This whole slavery thing kept me up for hours last night. You might think, growing up in Missouri and all, that I would have thought this through before now. But I really hadn’t. Maybe I was too young, or too blind, or just too self-absorbed to worry about it. Now all of a sudden it’s my problem and I need to figure out where I stand.
On the one hand, you might say that slavery isn’t such a big deal. It seems to me that there’s a pretty fine line between slavery and employment sometimes. I reckon most of the house slaves I grew up with have better lives than most of the folks working on the railroad, for example. In both cases, you pretty much do what you’re told to do and effectively earn just enough to scrape through life. Either way, all the profits from your labor go to the boss man. It took me a while to get there, but I came around to thinking that most of the difference between slavery and what most regular folks have is semantic.
But there is at least one real difference, and I think it’s a pretty important one. Most times an employee can choose to leave if he thinks he’s getting the short end of the stick. Sure, he might end up in a worse state, but he has the opportunity to use his own free will to make a choice. That’s important practically, because it creates a market situation where employers who are blatantly abusive might have trouble finding workers. Slave owners don’t have the same checks and balances; a slave who has an abusive owner is stuck in that situation until he dies.
So slavery is worse, but does it really matter? It’s nice to talk about free will and all, but the opportunity to use your free will only matters if you have the ability to use your free will. The way some folks talk, it seems like maybe slaves don’t have that ability. But if that were true, why are some of them trying to escape? Why do we have an Underground Railroad? It seems obvious to me that, given that they are freely choosing to look for a better life, at least some slaves have more capacity than a lot of folks give them credit for. It also seems to me that it’s just wrong to intervene in the lives of people who have free will in such a way as to circumvent that even if you think they might be better off after your intervention. I think that’s pretty important; maybe we should give it a fancy title like The Prime Directive.