For some reason, when you have a blog, strangers often send you emails to argue with you. (Predictably, every single one of these strangers is male. Also, if you do not reply to these emails, the strangers sometimes send follow-up emails chastising you for your rudeness.) Many of these make me grumpy, if only because the strangers instantly launch into the harangue and never try to introduce themselves or offer to meet for lunch. But sometimes I am glad to receive them, such as when I receive a piece of correspondence of such breathtaking idiocy that it can provide me with a source of self-satisfied mirth for the entire rest of the day.
Two days ago, the amusingness reached a new all-time high, with an email from a man who described himself as an “Objectivist” (Uh-oh.) Our correspondent took issue with an argument I made about capitalism and individualism, in which I recommended providing a universal basic income, so that the creative geniuses (such as Prof. Longhair, Buddy Holly, and Brian Wilson) who have had to compromise their art for financial reasons would be free to more fully carry out their visions.
Our objectivist, however, not only disapproved of requiring a basic income, but said that:
This is quite literally slavery. You are advocating for the literal enslavement of those who are judged non-geniuses, in order that the material needs of geniuses be provided for.
Naturally, this puzzled me, since I did not remember coming out in favor of enslavement in the post. But I double-checked to make sure. Sure enough, all I had said was that we ought to provide everyone with a basic income. It was thus easy enough to reply to my objectivist friend, through the clever two-part argument “(1) No, it isnt. (2) No, I’m not.”
Surprisingly enough, he did not feel his position to be devastated. He emailed me again (they always do) and clarified that the reason I was advocating slavery was that I was advocating something that would be funded by compulsory taxation, and:
If you’re talking about *compulsory* taxation then yes, you’re talking about enforced slavery. The essence of slavery is that someone is forced to work without profit to themselves – it matters not whether you appropriate the fruits of their labour beforehand, or afterwards.
Now, one preliminary point is that I didn’t speak of compulsory taxation, for the simple reason that I think people should help each other out voluntarily; my preferred plan is for the rich to all realize they are monsters and surrender their wealth so it can be put to good use.
But look at this argument! Look at it! Every single tax is morally indistinguishable from slavery. Thus nearly everyone in the United States, and around the world, is presently enslaved. It’s not my basic income proposal that’s slavery, it’s literally anything ever funded by taxes.
By the way, just so we’re clear where the flaw is here: when you are enslaved, you can be punished or killed for not working. When you are taxed, nobody punishes or kills you for not working. Crucial distinction. My correspondent says this is meaningless, because everyone has to work in order to live, so taxes are unavoidable. This is hilarious, because my basic income proposal is precisely so that they don’t have to work in order to live. Thus, as my correspondent implicitly acknowledges, capitalism is slavery, because only under capitalism must we work or die.
Now, look, it’s not worth paying even a second’s more attention to the argument here. As I say, this really is the dumbest email I have ever received. But it’s worth examining as a documentary exhibit of one of the most dangerous tendencies in libertarian thinking: the belief that property and personhood are the same thing. A lot of free-market libertarians insist that one’s property is an extension of one’s self, and that to harm someone’s property is tantamount to harming them. But see where this leads you. It leads you to believing that filling out your tax returns is exactly the same being mercilessly whipped every day of your life by an overseer. This kind of thinking makes me furious, because of the way it trivializes what slavery actually is. Slavery is a condition in which the individual’s body is in the complete control of others. One has no freedom of movement, no access to knowledge, and is the subject of relentless violence. Let’s remember that being a slave meant being beaten, burned, and murdered. That it meant toiling in brutal heat for the entire duration of your life, and it meant total subjection to the will of someone who despised you and thought you an animal. That it meant having your children seized and sold, having your spouse raped, or being raped yourself.
So when free market types make these fatuous arguments about how giving up a percentage of their income so that poor people can have health care is slavery, let’s make sure they are treated with the disgust they deserve. Making this argument is equivalent to Holocaust denial; by trivializing the brutality of slavery, and comparing to the condition of 21st-century rich white men, it falsifies history and absolves an unforgivable crime. Anyone who dares to make this argument, which is false, offensive, and poisonous, should be treated with the same degree of credibility as Ernst Zundel or Robert Faurisson. If you argue that taxes are slavery, you are lying about what slavery is. Libertarians should be extremely worried that a position morally tantamount to Holocaust denial is alive and well in their communities.