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Involuntary Servitude

We sometimes equate this term with slavery. But in this context, “involuntary servitude” is used to encompass an even broader spectrum of things than we might imagine from the rather specific term of “slavery.” Slavery typically calls to mind a cotton farmer in the 18th century American South who “owned” other human beings and forced them to work for his own maintenance and prosperity–often with little or no interest in the well-being or the needs of the slaves themselves. While one of the most perverse and objectionable forms of involuntary servitude, up through the mid 1800’s, this kind of slavery was not the exception, but the rule throughout much of the world.

Turning again to the Bible, we find various accounts of slavery. In one famous account, the entire population of Israelites (descendants of Jacob) were enslaved by the nation of Egypt, ruled over by the Pharaoh. According to popular understanding, the Egyptians used this type of forced labor to do a number of marvelous works such as constructing cities, temples, monuments and the like. In another account, Jerusalem was plundered and the surviving Hebrews taken into Babylon to work as slaves. Yet in the cases of both Babylon and Egypt, we view them as great civilizations, producing “wonders” of architectural achievement which likely would not have been produced at all without the availability of inexpensive slave labor.

Throughout other historical records, we can read of one group or another either owning slaves or becoming slaves: Christians, Muslims, Ottomans, Mongols, Greeks and Vikings, to name a few. Indeed, some scholars believe the archaeological evidence of slavery predates written history itself. So it seems evident that throughout history, people have not hesitated to subjugate their fellow human beings when given the chance. Apparently many cultures have had no problem with becoming parasites as long as the victims were from a different family or tribe.

Today, slavery is now illegal virtually everywhere in the world. But nonetheless, it still exists broadly in many different forms including human trafficking in the sex trade. Less obvious are a variety of more subtle forms of forced, or involuntary servitude. Some are illegal but many are not. So it is evident that relatively recent legislation outlawing slavery has not stopped the practice of one group of human beings forcing another group to perform services in their behalf.

Any time one person (the parasite) exploits another human being (the victim), taking time, energy or resources without the knowledge and voluntary consent of that victim, the parasite is forcing or tricking his victim into one form or another of involuntary servitude. The burglar who sneaks into your house in the middle of the night to steal your TV, is taking value or energy you likely produced by the efforts of your own labors. When he leaves, he has more of something he didn’t produce himself, and you have less of something you did produce yourself. He may trade your TV for food, recreation or other purposes. But regardless, he has “fed” off your work for his own comfort and satisfaction. Some of the work you have done has gone for his benefit without your consent. So, to a degree, you have become his involuntary servant.

In addition to illegal forms of involuntary servitude, there are other forms which are not only legal, but are sometimes even instituted by government itself. For example, societies often evolve to where there exists a working, or producer class and an elite ruling class. The ruling class may not do much to produce food, clothing or the other necessities of life, but rather spends its time ruling over the working class, defining, taxing, regulating and otherwise limiting the way production is to take place. One might imagine that the primary difficulty for the ruling class is how to retain power. When large numbers in the working class discover they are being exploited by a relatively small group, revolution of one kind or another seems likely to follow.

In democratic societies, we should simply be able to vote such unproductive leaders out of office. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. And the very poorest among us can end up the victims.

Ideally society is organized so we can help lift the poor out of their poverty. But political powers can benefit, knowingly or unknowingly, by keeping people in their tenuous circumstances. A ruling class can draw productivity away from those who are willing to work, and then portray themselves as compassionate by giving a little something to the poor, but not so much or so well that they might become poor no longer.

In such a system where a majority becomes dependent upon the good grace of government, it can become difficult to dislodge a corrupt ruling class from power. The working class can find itself exploited in a form of “slavery–lite,” funding the very entitlements they are terrified to lose.

Were past civilizations who embraced slavery all ethically corrupt? Or were they just approaching the laws of economics according to their own customs and values? Are we more ethically virtuous today? Or do we still employ forms of involuntarily servitude which, although less overt than slavery, still may force one class of people to labor on behalf of another?

The introduction suggested that most people in the world are basically good. It was asserted that a large majority of people should be able to align behind a common ethical core if it were kept to the basic principles of peace and free will. It seems obvious, most people don’t approve of slavery or, if they really understood it, any other kind of involuntary servitude. Most people, left to their own, would not knowingly plunder, or prey upon other people. And most people do not want to be thought of as parasites.

But if this is correct, then how might we explain the history of mankind which has been full of war, terror, bloodshed, slavery and oppression? How do we explain the number of people who still live in slavery today, estimated by some to be over 30 million people worldwide? How do we explain the number of people currently living under oppressive regimes which hold their people in by force and extract the majority of their work product, allowing very little to be retained for their personal use? How do we find ourselves in a world where groups and individuals fight among themselves to determine who will do the work and who will enjoy the benefits of that work?

The explanation is simply this:

Unfortunately, most people probably haven’t thought it through well enough. Throughout time, there has been a minority of people who truly were bad actors and knowingly plotted to plunder and/or feed upon the productivity of their fellow human beings. The rest of us have gotten pulled in, conscripted, bribed, cajoled, tempted, converted and hoodwinked into participation. Slavery, in all its forms, is big business and it always has been. And if it can be sanitized, disguised, packaged and sold right, even good people will often buy into it. What often comes as a surprise is that good people buying into slavery is not just a thing of the past. Rather, most of us are still participating today–perhaps in ways we don’t even understand.

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