The Philosophical Concept of Slavery

What is slavery?
What is slavery?

Human slavery is widely-recognized as a great moral abomination, and one which has all but been done away with. Small pockets of slavery remain, but for the most part, it has been eradicated, goes the popular narrative. In this essay I will argue first that human slavery has not been mostly eradicated, but to the contrary, it is flourishing in most of the developed world, and second, that slavery is inescapably linked to the institution of government. I will not take a moral position on the issue of slavery, except to say that there is obviously a broad social consensus that slavery is immoral. The nature of its actual, rather than perceived, moral status is beyond the scope of this essay.

Before making any argument, let us define our terms. The term slavery can be used to refer to several distinct but related phenomena. Perhaps the most common use of the term is to indicate a situation of forced labor. While this certainly is slavery, it is not its defining feature. Broadly speaking, slavery is the ownership of one human by another. To be more exact, slavery exists when one person claims a property right in another person, and acts to enforce that claim. Note here that one cannot actually have a property right in another person; such a claim is logically contradictory, and self-evidently false. Thus, slavery cannot be the actual ownership of one person by another, else slavery would never have existed. It is enough to claim ownership of another and to act on that claim. A Southern plantation owner did not actually own slaves from a logical and philosophical perspective, though he may have from a legal perspective. Regardless, he claimed to own them, and acted as if he did.

One may at this point hold that the common use of the term is its definition, that forced labor is the defining feature of slavery. But a short thought experiment should put this to rest. Imagine, in some primitive society, a woman kidnapped during a period of conquest and forced to become a sex-slave in the palace of the king. Strictly speaking, she may not have to perform any actual labor. Her only duty may to be at a given place at a given time. She, of course, is not allowed to leave, but is given every courtesy that any other member of the palace staff is given. Is she then, not a slave? She performs no forced labor. Surely such a case as this is a situation of slavery. It is the ownership claim that makes her a slave, not any labor she may be forced to perform.

Before we get too far, let us define ownership. The term, as it will be used in this essay, means the ultimate right to control. Thus, a property owner may rent or loan his property to another, who may control it, but only contingent upon the property owner; he has the ultimate right to control as owner. Actual control is not necessary to establish property ownership. If a thief steals a purse, the owner loses control and he gains it. If he escapes, his control is not contingent upon the control of the rightful owner. Though he has ultimate control over the purse, he does not have the right to ultimate control – his control is illegitimate. The right of ultimate control still resides with the original owner, who may with propriety attempt to regain control of her property, using force if necessary. A property owner is justified in using physical force to protect and recover his property.

Our Southern plantation owner may exert ultimate control over his slaves, but he does so without right. They and they alone have the ultimate right to control themselves. I do not mean this in the legal sense of ownership, or ownership as defined by statute, but rather in the philosophical sense which requires that human beings own themselves (or their bodies, if you prefer; the outcome of each is the same in the context of this essay). The defining feature of the property claim of the plantation owner is that he is prepared to use physical force against his slaves to impose his will upon them, a right that he may only have if he owns them. Thus, it is sufficient to establish his property claim (illegitimate as it may be) by observing that he is willing to use force against his slaves to control them. We can imagine a situation where he may tell his slaves that they are no longer slaves, but then as they attempt to vacate the plantation he suddenly unleashes several armed men to round them up at gunpoint and bring them back, and every day thereafter force them to work in the fields as before. Even if he insists they are not slaves, we can see from his actions that they are. He has made a property claim upon them by using physical force against them to impose his will upon them, regardless of his verbal denial.

Note that using physical force against an attacker is not making a property claim upon him; rather, it is making a property claim upon oneself. One is justified in repelling a violent assault with force precisely because the attacker does not have a valid property claim upon his victim.

The Southern plantation owner, though he may grant his slaves a degree of freedom (perhaps giving them one day per week to use as they wish), nevertheless still claims ownership of them. Their free day is contingent upon his benevolence. Even if he only required them to work one day per week (required here meaning backed by threats of force), he still does so independently of their own wills. This is slavery. It may be somewhat more tolerable than total slavery wherein the slaves are subservient to the master in all things, but it is slavery nonetheless, by our definition.

Within this framework, we can see that whenever one person uses physical force to impose his will upon another without consent, except in the case of using such force to repel an attack, there necessarily exists a condition of slavery.

Modern Slavery

In the developed world, there is one class of entities which claims both the philosophical and legal right to impose its will (or rather, the will of its members) upon others by use of physical force. This class of organizations is government. The various governments around the world, though they may differ in their organizational structures, all share this characteristic, a characteristic which is not shared by any other class of entities. This philosophical and legal claim is the defining feature of the government; it is its core property.

It is true that other organizations (such as the mafia) may claim the philosophical right to use force as a means to achieving their ends, but they do so without claiming that such is legal. Only the government may use this legal aggression. By our definition, this claim to the philosophical and legal right to use aggressive force is a de facto ownership claim. If this is not clear, stop here and re-read the first part of this essay. Any person or group who claims the right to control another person against their will, and who is willing to back up that claim with force, is making an ownership claim. Remember, the definition of ownership is the ultimate right to control. Though the government doesn’t actually have the ultimate right to control others, it claims to, and our definition of slavery is such that slavery exists when one person claims a property right in another person, and acts to enforce that claim. Again, they need not actually have a property right in another, they need only claim to have such a right.

Governments, by their very definition, make slaves of their subjects. Once again, to lay this out clearly, slavery exists when one person or a group claims ownership of another person and acts to enforce that claim. Ownership is the ultimate right to control, and the use of or threat of physical force upon another (excluding defensive force) is the act which serves to enforce this claim of ownership.

Government is that organization which claims the philosophical and legal right to impose its will upon others (in other words, to control others) using the threat of or actual physical force. The relationship between governments and their subjects fulfills the necessary and defining characteristics of slavery.

Logically speaking, the argument is over. What remains is to show empirical examples of the slavery which exists as a function of government.


Without getting too specific, taxes are payments collected by government to fund its activities. They are distinct from fees, as fees are a direct and two-way exchange for goods or services, and are paid only by those who use such goods or services. Highway tolls are one such example. In addition, the good or service is typically contingent upon the fees – the highway would not exist without the tolls to fund it. Taxes, on the other hand, are not a two-way exchange. They are a unilateral transfer of material wealth to the State. While taxes are usually, but not always, paid on economic transactions (sales tax, beverage tax, etc), the exchange does not require the tax to occur. As an example, a grocery store would still sell produce to its customers in the absence of a sales tax. The tax is extraneous. While a fee is modeled after a capitalist transaction (exchange of money for goods or services), a tax makes no such excuses. It is unapologetically a one-way transfer of wealth.

It might be argued that taxes are an indirect exchange (taxes are used to fund schools, police, etc.), but this is not exactly true. The one paying the tax may not ever receive the alleged compensation. An out-of-towner who pays sales tax will never send his children to the schools for which the tax pays. Someone who buys gasoline to fill his lawnmower may never use the roads which are funded by fuel taxes.

If there is an indirect exchange via taxation, it is merely coincidental. In its most essential part, a tax is simply the forcible taking of one’s wealth by the State.

Another objection to the idea of taxes as slavery is that one may avoid taxes by avoiding making the economic transactions upon which taxes are levied. This is partly true, but it misses the point. If two people wish to make a taxable exchange without paying the tax, the State will impose by force its will upon them. This is an ownership claim and is slavery.

In addition, many governments in the developed world will not allow their subjects to leave the national borders without having carefully reviewed their tax records and seen to it that any “issues” are resolved. If they are not, the subject simply will not be allowed to cross the border. The United States government in particular will continue to collect taxes from its subjects who leave the country, (on money earned years after they have left the country, from transactions done completely outside the country, and for which there is no connection to the country) for the remainder of their lives. Not only this, but the US government also expects those who have never entered the country but are born to one or more US citizen parents to pay taxes to the United States for their entire lives. The people affected by this policy are called colloquially, “accidental Americans.” Taxes in this context are of course collected by the use of physical force or threats of such.

There are other forms of taxes which also serve to illustrate the ownership claim by the government. Property taxes – unusual among taxes in that they are not paid on a transaction, but rather are more like a rent – have the essential attributes of slavery. The property owner who agrees to purchase his property from another is forced (literally at gunpoint if necessary) to send a certain amount of money to the State every year. If he does not do this, at length he will be dragged from his home against his will and shot if he resists. This is not an exaggeration.

Again, I hear the objection “but he shouldn’t have purchased the property if he didn’t want to pay the taxes.” This fails as this objection always does – it is a non-sequitur – but there are other situations in which property taxes must be paid by people who did not wish to gain a property. For instance, in cases of divorce a property may be assigned to one party who previously had no ownership in it, as well in cases of inheritance or of gifting. Those who receive an inheritance or gift of property may have had no intention of becoming property owners, but are nonetheless required to pay taxes upon their newly acquired property or to risk being evicted by force – a manifestation of an ownership claim by the government.

Discussion of taxation as slavery could continue on much longer, but what has been said is enough to illustrate that taxation is an ownership claim by the government upon other human beings, and that this claim is regularly acted upon using physical force, a condition both necessary and sufficient to show that a situation of slavery exists.


As with taxation, government regulation is an implicit ownership claim, as it is a mode of control imposed upon the populace using threats of force (and actual force as needed). Via the means of regulation, activities which are otherwise perfectly legitimate become illicit. The number of regulations in any given country is staggering – many tens or hundreds of thousands in smaller countries, many millions in larger ones – and these regulations cover nearly every aspect of life in minute detail. This point cannot be overstated. Any person involved with any industry can attest to the vast and bureaucratic mire that is the relevant regulation.

Regulation, like taxes, requires that the government intervene as an unwanted third party in an economic transaction. Whereas taxation requires a tribute, or permission slip of sorts, for the government to allow any given transaction, regulation will actually prevent whole classes of economic transactions by willing parties by force. As an example, if two people contract for a haircut in exchange for money, there are, in many places, regulations which will allow agents of the government to physically prevent this from happening, stopping the two parties from acting in accordance with their will and imposing, counter to their will, the will of the government by actual force. This is an implicit claim that the government may decide what the two parties do with themselves and their bodies regardless of their own feelings about the decision. The government, in this instance, claims the right to control the two parties and enforces that claim. This fits our definition of slavery.

It may not be as horrible or totalitarian as antebellum chattel slavery, but it is slavery.


Regulation is a term used to describe a partial ban, backed by government force, on a given good or service (you may not use a good except in a certain way), and prohibition is a term used to describe a total ban (you may not use the good at all). Historically, the term prohibition is most commonly associated with period of alcohol prohibition in the United States during the early 20th century. So close is the link between the idea of prohibition and this specific instance of it that many simply refer to this period as prohibition. Perhaps because of this casual use of the term, many falsely believe prohibition is no longer practiced. The various governments, almost without exception, have prohibitions on many different goods and services. In the United States, certain drugs are subject to prohibition, as well as certain classes of various drugs (certain types of alcoholic drinks, for example). In addition, certain plants are also subject to prohibition because they contain various chemical compounds.

As with taxation and regulation, prohibition also requires the government to make an ownership claim over its subjects. A person may obtain an item under prohibition, and the government will use force to prevent its use by that person, enforcing the prohibition against his will. This removal of personal sovereignty by force is slavery.

As an example, no-knock raids are commonly performed in the United States, a method by which armed men enter a private residence and use threats of extreme violence to kidnap the residents and confiscate their property. This, of course, is done against the will of the residents. These raids are conducted for many reasons, including the growing of a plant which is the subject of prohibition on the victim of the raid’s own property. This SS-style tactic is nothing short of a claim by the government that its subjects are indeed subject to its will, and that it may use whatever means it finds suitable to control them, including deadly force – a relationship that only exists between owner and property, the very relationship that the slave holder claims to have with his slaves.


Given the definition of government used in this essay (that organization which claims both the philosophical and legal right to impose its will upon others using physical force), there is no way to both maintain a government and to abolish slavery, as slavery is contained in the very nature of government itself. This does not mean, however, that the functions of government, such as law, courts, and various services, must also be abolished with the government. There is nothing about law, for example, which requires a condition of slavery. Nor is there anything about conflict resolution which necessarily entails an ownership claim by one upon another. Indeed every function which most people see as legitimate governmental functions can be carried out in the absence of the government’s claim that it has both the philosophical and legal right to impose its will upon others using force. Abolition of slavery does not require abolition of the societal institutions currently performed by the government. It does not require the abolition of society, or a thrusting of society back into a pre-historic condition.

It may be that some prefer some slavery. This is fine, but those who do so ought not object that they do not prefer a little slavery. For the sake of honesty they ought to simply admit that they prefer a measure of slavery to true freedom.

Those who oppose slavery in name, but do not do so in action, or rather than opposing it, actually advocate it by their advocacy of government, are either understandably misguided, or worse, hypocrites actively attempting to mislead. It is easy to make the mistake of ignoring the slavery of government. The very existence of government relies on that mistake. Without a good philosophical understanding of the nature of slavery, ownership, and the government, the actions of government appear wholly distinct from slavery and completely legitimate. Only after a firm definitional foundation has been established is it possible to see the government as it truly is and its relationship to its subjects as the relationship between a master and a slave. Abolition of outright chattel slavery required nothing more than a social rejection of the institution. Abolition of government slavery will require the same. And for those who oppose slavery, abolition of government slavery is no less important a task.