encouraging  them  to  focus  on  the  better life  that  awaits  them  in  the  hereafter.

Robert  Higgs  is  Senior  Fellow  in  Political  Economy  at  The  Independent Institute  and  Editor  at  Large  of  the  Institute’s  quarterly  journal  The Independent  Review.  He  received  his  Ph.D.  in  economics  from  Johns  Hopkins University,  and  he  has  taught  at  the  University  of  Washington,  Lafayette  College, Seattle  University,  and  the  University  of  Economics,  Prague.  He  has  been  a visiting  scholar  at  Oxford  University  and  Stanford  University,  and  a  fellow  for  the Hoover  Institution  and  the  National  Science  Foundation.  He  is  the  author  of  many  books, including  Depression,  War,  and  Cold  War.   Full  Biography  and  Recent  Publications New  from  Robert  Higgs! CRISIS  AND  LEVIATHAN  (25TH  ANNIVERSARY  EDITION): Critical  Episodes  in  the  Growth  of  American  Government The  size  and  scope  of  government  power  has  grown  in  response to  crises  of  war  and  economic  upheavals.  Such  increased  power remains  long  after  each  crisis  passes,  threatening  both  civil  and economic  liberties,  all  at  the  behest  of  special  interest  groups. Learn  More  »» 3/4


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