02 March 2012

The Future of Slavery

It will look remarkably similar to its history;
The Southern convict leasing systems were a means of extending slavery for African Americans well past the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th amendments. Southern laws were crafted to guarantee that the now “free” African Americans would be incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. Blacks were picked up, hauled off and locked up for ridiculous crimes such as “vagrancy” (being homeless or unemployed), loitering in public, speaking loudly in the company of white women or selling farm products after dark, to name only a few.
Once these people were matriculated into the prison system, they had effectively become slave laborers again. The state allowed convicts to be leased out to private corporations for little more than a pittance - convict laborers were rented out at monthly rates that represented a 50-80% discount over the wages paid to free laborers. They were forced to work in some of the most dangerous environments at the time, laying railroad and mining coal, and a significant percentage developed severe illness/injuries and died in the course of such work.
It is estimated that at least 9000 convict workers were murdered or died of “natural causes” over a few decades under this system alone. As one historian described it, the system was “brutal in a social sense, but fiendishly rational in an economical sense”. That is really the crux of the matter – the Southern plantation economy, as well as newly developing transport industries, was very dependent on extremely low-cost labor, in both an economic and psychological sense. Convict leasing proved to be even more profitable than slavery in many cases, since there was really no need to keep the workers healthy and alive for very long.
There is a book, called Three Felonies a Day (referenced here), that details how complex the federal legal code has become.  The main point of the book is that legal principles have been replaced by legislative fiat and, as a result, pretty much every citizen commits three felonies a day.  Furthermore, there has been a precedent in recent years of tossing out the legal tradition of mens rea, which means that ignorance* is no longer used as a valid excuse for having committed a crime.

As such, the conditions are now perfect for rounding up large numbers of citizens for “crimes” they have committed and tossing them in jail.  It has already been well-established to use prisoners for labor as a punitive measure.  Some work without wages; some work for a pittance.  In either case, prison-labor is essentially slave labor.  It seems quite possible, then, that this current enlargement of the legal code is but a prelude for future slavery.

Not only that, the banking institutions have effectively convinced the government to encourage young people to sell themselves as slaves (through college loans), and encourage poor people to voluntarily enslave themselves as well (through undeserved home loans).  Perhaps one of the reasons why giant corporations support massive increases in regulation is because it increases the probability that any given person will be tossed in jail and, later on, pressed into some form of slave labor.

As was seen before in history, the government can certainly be used to press people into slavery.  There is no reason to think it won’t happen again.  Especially since the foundation for this form of slavery has already been laid.

* If memory serves me correctly, the context of the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse” stems from an argument that some activities cannot not be known to be wrong.  For example, murder is universally recognized as a crime, as is theft, and so anyone who murders or steals cannot reasonably claim that they didn’t this sort of thing was wrong because, in a sense, everyone knows it is wrong to murder or steal, even if one does not bother to read the relevant statutes.

UPDATE:  This post at LRC details some of the inane laws in the legal code that an be used for prosecutorial purposes, illustrating one of my points made above.


  1. Have you ever read any Heinlein, specifically The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress? It describes a scenario similar to what you posit: the Moon is turned into a penal colony where "settlers" mine ice and grow wheat to send back to Earth for a pittance of what their labor and expenses entail. The settlers are treated brutally by the government and rise up. You'd like it.

  2. @Cranberry- I read the first twenty pages, and was incredibly bored by it (which is, incidentally, how I feel about Ayn Rand's "books"). I'd heard good things about it, but I couldn't get past the prose, and my tolerance for any form of bad fiction is remarkably low.

  3. And not just federal laws & regulations sprouting like weeds:


  4. @Carnivore- thanks for the link. I read that last night, and thought of doing a post on it. Then, when I saw your comment, I thought it best just to update the post.