If you were a slave owner in the United States in the 19th century, you probably owed your wealth and continued income to the continuation of slavery. If someone made the case to you that slavery was morally wrong, your first thought probably would have been, “But if we free the slaves, who will pick the cotton?”
The idea of ending slavery was a scary thing to many people in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many people owned human beings who had been brought from Africa in chains. Those people worked in their fields and did all sorts of manual labor for them. The idea was deeply ingrained in society and it was accepted by many people as right and moral.
The abolition movement was a challenge to all of that. The abolitionists didn’t try to explain to plantation owners how they could earn a living after the slaves were freed. They couldn’t offer completely pragmatic plans for how society was going to go through the transition from slavery to universal equality of rights among races.
They simply made the case that slavery was a moral abomination. Some of them used gentle persuasion. Some of them preached fiery sermons, but still advocated peaceful change. And some, such as John Brown, tried to spark slave rebellions through violent means.
It’s obvious why slave owners were afraid, because they would be giving up the labor that worked their fields and did all sorts of work to support and enrich them. But many of the slaves were afraid of the end of slavery, too. Slavery was all they had ever known. They didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Some of them — especially those with “good” masters — were content to toil for someone else and not worry about abstract notions such as freedom.
But many people who weren’t either slaves or slave owners were also opposed to the end of slavery, because it meant a huge change in the social and economic structure — and that can be a scary thing. They had no idea how that would work, particularly in places such as the American South, where slavery was such a foundational part of the economy. Because those people couldn’t see how a free society would work — and because slavery was the system they knew and were comfortable with — many of them opposed a change.
When I talk today about the immorality of the current political system — a system that demands obedience to a coercive state — I hear the same concerns and fears that the abolitionists heard. I hear from some people who are so invested in the current system that they honestly can’t conceive of how a voluntary system would work. I hear from others who are afraid things would be far worse in a free society. (Some of those actually think I’m a utopian and have too much trust in human beings.)
But I mostly just hear from people who don’t see how society could possibly work without coercion. I see them as the modern-day version of those 200 years ago who were asking, “If we free the slaves, who will pick the cotton?”
There are plenty of people who have written extensively about how voluntaryism can work. If you’re interested in all the pragmatic ideas about how things might be set up, there are plenty of people thinking about that and writing about that. But that’s not the case I’m making. I’m only making the case that compelling people to obey you against their will — making up rules to force them to obey and stealing their money — is immoral. It’s a form of slavery. It’s just as immoral as the African slave trade ever was. One day, I believe it will be seen in the same way.
I’m not a utopian. I don’t believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. I believe that humans are essentially depraved creatures who are going to do whatever they can get away with doing to each other. It’s the advocates of democracy who are the utopians. They’re putting their faith in a system doomed to fail — and they’re putting their trust in human beings not to do to each other what human beings always eventually do when they’re given power over each other.
I have enough faith in the operation of the market — and the ingenuity of people pursuing their own self-interest — to know that people can voluntarily provide for their own needs without a coercive state getting in the way. But even if I weren’t sure of that, I’d forcefully advocate for the end of the coercive state, not because it’s pragmatic, but because it’s the morally right thing.
Change isn’t going to be easy. The abolition of slavery wasn’t easy. The transition period was rocky (and we’re still paying the price for it in this country more than 150 years later). But change has to come. The sooner we get started on it, the sooner we can get rid of the moral evil of some people controlling other people against their will.
We ended one form of slavery. It’s time to end this form of slavery. It’s time to end the coercive state.
Note: If you’re interested in more about this, see previous related article about “Who will build the roads?” and the first step toward becoming an escaped slave, in addition to a look at the morality of taxation.