Perhaps there ought to be an equivalent to Godwin’s Law for comparisons to slavery.

To say, as some libertarians do, that taxation is slavery is silly. It’s equally silly to say that the proposed requirement that unemployed people do some work in return for their benefits, aka workfare, is slavery.

Or is it?  Are they silly? And, either way, are they equally silly?

Slavery was rarely, if ever, a matter of working for nothing. Slaves who were not fed or housed had a rapidly diminishing usefulness to their owners. Clothing, food and shelter were sometimes supplemented by the ability to acquire property, sometimes enough to lead to wealth, some even exercised social influence. But at minimum, slaves were, like human cattle, given hay and a barn.

The analogy comes from P.J. O’Rourke:

the “right” to education, the “right” to health care, the “right” to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.

There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.

This doesn’t fit the pattern but, according to that particular libertarian, being a benefits claimant is in itself comparable to slavery.

That claimants might have to take part in work that is not of their choosing does not hurt the comparison; having to do work that is not one’s choice is a characteristic of slavery.

A lack of choice in housing is another characteristic, one that also applies to most benefits claimants. In general what was lost in slavery was, at minimum, choice. Conditions were sometimes comfortable, often they were brutal. In no case could slaves could make important choices for themselves. P.J.’s Law is, if nothing else, the antithesis of slavery: “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please.”

According to this argument, being on benefits without Workfare is like being a slave with no work; with Workfare, it’s like being a slave with some work – nobody is suggesting a sixty hour week, they’re not even suggesting there’s work every week.

For different reasons, Paul Sagar reached a conclusion that agreed with 50% of the above:

[Workfare] work becomes – for those who would prefer not to starve in the gutter – enforced labour extracted by the power of the state. Accordingly, that now starts to look rather like a form of state-enforced slavery in the context of societies that have developed legal structures and norms that previously provided for the unconditional protection of the most vulnerable.

Sagar finds context important:

the libertarian response is defective insofar as it refuses to engage withthe reality of a preceding practical context against which to understand the state-citizen relationship in something like “workfare” reforms.It is just not good enough to attempt to analyse political interactions and changes in vacuo … Changes and power structures happen in concrete political and historical contexts…

… libertarianism is astoundingly historically ignorant, insofar as it does not pay attention to why systems of benefit support have evolved in our societies. And in turn libertarianism is naive, insofar as no attention is paid to the empirical evidence that when people are left to the capricious mercies of the market they do not sit around picking their noses, but agitate for (often violent) forms of political extremism to address social and economic short-comings.

Benefits claimants shun political violence in GenoaThank goodness today’s benefits claimants never engage in political violence.

But he’s right that context is important. Part of the context here is the perception that the benefits system is failing in some respects. It’s succeeding in stopping people from starving. On the whole, it stops people dying of hypothermia in the winter. These are self-evidently important achievements. But there’s a widespread view that the benefits system institutionalises people into dependency. There’s also an idea that welfare can be unfair, taking money from struggling, hard-working middle-income taxpayers and handing it to the workshy. If you’re going to argue against Workfare, there are the bits you have to engage with.

(Incidentally, part of Sagar’s argument is that the benefits system shouldn’t change because it hasn’t previously done the new things it might do if it changes. No shit?)

Chris Dillow took a quantative approach to the question of the workshy and, he suggested, exposed a common trick employed by the right:

The vast majority of unemployment – over 9-10ths on this reckoning – has nothing to do with people not wanting to work, and everything to do with a lack of demand for labour.
And this is where that rightist trick (or error) enters. They mistake small truths for large ones, and use the small truth to obfuscate the big one. So, the truth – that a few of the unemployed don’t want to work – is exaggerated and used to hide the bigger truth, that the vast majority of unemployment has other causes.

I think he misunderstands the right. This isn’t a trick, it’s a question of emphasis and, perhaps, relentlessness. But then, we choose our relentlessness but most of us have it. With Chris, it’s egalitarianism, hence this non-sequitur:

“The poor benefit from living in wealthy capitalist societies.” This trivial truth hides a trickier question: does free market capitalism benefit them more than egalitarian alternatives?

The poor, of course, do benefit from living in societies with higher than average levels of economic freedom (which is what he means by “capitalism”). The question of whether freedom is better than egalitarianism (or rather, the mechanisms you would need to introduce into society in order to ensure egalitarian outcomes) is a completely separate matter, it isn’t either/or as a juxtaposition like this suggests. Nor would it be a tricky question: from what we’ve seen so far, the answer is “yes”.

The relentlessness of the right is fine-grained, atomic. There’s a focus on individuals in every respect, and a corresponding reluctance to view things in terms of collectives, communities, victim groups. This is fairly consistent, it informs most policy areas, and it’s why it doesn’t matter what the percentage of lead-swingers is, to the right. It isn’t a trick, it’s a difference of emphasis.

Libertarians sometimes argue that hard choices, even though they are hard, are still choices. Thus someone subject to Workfare could choose to stop claiming benefits. So Workfare isn’t slavery. But how much choice does a person really have between a hated regime and starvation? Effectively none, says Paul Sagar in the post linked to above.

I’m not sure he noticed, though, that this argument applies equally to tax payers. Do you really have the option of not working if you don’t want to pay tax? Then you’d be on benefits, and a full-time slave instead of a part-time slave, and skint to boot. How are you going to build a life for your family like that*?

So it goes – the trap of tax-serfdom is deepest for the most conscientious. And nobody has much of a choice: the benefits claimant will have to do work if Workfare comes along, the tax payer who pays those benefits has to work anyway. Although they do get to choose the work they do, which is more than the Workfare bods will be able to boast.

The right does have an edge in this argument, though. There’s a common factor to all these actual and metaphorical instances of slavery: individuals subordinated to authority. In every case where this happens, the individual loses choice.

Slavery was a spectrum that went from iron-collared, radically castrated, African slaves in Arabia, to obese Eunuch Viziers of the Ottoman Empire; from 90% mortality and inhuman brutality to silk-clad, farting opulence.

The only thing the different forms of slavery had in common is the subjugation of the individual by another entity. Workfare has that in common with slavery. So does the coercive state, from the viewpoint of a taxpayer. Bear in mind, there’s a security in cradle-to-grave slavery that comforts millions. Never choice, but always a roof; never choice, but always food; never choice, but always clothing. Never choice, but always healthcare and education. Slavery isn’t necessarily unpopular.

But when, exactly, did it become a left-wing cause?

Oh, and do I win a modified Godwin Award?

*Yes, this does also apply to benefits claimants: how can they build a life for their families on benefits? The difference of view between right and left is again a matter of emphasis: the right congratulate the tax-payer for keeping the wolf from the claimants’ doors, which they do; the left mourns the poverty of the claimant, who might be unemployed through no personal fault, which is also valid. This does, though, suggest that a two-tier system might be more just. One tier for those who really can’t work though they’d love to; a different, subsistence level, tier for those who could but don’t. How you’d tell the difference is another matter.

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  • Iain

    But the lack of choice which characterises both welfare dependency and slavery is in the case of a welfare dependency a consequence of poverty, not of the handouts.People on welfare lack choices of housing and so on, because they are poor, not because they depend on others in order to avoid outright destitution..

  • Lee

    I’ve been forced to undertake workfare and it is utterly demoralising, both for myself and for the people who I was working with. As an introduction to and an approximation of paid work it is totally ineffective since it provides none of the benefits associated with having a job, namely a wage, a sense of community and belonging, a chance to improve your circumstances, opportunities for training and further education, a positive self-image, status and acceptance in society…and justice. It is just so wrong.