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A Free Person Is One Who Owns His Own Labor
Paul Craig Roberts

Calculate your slave status before boasting of “American freedom”

For decades on or about April 15, I published a tax day column pointing out that working Americans in our time are as enslaved as 19th century blacks on cotton plantations. I never in 30 or more years saw any response from any economist, historian, or anyone. I think my statement was regarded as too fanciful for comment. People think of slaves as beings of highly restricted mobility who are bought and sold like commodities. In that sense, we are not slaves. But in a wider historical sense we are.

A slave is a person who does not own his own labor. He is purchased not to be abused and to have his mobility restricted. He is purchased for his labor. Slaves were brought to the New World not because of “racism,” but because resources were abundant and there was no work force.

When a person bought a slave, he was purchasing labor, not as a wage but as a property right of the slave owner. A wage earner, unlike a slave, owns his own labor. He sells it in hourly or weekly increments or not at all, whereas a slave owner purchases a lifetime of labor in the purchase price. The slave owner, not the slave, owns the slave’s labor.

Historically, the definition of a slave is a person who does not own his own labor. It is in this historical sense that people subject to an income tax are slaves for the part of the work year that it takes for them to pay their income taxes. The government does not own them (yet) and cannot buy and sell them, but it owns a percentage of their labor taken by the income tax. For various periods of our history this percentage for higher earners equaled or exceeded the tax rate on 19th century slaves. In years when I studied the economics of slavery, the estimate was that about half a slave’s labor was used in his sustenance, leaving a tax rate of 50% on the slave.

In the manorial system of early feudalism, property rights as we understand them did not exist. The manor was self-sufficient. It produced for its own use, that is, for the use of the occupants of the land. The land could not be bought and sold and neither could the serfs. The serfs had use rights in the land, and the lords had use rights in the serfs’ labor. As agricultural productivity in those distant centuries was poor compared to the 19th century, the claim on serfs’ labor could not exceed 30% without threatening the ability of serfs to reproduce. So, effectively, the maximum tax rate on labor was 30%.

When you think about slavery in the proper economic way, instead of emotionally, every working person in the so-called “free world” is a slave for part of each year. Moreover, we cannot be freed from the obligation except by death or nonwork sustained through welfare by the work of others.

Americans have been trained over the decades of the income tax to view tax-filing day, when they must under penalty of law submit the required percentage of their labor to government, as “bonus check from the government day” when many who were over-withheld look forward to receiving a Treasury check. The arrival of this check produces happiness. This happiness, together with the fact that most never receive the taxed income, which is withheld from their pay check, and do not experience having to turn over what they never received, disguises from them that they own no more of their labor than a 19th century slave or medieval serf. When they prepare their income tax, they are figuring not their slave status but the amount of the expected Treasury check they are to receive.

Americans tend to be a rah-rah people. They get so excited over the “freedom” into which they are indoctrinated that they don’t realize how unfree they are. People who are themselves partly enslaved are today being shaken down for “reparations” to alleged descendants (many of whom are recent immigrants) of 19th century slaves.

Hon. Paul Craig Roberts is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. A former editor and columnist for The Wall Street Journal and columnist for Business Week and the Scripps Howard News Service, he is a nationally syndicated columnist for Creators Syndicate in Los Angeles and a columnist for Investor's Business Daily. In 1992 he received the Warren Brookes Award for Excellence in Journalism. In 1993 the Forbes Media Guide ranked him as one of the top seven journalists.

He was Distinguished Fellow at the Cato Institute from 1993 to 1996. From 1982 through 1993, he held the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During 1981-82 he served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy. President Reagan and Treasury Secretary Regan credited him with a major role in the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, and he was awarded the Treasury Department's Meritorious Service Award for "his outstanding contributions to the formulation of United States economic policy." From 1975 to 1978, Dr. Roberts served on the congressional staff where he drafted the Kemp-Roth bill and played a leading role in developing bipartisan support for a supply-side economic policy.

In 1987 the French government recognized him as "the artisan of a renewal in economic science and policy after half a century of state interventionism" and inducted him into the Legion of Honor.

Dr. Roberts' latest books are The Tyranny of Good Intentions, co-authored with IPE Fellow Lawrence Stratton, and published by Prima Publishing in May 2000, and Chile: Two Visions - The Allende-Pinochet Era, co-authored with IPE Fellow Karen Araujo, and published in Spanish by Universidad Nacional Andres Bello in Santiago, Chile, in November 2000. The Capitalist Revolution in Latin America, co-authored with IPE Fellow Karen LaFollette Araujo, was published by Oxford University Press in 1997. A Spanish language edition was published by Oxford in 1999. The New Colorline: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy, co-authored with Lawrence Stratton, was published by Regnery in 1995. A paperback edition was published in 1997. Meltdown: Inside the Soviet Economy, co-authored with Karen LaFollette, was published by the Cato Institute in 1990. Harvard University Press published his book, The Supply-Side Revolution, in 1984. Widely reviewed and favorably received, the book was praised by Forbes as "a timely masterpiece that will have real impact on economic thinking in the years ahead." Dr. Roberts is the author of Alienation and the Soviet Economy, published in 1971 and republished in 1990. He is the author of Marx's Theory of Exchange, Alienation and Crisis, published in 1973 and republished in 1983. A Spanish language edition was published in 1974.

Dr. Roberts has held numerous academic appointments. He has contributed chapters to numerous books and has published many articles in journals of scholarship, including the Journal of Political Economy, Oxford Economic Papers, Journal of Law and Economics, Studies in Banking and Finance, Journal of Monetary Economics, Public Finance Quarterly, Public Choice, Classica et Mediaevalia, Ethics, Slavic Review, Soviet Studies, Rivista de Political Economica, and Zeitschrift fur Wirtschafspolitik. He has entries in the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Economics and the New Palgrave Dictionary of Money and Finance. He has contributed to Commentary, The Public Interest, The National Interest, Harper's, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Fortune, London Times, The Financial Times, TLS, The Spectator, Il Sole 24 Ore, Le Figaro, Liberation, and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. He has testified before committees of Congress on 30 occasions.

Dr. Roberts was educated at the Georgia Institute of Technology (B.S.), the University of Virginia (Ph.D.), the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford University where he was a member of Merton College.

He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, The Dictionary of International Biography, Outstanding People of the Twentieth Century, and 1000 Leaders of World Influence. His latest book, HOW THE ECONOMY WAS LOST, has just been published by CounterPunch/AK Press. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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