15 September 2011


One issue that comes up when you declare that the last 400 years of political "progress" are a bad thing is slavery. Lobbyists, the International Olympic Committee, sustainability facilitators, interior design licensing, bank bailouts, the Milk Marketing Board, these are indeed changes for the worse, but are you saying you want to bring back slavery?

There are a couple of answers to that. One is to argue that the lot of many in the modern world is no better than slavery, so that, even if slavery is bad, it's not necessarily worse than what we have now.

In "The Servile State", Hiliaire Belloc predicted that capitalism would necessarily lead ultimately to nationalised slavery, as the state would be forced to take responsibility for the poor landless, and would still need them to work.

That things haven't evolved quite as Belloc predicted is due only to the decline in the social usefulness of unskilled work. When, from time to time, the question comes up of forcing the unemployed to do some kind of government-organised work in exchange for their handouts, there is only a little opposition premised on the basis that it is unfair to inhumane to the slaves themselves. The idea fails on the grounds that it will cost more than paying them not to work, and that it will constitute cheap competition against those that are in jobs. The fact that the unemployable are in essence slaves of the state is not widely disputed.

(Of course, the distributivists did not themselves intend this argument as a defence of older forms of slavery; they sought a compromise between feudalism and capitalism)

The true argument for slavery is this: that those who are not able to support themselves are necessarily slaves, and abolition ultimately amounts to an exercise in creative linguistics.

A liberal will object, correctly, that ability to support oneself is a can of worms. The 'inability' of the propertyless is an artificial condition. None of us are able to support ourselves if every hand is against us, and very few would manage in the hypothetical, and impossible, state where neigbours neither helped nor hindered us. The ability of a particular person to support himself is a social fact as much as a physical one.

Even so, given any social arrangement, there are those who can, in and with that society, support themselves, and those who cannot. The distributivists aimed, admirably, for a society of smallholders in which all could live free, but even if their plans were implemented there would still be some failures.

The natural arrangement for such failures has been demonstrated for us by the Irish travellers of Leighton Buzzard. If a person cannot live independently, someone must take charge of him, and if they can profit by doing so, then a solution has been found.

It is alleged that the workers in the charge of the travellers were not looked after at all well. That may be so, though a significant proportion of those "rescued" appear willing to go back. But when this natural arrangement is illegal, and therefore carried out only among that section of the population which cannot be policed without the UN getting involved, it is not reasonable to expect it to be done very impressively.

The conditions of slavery are a matter of compromise: legitimately a matter of public policy. The bulk importation and inhumane handling of captured tribesmen from a remote continent quite understandably gave slavery a bad name. I am not here to argue for any and all forms of slavery. However, drawing the line of what is unacceptable to include all forms of coercion is clearly an error when so many cannot actually live adequately without being coerced somehow. There have been many varieties of slavery, and I will use the term serfdom to emphasise a distinction from the form of slavery most familiar to us from history and fiction, but not to pretend that I am not talking about a form of slavery.

Back to those conditions: ideally, all those capable of freedom would be free, and the incapable should be given the best chance of becoming both capable and free. But there needs to be some compromise here. The welfare state is geared to the capable but unfortunate, is grossly unsuitable for the most incapable, while at the same time dragging far too many of the marginally capable down into dependency. There seems ample room to improve on it with a system of humane serfdom under which a serf is subject to a lord who his responsible for his support and humane treatment. Such an arrangement would probably require a long-term commitment on both sides, in order to work adequately. The lord has insufficient motivation to improve the serf's knowledge and behaviour if he can wander out onto the job market as soon as he has learned enough skill and discipline to do so. I think it is essential that such a step would require some compensation to the lord, or a minimum period, or both. At the same time, every capable person who is not free is a cost of the sytem, so there should be some calibration to minimise that cost. It is worth bearing in mind that assisting those who would most benefit from exiting serfdom - by raising the necessary compensation - would be an obvious and worthy aim of charity.

All this really only leaves one question to answer; one which has probably occured to the reader, which is, "are you actually serious you mad loony???!??"

My answer is, "kind of". The argument above is not presented to convince: I am not convinced by it myself. Rather, as I intimated initially, I am exploring the limits of the reactionary position.

If slavery is unthinkably evil, then the political wisdom of most historical civilisations is basically disqualified by it. If it is defensible, even in some limited way, then that wisdom becomes relevant again, not as infallible authority, but as something to be taken into account. Do I want to reintroduce medieval serfdom? It's not high on my to-do list. But I refuse to accept that political thought begins in the 1780s.