First, while it is, to some extent, a rhetorical question designed to point out (one of the many of) the disqualifying-level problems with libertarianism as an ideology, it is also meant, quite sincerely, as a genuine question. Which is to say, assuming that anyone responds to this post*, I'd expect mostly combative responses trying to show why the implication behind my question is wrong. And that's fair. But I'd also be interested in genuine responses, i.e. answers to the question. I'm particularly interested in whether or not any famous libertarian thinkers has addressed this question -- because I suspect they have, and I'd be curious to read it.**
Second, my question is theoretical, not historical. "Libertarians" as such did not exist in antebellum America. It seems clear to me that in any but a question-begging, no-true-Scotsmen sense, libertarians' closest ideological ancestors from that time were defenders rather than opponents of slavery. I'm sure there are lots of counterarguments. But it's not the question I'm asking nor something I want (right at this moment) to explore.
Next, let me clarify a few premises behind my question.
First, it seems to me that one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from anarchists is that they believe that the government ought to enforce contracts. This isn't mentioned quite as much as the maintenance of armed forces and police, but my sense is that it's pretty universally agreed by most miniarchists that enforcement of contracts goes along with those things as proper roles for the state. (If there are libertarians who don't think, in general and on principle, that the state ought to enforce contracts, then let me know -- I'd be interested -- and please mentally amend this entire attempt so that wherever it currently says "libertarians" it reads instead "that subset of libertarians who believe that government ought to enforce contracts".)
Second, it seems to me that one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from liberals is that they don't believe that governments ought to enforce their opinions about what contracts consenting adults ought to make. That's why they're fine with prostitution, for instance: they see it as, in Nozick's memorable phrase, a "capitalist act between consenting adults". So while governments ought to enforce contracts, they oughtn't to regulate what contracts ought to be enforced. (Again, where I say "libertarians" here I mean the subset to whom this applies, an identification which seems warranted to me by the fact that (so far as I know) most libertarians will fall into this category.)
Finally, it seems to me that another one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from liberals is that they don't think that the government ought to step in to prevent non-state coercion -- the sort of coercion that comes from desperate poverty, for instance. If they did, they'd believe in alleviating desperate poverty (so that the poor people were not coerced by it), which would mean erecting some sort of a welfare state, which would make them (at least in this respect) liberals, not libertarians. Now, this may be less generally true than the other two premises -- I know that some libertarians believe in a certain level of minimum income which ought to be guaranteed by the state, for instance -- but my sense (and, again, I'd be interested to know if this seems unfair to anyone) is that most libertarians these days are, at best, apathetic about whether such a thing happens -- they don't work on pushing it -- and in fact spend most of their political energies in this area trying to cut back the welfare state and similar things.
So -- with that in mind -- imagine a libertarian utopia. (Where libertarian is defined as agreeing with those premises.) Then imagine a person so desperately poor -- someone starving, say -- that they will do anything to survive. And imagine such a person being offered a contract to submit to slavery for the rest of their life.
It probably wouldn't be called slavery. But it's easy to imagine, in such a world, a contract being drawn up to replicate all but one of the essential features of slavery in its familiar American form. Such a contract would stipulate that it is unbreakable; that the person signing would have to obey their owner in all the ways that slaves had to (live where ordered, do what they were ordered, etc); that they consented (by signing the contract gave future consent) to whippings should they not obey, etc. The only feature of American slavery that wouldn't be replicated would be its inheritability -- since libertarians, presumably, wouldn't think that a person could sign away the rights of their children. But while that feature was a key component of American slavery, I don't think you could argue it's necessary for slavery -- a childless slave is still a slave.***
So: in a libertarian utopia, would such a contract be enforceable? It's an act of capitalism between consenting adults (for libertarian notions of consenting, i.e. of age, not obviously mentally incapacitated, etc., where economic coercion is considered irrelevant.)
If so, it seems all but inevitable that slavery would rapidly appear in a libertarian utopia, and would be a permanent and recurring social feature.
I suspect that any libertarian who grants my premises but still wishes to deny this fact will do so by denying that such a situation will occur, arguing that in a society free of government coercion everything will be good enough that no such dire poverty (lacking other remedy) will emerge. This strikes me as obviously wrong -- do libertarians not believe people, even without government help, make dumb decisions? Get in bad situations? -- but anyone who is wild enough to suggest such a thing is probably unpersuadable.
And, of course, such slavery would really be slavery in the classical sense: the police would track down runaways, since that, after all, would be a breach of contract.
On the other hand, if such a contract would not be enforceable, then it seems to me the purity that is the essential rhetorical appeal of libertarianism ("it's none of your business what I do!") has been thrown away, and all that is left to negotiate is the precise balance of the arguer's liberalism, i.e. precisely how desperate do the circumstances need to be before the government helps, and how horrific does the private contract need to be before it's declared unenforceable? Think about these things long enough and the next thing you know you'll be for a minimum wage and government regulation of working environments... that is, a liberal, at least on these issues. Sure, some ex-libertarians might have different ideas about where to draw the line. But then it's just a question of pragmatic juggling -- no longer a question of grand (and grandly announced) principles.
So? Anyone have any answers?
Do libertarians believe in slavery?
Postscript: A liberal view on this, incidentally, doesn't seem to me very hard. Speaking personally, on this matter I would quote John Locke:
As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery....but it seems to me a libertarian would want to make the former (one's own title to the product of our honest industry) vitiate the latter (others' title to our industry to stave off want). Which means they support slavery.
-- John Locke, Two Treatises Upon Civil Government
Or, if not... why not?
Update: Meaning-altering error (meant one word, typed another) fixed.
Update 2: Anyone interested in this blog post should make sure to read the long and fascinating comment left below by philosopher Dan Hicks.
* Unlikely, I'll admit: I get very few comments (he said self-pityingly)
** A very quick glance at Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia turned up only the following sentences on the topic:
...The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery. I believe that it would. (Other writers disagree.) It also would allow him permanently to commit himself never to enter into such a transaction. (p. 331)And so far as I can tell, that's it -- a brief reference in a section devoted to unanswered questions. But I might well have missed something. But there you have it: Robert Nozick was pro-slavery.
*** And who would have a child, if they had any choice (although remember they wouldn't) under these circumstances? For that matter, what possible chance would such a child have to be in anything less than desperate circumstances when they attained whatever the age of consent in the society was? (Although, of course, we've already stipulated that our libertarians don't care about non-state -- in particular, economic and social -- coercion. They might well just wave that away -- with perfect consistency, I might add.)