By Marco den Ouden
[Editor’s Note: This article won the grand prize in The Voluntaryist essay contest on how best to explain that taxation is theft.]
One of the by-products of the American Civil War was the abolition of slavery. Well, sort of!
The Civil War resulted in the elimination of formal slavery. However, it did not get rid of essential slavery. What does this mean? Let’s go back to pre-Civil War America to find out.
The Southern U.S. states were not sophisticated slave states. Slaves were held as chattel. The plantation owner literally “owned” his slaves. They were his property. He kept them and cared for them just as he kept and cared for cattle and other domestic livestock. He housed them, fed them and clothed them, and, of course, he made them work for him. If they did not suit him, he sold them.
But suppose slavery was not abolished in the 19th Century, but rather it evolved into a more sophisticated system. How might it have changed? First a slave owner might have thought, “Hey, what if I can get the benefit of slave labor without the exorbitant cost of feeding, clothing and sheltering them?” Some slave owner may have taken the first path to sophistication by paying his slaves a nominal wage (less than it cost to keep them on the plantation) and told them, “I’m going to start paying you for your work but you must go and find your own food and shelter. You are free to go about your own business except that you must come to the plantation to work every day. After all, I still own you.”
Other slave owners notice he’s saving a bundle on costs and also adopt the practice. Soon the entire society has adopted this new mode of slavery.
The slaves have so much free time on their hands that some start moonlighting. While it’s still nickel and dimes, the slave owners look the other way. But after a while they notice something quite unexpected. The slaves are not the stupid, backward people they thought they were. Some used their spare time to get educated and now earn as much, if not more, off the plantation as on.
A very sophisticated slave owner puts two and two together. “My slaves can generate more wealth on their own time than working for me,” he reasons. “Why don’t I give them complete freedom to choose their own line of work and develop wealth in their own way. Instead of having them work on the plantation, which would under-utilize their skills, I’ll let them do what they are best suited for in the marketplace. I’ll hire some poor white trash and slaves who can’t find other work for the fields. And as for my slaves, they will give me 50% of all they earn. After all, I still own them.”
If the slave owner is really sophisticated, he will notice that skills and aptitudes vary greatly among his slaves. The unskilled ones will not be able to survive on the small remuneration he pays for farm work. The original concept was to save on the costs of feeding, clothing, and sheltering his slaves by paying them and letting them fend for themselves. He decides that he will not demand any tribute from slaves who can do little besides farm work. He decides to graduate the tribute demanded according to how much the slave earns. The more they earn, the greater the percentage they pay to the slave owner. He carefully crafts the rates of tribute so the slaves still have an incentive to better themselves and earn more. He calls this sliding scale a “progressive” tribute system.
Soon other slave owners follow suit and the slave society reaches its ultimate level of sophistication. The slaves are formally free to do what they want to do. Formal slavery has been abolished. But essentially, they are still slaves. They must pay a tribute based on their earnings to their masters. The essence of slavery is working for the benefit of others rather than yourself, not by choice (as in supporting your family or giving to charity) but by force. To paraphrase Frederick Douglas, who escaped from slavery in 1838, a slave is someone who “toils so that another may reap the fruit.”
The American Civil War resulted in the end of formal slavery. But it did not end essential slavery. In fact, over the years, essential slavery has expanded to include not just former slaves, but everyone. And everyone is a partial slave owner as well. We have, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a system of slavery “of the people, by the people and for the people.” The instrument of its implementation is the income tax!
Until we abolish coercive taxation, the forced taking of the fruits of the labor of those who have earned it for the benefit of those who have not, we will not have abolished the essence of slavery. Until we see the rise of another great emancipator who can educate the world to the evil of slavery down to its essential core, we will not be a truly free people!
[This article originally appeared at About.com on April 13, 1998. It can also be found at Towards a Tax Free Canada.]