Selling Oneself into Slavery

We in the West highly value our freedom. I think it’s safe to say that any living human being values their freedom and would prefer being free to being a slave. Slavery is a very old human tradition, treating other people as objects, buying or selling them, and forcing them to do labour. We don’t condone slavery, but it may be that our terms of reference are outdated. Freedom is relative and slavery has shifted from the physical slavery of compelled labour (corvée) to the economic slavery of compelled payments.

In late Roman times, manorialism developed as an economic system, where landholders were given legal and economic power over tenants. This became the dominant system in western Europe during the middle ages (also referred to as feudalism). The tenant or serf was given the right to work land owned by the lord, in exchange for labour or, less frequently, payment. The tenant was not free to leave his land, much less determine his own future. This social organization persisted into the 18th century.

The Spanish, as they conquered the Americas, implemented the encomienda and, later, the hacienda, as a social organization very similar to manorialism. Haciendas had their own unique problems, but they can be seen as a microcosm of the economic slavery that was forced onto the peons. Legally, slavery was not allowed by the Spanish. However, the landowner was granted responsibility for the natives (tenants), who owed labour in return. Coins very rarely circulated, so the labourers were paid in kind. The hacienda aimed to be self-sufficient, producing everything required to meet the needs of its population. There was a store on the property, where the labourers collected goods in return for their labour. It is possible that the “prices” were inflated, so that the peons were forced to buy supplies on credit. Subsequently, they were never able to pay their debts by labouring, which tied them to the hacienda.

The corporate side of our capitalist economy can be seen in much the same light. We live in a house that we didn’t build ourselves. In return for living in our house, we pay interest to the bank. In times like we are currently experiencing, the interest cost is low. But when the interest cost is high, it represents a significant obligation. We work at our job to earn income, which is traded for our necessities. We are the subject of marketing messages that seek to expand our necessities to include all kinds of consumer goods: cars, jewelry, clothing, gadgets, electronics, entertainment, experiences, etc. If we succumb, we may feel that we can’t wait to save up. Instead, we buy on credit, again promising to pay interest and increasing our obligation. Every time we accept an obligation, we give up some of our freedom. When we spend more than we earn, we sell ourselves into economic slavery.

There are a few important differences. Today, we have legal protection. We are free to leave our job or our house at any time. We are protected from violence and theft. But when we make a loan, we enter into a legally binding obligation to pay. Bankruptcy is a further safeguard against losing all our freedoms. A person who is intent on maintaining their freedom will adamantly refuse to overspend and will be very careful about borrowing money. Despite our legal protections, it’s easier than ever to succumb to temptation and slide down the slippery slope into economic enslavement.


2 thoughts on “Selling Oneself into Slavery

  1. It would follow then that anyone who has not reached financial independence – which I would loosely define as having enough passive income to support oneself for life – is an economic slave.

    Not a pretty mental image.

  2. Steve,

    I would be a little more precise in two aspects. First, being debt-free is a step before financial independence. To me, financial independence is when a person has replaced their income with investment (or rental or other passive) income. Everyone needs to work to earn their necessities, but without debt, a person has full freedom to decide how they want to do that.

    Second, even in financial independence, we owe taxes (and possibly military service) to our government. In fact, we owe various forms of taxes to various levels of government. Are we ever really free? I think that’s a dangerous (conspiracy-laden) path to go down, because we have many liberties and legal protections, and our government provides many services in return for our tax money.

    Personally, I believe in the value of certain public services (education, parks, libraries, some health care) and I think that we’re doing pretty well in Canada. But I also feel that people should be a lot more hesitant about taking on debt that isn’t necessary.

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