KOL004 | Interview with Walter Block on Voluntary Slavery

by Stephan Kinsella on January 27, 2013

in Kinsella on Liberty Podcast,Libertarianism

Kinsella on Liberty Podcast: Episode 004.

My longtime friend Walter Block was recently in town, and while we visited had several discussions on libertarian theory, as we usually do when we see each other. He agreed to let me record a discussion on one of the few issues we do not completely agree on: voluntary slavery; we recorded this last night. Walter believes voluntary slavery contracts ought to be enforceable in a private law society, and in this I believe he is in the minority of libertarians (with Nozick, say). We touched on a variety of issues, including debtor’s prison, how acquisition of body-rights differs from Lockean homesteading, and the like.

Some of my writing relevant to this topic and our discussion include:

Walter’s articles on this topic include:




{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

REACTION January 27, 2013 at 4:16 pm

“The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with som muh of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the gretest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself-and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . .”
- George Fitzhugh

Voluntary slavery is the best way to help those at the bottom of the pyramid. People treat their pets well because they own them. An atomistic property contract will never compare with a master-slave relationship.


Warren Dew August 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

The negro slaves of the South were not voluntary.


jeffersonianideal August 27, 2014 at 9:16 am

Please hold on to your next astute observation, at least momentarily. Give the readers within cyberspace sufficient time to absorb the profundity of your most recent striking insight.


Brian Drake January 28, 2013 at 1:23 am

Thank you for posting this Stephan.

I just listened to it but unless I missed something, it seems the issue neither of you grappled with is the consequence of reneging your contract. Well, I mean Walter indirectly addressed this simply by advocating enforcement of contractual slavery. But he didn’t directly challenge you on what your position was, nor did you offer it (again, sorry if you did and I missed it).

If I understand Rothbard’s contract theory correctly a contract isn’t a promise, but a transfer of title to property. Fair enough. And easy too when it’s simply the mutual exchange of property titles (e.g., $2 for a dozen eggs). Contract breaking is rectified by returning title (minus agreed upon penalties). But what about when you accept payment for a service you later refuse to perform (or are incapable to do so)?

So what is stolen in Walter’s runaway slave hypothesis? It seems it’s the million dollars. In exchange for a promise of a lifetime of slavery, you accepted $1 million which you immediately spent on the medical treatment to save your son.

If you change your mind about being a slave, you’d normally just return the million, plus penalties/interest (I believe justice would require some consideration of opportunity costs).

But you don’t have the million. It’s spent. But that doesn’t change the debt you owe the slave master. If you refuse to do all that is within your power to recompense him, you are a thief of that money. That you spent it, lost it, had it stolen from you, it evaporated, etc. matters not to the demands of justice since it was your responsibility to either follow through on your promise to perform service, or return the payment. Since you cannot return the money, you must recompense the rich guy through some other means. Recognizing that true equity of value is impossible since value is subjective, and that exchange is not predicated on equal valuation, but subjectively unequal valuation on both sides, it is of course not precisely correct to say that a lifetime of service = $1 million. But since that was the original agreement, that’s the closest a human arbitrer could come to estimating the interpersonal comparison of utility and thus it would seem that you’re back to square 1: you owe that lifetime of service since you cannot make payment any other way (assuming that no one will give you money to pay off the original guy, but on better terms). Running away would be an act of aggression since it’s theft.

Same with your boxing example. I must admit I don’t fully understand the idea of estoppel, but isn’t this a good example? The other boxer incurred (real and opportunity) costs to meet your agreement to fight. If you change your mind, that can’t simply be the end of it. You caused another person to incur costs due to an agreement you made. Are you not required to recompense that person, no different than non-malicious property damage (like crashing your car into someone’s mailbox)?

Again, forgive me if I assume too much, or missed a specific comment, but listening to this conversation, I got the impression that you had an attitude that there’s no consequence to breaker of a contract, or at least when he no longer had a simple method of returning property already taken in payment. I can’t imagine that’s doing your position justice, so would you please explain what you do think is required of someone who has willingly accepted money/property but refuses to follow through on their promise AND refuses and/or is unable (do you see a distinction? Why?) to return what was given to them in expectation of the performance of a service?


Stephan Kinsella March 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

How can you steal $1million after the fact? if it’s given to you voluntarily then when you spend it it’s not theft, and no future action can retroactively change this. This is the problem with Rothbard’s idea of “implicit theft.”


Stephan Kinsella March 31, 2013 at 7:32 am

As for the boxer: look this is a contractual, voluntary situation. If the boxers want some kind of guarantee they can contract for it. If I want to make sure you will not stiff me, I can negotiate iwth you ahead of time for you to agree to pay me some penalty IF you bail out of the fight–to provide a disincentive to you. Of course that will be expensive; you will be in effect getting insurance so you need to pay for it. But whatever is agreed to, is agreed to. If not, not. It’s not like it’s a tort if you don’t show up.


Warren Dew August 24, 2014 at 8:47 am

What if I don’t have the money to pay the penalty? Sounds like I’m off scot free.


Stephan Kinsella August 26, 2014 at 6:05 pm

So what is the question, exactly?


jeffersonianideal February 20, 2013 at 9:47 am

While here are those who would argue that a person is not permitted to give away such rights as their body or personal freedom, these are typically not voluntaryists or libertarians. Also, one cannot enter into a contract for a capital crime such as murder. Such a contract would be null and void. However, individuals do trade away their rights regularly when they enter into reciprocal agreements and mutually agreed upon contracts.

Mr. Kinsella initially expends a great deal of energy proposing an ambiguous argument that carries very little intellectual weight or libertarian ideals within in. Mr. Kinsella was correct however, in suggesting that his lead up to the topic of voluntary slavery was “pointless”. And while the main topic of voluntary slavery was not only delayed momentarily but fleetingly absent for the majority of the interview, the precept of personal responsibility was skimmed over almost entirely.

Perhaps a portion of this argument is hampered in part because of semantics, slavery versus servitude, for example. Also, any assessment of such an obligatory arrangement would be dependant upon the specifications found within the actual contract.

One pertinent observation that was raised during the discourse was the question of when consent occurred and when such consent can be withdrawn. To begin to answer this issue, take account of the fact that a contract must contain consideration for both parties. Consideration exists in terms of the benefit each person would receive from such a contract but the element of consideration is also relied upon if either party breaks the contract.

One cannot resort to the use of prior force to make a person adhere to a contract. For example, a mortgage company cannot send one of their employees to the home of a mortgagee each month and point a gun at the head of the homeowner until that person writes a check to the mortgage company for the monthly payment. Only when the terms of contract are violated, may the mortgage company seek restitution, remedy or punishment. What did each person promise and what did each person actually deliver? What reasonable expectations are due to the damaged party in case the borrower defaults?

Although Mr. Kinsella brings up some thought provoking points during his property entitlement argument, he has spoken circles around the original topic and as a result, the issue of voluntary servitude was never adequately addressed.

There was a Twilight Zone episode reminiscent of this very matter. The name of the episode was entitled “The Silence”. It was based Anton Chekhov’s story “The Bet”.


Richard Opheim February 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm

1. Doesn’t alienability of a human body imply a violation of the principle of universality, without which there’s no basis for the very concept of justice? 2. I know nothing about contract law, but have heard that it’s possible to suffer considerable financial loss from signing a poorly-worded or mis-drafted contract, and so I don’t see that there is any particular problem caused by the loss to the would-be slave owner whose “voluntary slave” subsequently decides to renege on the contract.


Paul August 2, 2014 at 5:54 pm

You people are insane. Voluntary agreement is not adequate as the basis for human interaction. HIERARCHICAL power relationships between people are the problem, not interference with your attempts to exploit others. You people need serious help. Anarchism (in it’s several forms) is far superior to voluntaryism. I can’t believe that you guys walk around with such fucked up things in your minds.


jeffersonianideal August 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Congratulations. You have thoroughly succeeded in validating your opposition’s viewpoints by voluntarily exercising your inalienable right to espouse as much fallacious reasoning as you freely desire.


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